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FIVE STAR FILMS #80: Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding – 1939)

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Like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and a disproportionate number of other classic films that rank among Hollywood’s historical best (including previous Five Star Film picks Mr Smith Goes To Washington and The Women ), Dark Victory was released in 1939. Oh, to have been a filmgoer in that stellar year – being spoiled with multiple high-quality releases every month!

Dark Victory was directed by Edmund Goulding, whose most famous film prior to this was 1932’s Best Picture Academy Award winner Grand Hotel – an early example of an ‘star-studded ensemble cast’, with artists such as Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore and Greta Garbo (The cast also included Jean Hersholt: he of the eponymous honorary Humanitarian Award awarded by the Academy).

Dark Victory, like so many films of the classic era, began life as a Broadway play. Unlike most other play-to-film adaptations, however, the original play was not a hit. Written by George Brewer and Bertram Bloch and starring Tallulah Bankhead, the 1934 play closed after only fifty-one performances.

The film, however, fared much better: it was a commercial and critical success. And in a release year with so much fabulous competition, it nabbed three Academy Award nominations: for Best Picture, Best Actress (for Bette Davis), and Best Original Score (for Max Steiner).

[A NOTE regarding SPOILERS: It is impossible to write about Dark Victory without disclosing plot points. If you haven’t seen the film yet, please be aware that this article will contain spoilers].

The film tells the story of young socialite Judith Traherne (Davis), who is diagnosed with a brain tumour. She is treated by brain surgeon Frederick Steele (frequent Davis co-star George Brent, in the eighth of their eleven films together), who she eventually marries. Judith also receives emotional support from her best friend and secretary Ann King (then-newcomer Geraldine Fitzgerald). The supporting cast include a pre-Presidential Ronald Reagan (‘or ‘Little Ronnie’, as Davis used to refer to him) and a pre-Casablanca Humphrey Bogart (more on him later).

There’s a lot to love about Dark Victory. Fans of this film have many reasons why it appeals to them. Here are five of mine:
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1. BETTE DAVIS

In the early 1970s (over thirty years after Davis’ star-turn in Dark Victory), Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon penned the song Bette Davis Eyes, which would be popularised in 1981 by singer Kim Carnes (winning the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1982). The song includes lyrics such as ‘… she’ll unease you …’. Though the song is not about Davis herself (it’s about a woman whose eyes are compared to Davis’), it hits on the powerful presence that Davis was. An extraordinary actor, she told so much with her eyes. Her line delivery was spot-on, but between her lines, her on-screen facial expressions said it all. There was a real depth to Davis’ performances, none more so than when portraying Judith Traherne in this film.

[SIDE NOTE: Though Davis began her film career right at the transition time when films were becoming ‘talkies’, I can’t help but wonder what a fabulous silent star she would have been. Even without any dialogue, I can imagine her famous eyes would have spoken volumes.]

During her career, Davis would receive eleven Academy Award Best Actress nominations (including one for previous Five Star Films pick All About Eve ), with a remarkable seven of them in a nine-year period. By the time Davis was nominated for Dark Victory, she had already taken home two Best Actress Oscars: for 1935’s Dangerous and 1938’s Jezebel. These two would be her only such wins. She would lose out for Dark Victory to Vivien Leigh, who was awarded her Oscar for 1939’s Gone with the Wind (and would later earn her second Best Actress win for 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire).

Davis’ nomination for Dark Victory was the second of five consecutive Best Actress nominations. In achieving this impressive run, she is one of the two actors (male or female) in history with the highest number of consecutive Oscar nominations for Acting. The other artist with this claim to fame was Greer Garson, (like Davis, Garson never received a Best Supporting Actress nomination: all her nominations were for the top job. Garson’s total of seven such nominations resulted in one win: for 1943’s Mrs Miniver).

In interviews during her later years, Davis (a harsh judge of her own work) often remarked that Dark Victory was her favourite of her own screen performances, and one of the few that she was quite satisfied with. Admirers of Davis’ work rate her Dark Victory performance particularly favourably. Her performance in this film is widely regarded as terrifically nuanced and powerful. Her wonderful acting range is evident here, as she transforms from an often-flippant party-girl and socialite to a strong and resilient person facing death. Had there been a lesser actor cast in this role, the whole film could have fallen apart: as the role required the skills to take Judith on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, while pitching such emotions to the right level, without going over-the-top.

There are many great moments in Davis’ performance in this film, and a few of my favourites include:

* When she sarcastically declares that she’ll have a ‘… large order of prognosis negative’, as a dig at Frederick and Ann, when she finds out they were keeping her medical results from her.

* When, in a dramatic and touching scene, she re-unites with Frederick (resplendent in a Gumnut Babies-style sequined cap – one that not everyone could pull off).

* The film’s extended finale (more on this later).
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2. THE MELODRAMA

Goulding’s direction, Steiner’s swelling score, Casey Robinson’s screenplay adaptation of the original play (complete with some deliciously over-the-top lines of dialogue), Ernest Haller’s gorgeous black-and white cinematography and (for the most part) perfect casting all combine to make Dark Victory an intense and affecting melodrama.

At times (unashamedly!) emotionally manipulative, it’s a true weepie – one that’s been known to touch even the most hardened of viewers.
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3. THE MORAL AMBIGUITY

One of the major plot points of Dark Victory involves Judith’s doctor not only specifically keeping her true prognosis (impending death!) from her, but outright lying by assuring her that she’ll make a full recovery. On top of this, he also becomes her lover/husband. In today’s climate of privacy laws, over-litigation and ethics committees, it’s amazing to think that three-quarters of a century ago (even in fiction) such deceptions would be considered. It’s certainly shaky moral ground, but the viewer can see that (even if misguided), these deceptions were carried out for compassionate purposes. Frederick (and accomplice Ann) loved Judith, and withheld her true diagnosis in an attempt to give her happiness in her final months. One of Dark Victory’s many strengths is, beyond simply being entertaining (albeit in a heart-breaking way), it confronts its viewers into contemplating some difficult moral dilemmas: Would you want to know if your days were numbered? Would there be any circumstances in which you’d be justified keeping such a prognosis form a loved-one. And so on …

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4. THE FLAWS

Dark Victory is such a strong film that even its couple of (small, in the scheme of things) flaws can’t ruin it. Others may disagree, but as I see it, the film’s two less-than-sterling elements are:

* The obviously fake rear projection used in an early scene when Michael O’Leary (Bogart) rides along on Judith’s car’s running board. As contrived as this looks, we somehow suspend our disbelief, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s clear that this action is taking place on a sound stage.

* The casting of Humphrey Bogart:

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Humphrey Bogart as a performer – but the poor man was sinfully miscast in this film. He was just not suited to the role of an Irish stablemaster. It also seems he wasn’t given the necessary dialogue coaching, as he slips in-and-out of his (less-than-believable) Irish brogue. It’s a credit to Bogart that he somehow transcends and survives this casting mistake. Though it’s apparent that he’s wrong in the role, there’s something about his performance that’s still compelling. I’m so relived that this performance didn’t end his career, and luckily studio executives and directors could foresee his inherent (and perhaps latent) star power. Though Bogart had some larger roles in earlier films during the 1930s before playing this minor supporting role in Dark Victory, he hadn’t yet delivered a huge leading man hit. What a loss it would have been if audiences didn’t get to see Bogart come into his own two and three years later in previous Five Star film picks The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) – not to mention the many other films he starred in during the 1940s and 1950s – including his Best Actor Oscar-winning work in 1952’s The African Queen (directed by Bogart’s long-time collaborator John Huston, who had first directed him in The Maltese Falcon).
65. THE FINALE

The last scenes of Dark Victory are just magnificent. It’s difficult to write about them without crying, let alone watch them. As a viewer, your heart sinks when, fifteen minutes from the end of the film, Judith comments to Ann that a storm must be coming, as it seems to her that it’s getting dark. This is the characters’ moment of horrific realisation when they discover that Judith’s end is near (as, according to the medical prognosis, Judith will quickly turn blind, at which point death will be imminent: a mere couple of hours away). In heartbreaking, unselfish form, Judith must pretend to Frederick that everything is OK. She (with Ann’s reluctant agreement) sends Frederick of to a medical conference, with the intention of sparing him the witnessing of her death. In an excruciatingly beautiful scene, she (though just about blind at this point) helps him pack his suitcase. This requires her to feel around the walls every time his head is turned. After bidding Frederick farewell, she sends Ann on her way, insisting she must die alone. Every few moments there is another kick in the guts: Judith’s farewell to her dogs, her stoic ascent of the stairs, and then her request that her housekeeper leave the room. It’s unspoken, but both women know what’s coming. Then, just when you think there can’t be any further sadness, the close-up of Judith’s face on her (death)bed loses focus, eventually fading to black ….
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Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf

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