Dark Victory – 1939

dark victory

My Review

—Pretty Good— 

Bogie Film Fix:

Full Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Edmund Goulding

The Lowdown

A rich, young socialite (Bette Davis) and the doctor (George Brent) that diagnoses her brain tumor fall in love and struggle with the knowledge that she only has a few months left to live.

What I Thought

While I always wish that this film had a lot more Humphrey Bogart, I keep falling more and more in love with Bette Davis, so I’ll forgive director Edmund Goulding for not slipping more Bogie into the movie.

Davis, who is almost always bubbly and energetic, even in her darker roles, begins this film downright frenetic.  She’s a self-absorbed party girl who spends her nights drinking with other wealthy, young, beautiful people, and her days scolding her Irish horse trainer (Humphrey Bogart).

What’s so good about Davis’ portrayal of Judith Traherne is that she’s able to slowly tone down her wild, selfish persona – bit by bit – throughout the movie until she’s almost subdued and grounded by the end of the film.  I say almost, because a complete transformation would have been too easy for the audience.  Goulding and Davis hold back the reins on Judith’s character development just enough that there’s still a little bit of that reckless, egotistical rich girl from the beginning of the film still fighting to get out at the end.

We watch, frustrated and disappointed, as Davis sends everyone good in her life away.  Why does she choose to face the end alone?  Why send her husband away?  Why her best friend?  Even the dogs?  She can’t even keep the dogs by her side?  Is she really helping the them, or is she too afraid to face their pain alongside her own?

To have ended with a crowd of loved ones surrounding Davis’ bed would have certainly been the easy way out for this film.  To let Judith face death unaccompanied stays true to her character, while at the same time piling enormous amounts of emotional weight onto the viewer.  This film leaves me struggling with sympathy and disappointment intertwined together, and I’m left unsatisfied in the best possible way.

According to A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax’s Bogart biography, Bogart, a happy ending was filmed for the movie wherein Bogart’s Michael O’Leary wins a race with Davis’ favorite thoroughbred.  The ending was deemed unnecessary though, as it didn’t flow well following the final death scene.  I’m impressed that they didn’t hedge their bets and go with the “safe” ending!

Bette Davis was deservedly nominated for her third Academy Award for this role.

The Bogart Factor

Bogart definitely makes the most of what little time he has in this film.  There’s a short scene at the beginning where he plays the charming rogue, teasing Davis about the worth of her favorite horse, and then a longer, more dramatic scene about three quarters of the way through the movie where he gets to have a wonderful moment in the horse barn with Davis as he learns about her imminent death.

Playing  a man named O’Leary, we’re “treated” to one of only two films that I can think of (the other being Virginia City) where Bogart puts on an accent.  Is it good?  Not really, but he wisely keeps it pretty well subdued throughout the picture so that it never becomes distracting.

What I found the most interesting was the turn that Bogart’s character takes when he finds out about Davis’ prognosis.  In the barn together, we can almost watch him slip from the wisecracking horse trainer into the familiar demeanor and tone of one of his bitter, world-weary, expatriate roles like Harry Morgan or Rick Blaine as he delivers one of the most powerful moments in the film:

Bogart:  I should have lived in the days when it counted to be a man – the way I like to ride and the way I like to fight.  What good’s ridin’ and fightin’ these days?  Whatta they get you?  What do they get ya?

The Cast

Bette Davis does admirably well considering her personal life was apparently in turmoil during the making of this movie.  I would guess that the dissolution of her marriage and the ensuing affair with costar George Brent is what makes her appear so much more passionate and agitated than usual onscreen.

I really liked George Brent as Dr. Fredrick Steele, and I need to check out the rest of his filmography to see what I’ve been missing.

Geraldine Fitzgerald does a great job counterbalancing Davis as the best friend, Ann King, and she is able to hold her own against the several other, higher profile, acting greats.

One of my favorite parts of this film is Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of Alec, Judith’s drunk, young, gad about friend.  Of all his early roles, this one always strikes me as the most charming and entertaining.  I’m not a huge Reagan fan, but he really does a great job here.

And then there’s the angel, Clarence, as Dr. Parsons – Judith’s personal physician!  It’s always fun to see Henry Travers on screen!

Classic Bogie Moment

Michael O’Leary appears a few times in a rumpled, well-worn, trench coat and fedora – a look that Bogart would go on to make iconic with his most famous character – Rick Blaine.

Did You Notice…

I usually don’t notice how much people smoke in these old films – until they do it in places that seem ludicrous to modern sensibilities.  Bette Davis smokes in the doctor’s office . . . with the doctor!  She smokes in her hospital room moments before surgery.  Doctors smoke in the doctors’ lounge.  If they only knew, right?

The Bottom Line

It’s a very good film, but not a super satisfying Bogart fix.

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6 thoughts on “Dark Victory – 1939

  1. I never thought this film was all that great. Yeah, Brent is cool try him in The Fighting 69th with Cagney. There is also one of my favorite films of all-time with Brent and Claudette Colbert called Tomorrow Is Forever. The ultimate tear-jerker.

  2. You captured the feeling of the film very well in your review!
    I also agree completely about the ending —tragic, a little disappointing (in the best possible sense) but ultimately true to Davis’ character.

    • I know, right? I forgot to add it to the review, but there was supposed to be an ending with Bogart where he wins a race with Davis’ favorite horse, but the studio cut it because it didn’t “fit” the ending! Pretty crazy to have opted out of the happy ending, but I love that they were brave enough to do it! I’ll have to tack that onto the blog.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Pingback: Bette Davis | The Bogie Film Blog

  4. Pingback: Henry Travers | The Bogie Film Blog

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