Dark Victory (1939)


  • directed by Edmund Goulding
  • starring Bette Davis, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, Henry Travers
  • A young socialite is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and must decide whether she will meet her final days with dignity.

“But I haven’t time to be ill.”

This was about as depressing a film as advertised. There’s just no way around the darkness of a vibrant, young life about to be cut short though it tries for one by merely skating on the surface of such a struggle. The film and its characters tend to arrive at some very deep conclusions on concepts of acceptance, legacy, and mortality, all without asking any of the deep questions. It was as if Judith was able to will her internal strife into submission just by remaining who she was at the core, the airy, fun-loving life of the party. There needed to be at least one person mourning and complaining about a misfortune such as this so Edmund Goulding created the character of best friend Ann to act as the depressed, ‘woe is us’ side of the story. Both Geraldine Fitzgerald and George Brent, as Judith’s doctor-turned-husband, did well with what was an emotional rollercoaster of a script. I wasn’t familiar with either of them so that was a nice surprise, but in the end there was simply no oxygen, no fraction of screen, and no part of the story that was not swallowed whole by Bette Davis. No wonder it’s the performance she looked back on most fondly.

Judith is really a handful of different characters all in one film; a socialite who shows a bit of self-consciousness about her frivolity; a terrified, uninterested, denial-ridden medical patient; a survivor, still the life of the party, but with a new set of life priorities; yet another shift in outlook as news of her impending death is revealed, leading to a downward spiral; and then ultimately going towards the light as an all-accepting housewife in Vermont. The same clock is ticking throughout all these transformations, whether she’s aware of it at certain points or not, and Davis displayed great talent in providing Judith with one distinct foundation on which to build as death shifts from front and center to the background over and over throughout the film.

As for the style, Goulding for the most part told this emotional tale as simply as possible. Of course there were the requisite glamour shots of Davis, one of which seen above, in which time appeared to slow down in the presence of such grace as she struggled to light her cigarette. I also got a kick out of the eye exam during her first appointment with Dr. Steele. To literally shine a light on and emphasize what were of course one of the top organs of Hollywood history was a perfectly meta choice, intended or not. Finally, I really enjoyed Goulding’s sense of space and movement throughout the film in the outdoors scenes especially. His camera during the exhilarating horse riding sequence in the beginning and even something as simple as Judith running out to get the mail gave the characters a natural, lived-in environment in which to work instead of something screaming movie set.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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