Saturday, March 28, 2015
"Dark Victory" presents Bette Davis in an early medical tragedy
“Dark Victory” (1939), directed by Edmund Goulding, based on an unsuccessful stage play by Casey Robinson, features a young Bette Davis in a curious drama that does fit the “dark place” scenario of a couple of films I reviewed late last year.
Davis plays socialite Judith Traherne, who takes a spill from a horse one morning. Already, one remembers the death of Rhett’s daughter in “Gone with the Wind”, and Christopher Reeve’s accident. Soon, the “doctor” Frederick Steele (George Brent) diagnoses her with a brain tumor. He operates on her, and lies, saying she will recover. Actually, he knows that she will go blind (anticipate “Magnificent Obsession”) and die shortly thereafter. Steele does regard himself on the cutting edge of brain biology research (an interesting idea before WWII). Steele falls in love with her (something that would be beyond my own capacity in the circumstances) and proposes. But in the ensuring sequence, she finds paperwork indicating her “negative prognosis”, and even asks her secretary what those two words mean. (Sounds like Sarah Palin.) Later, she gets a pep talk from the stable manager Michael (Humphrey Bogart), who complains that the world has already become an unsuitable place for a man like him who likes to “ride and fight.” She does marry the good doctor.
The film scene, where she passes away, really does make the title.
Ronald Reagan plays Alec (as Entertainment Weekly explains). But he doesn't stand out as much as Bogart, who at 39 looks youthful himself. Geraldine FitzGerald also stars.
There is something curious about the setting on Long Island with mountains in the background. Why not set it in the horse country of Maryland (like the opening of “Giant”)?
There’s a short “1939: Tough Competition for Dark Victory”, which maintains that 1939 was Hollywood’s greatest. But this film was a huge hit when it came out, even if it is somewhat forgotten. That year it competed not only with "Gone" but also "Wizard of Oz" and "Wuthering Heights" (a later version of which I have just put in queue).