Movie Review: Dark Victory (1939)

Original chick flick still tugs at the heart ___ 8/10

Dark VictoryJudith: I’ve never taken orders from anyone. As long as I live, I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me.

[Colleague: Are you quitting because you’ve lost your nerve?]
Dr. Frederick Steele
: I’m not quitting, I’m returning to medicine, have a little lab up north in Vermont.
[Colleague: How many men would give their eye teeth for a practice you’re throwing away? What is this research?]
Dr. Steele: Cells. Brain cells. Why do healthy normal cells go berserk and grow wild, do you know? Nobody knows! But they call them cysts and lyomas and tumors and cancers, and we operate and hope to cure with an eyeful but half the time we don’t even know the root cause. Our patients have faith in us because we’re doctors… I’m done.

Judith: Moving to Vermont are you? What do you do there in between yawns?

Directed by Edmund Goulding
Screenplay Casey Robinson
Play George Emerson Brewer Jr.

Bette Davis … Judith Traherne
George Brent … Dr. Frederick Steele
Humphrey Bogart … Michael O’Leary
Geraldine Fitzgerald … Ann King
Ronald Reagan … Alec
Henry Travers … Dr. Parsons
Cora Witherspoon … Carrie
Dorothy Peterson … Miss Wainwright
Virginia Brissac … Martha
Charles Richman … Colonel Mantle

You can tell from the gitgo (and from the quips above), young Judith, an independently minded Long Island socialite, is as spirited as the horses she owns. Her dear-departed father leaves to her a fortune, which, except for the thoroughbred business—her favorite is a young colt named Challenger, whom she insists will be a champion—she uses to party constantly and in style. But there’s internal trouble in River City, having nothing to do with her sophisticated revelry: Judith has been having awful headaches and peculiar vision difficulties. In an introductory scene, we find the headstrong, impulsive Ms. Traherne taking Challenger out on the course and promptly running him into a right-hand jump-rail support.

Judith doesn’t confide in her good-looking rummy-buddy Alec (Ronald Reagan), nor in the lead stable hand Michael (Humphrey Bogart) she has a physical attraction (but social disdain) for, nor even her best friend and estate administrator Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Further, she tells her family doctor, Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers),[1] as little as she can. He’s a caring fellow, and has brought her into the world; he’s so concerned about what he does learn that he makes an appointment with an eminent brain surgeon living on the Island, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent).

We are in the midst of seeing Steele ending his practice and preparing to depart by train to his farm in Vermont, where he is determined to pursue brain pathology research. Indeed, the train leaves within the hour. The good doctor is having a penetrating conversation (shown in the quoted dialog above) with a professional colleague to the effect that he has become thoroughly discouraged by continued medical ignorance of the causality of fatal brain diseases, and that too many of his ‘successful’ operations do not result in continued life of the patient. I really appreciate this sequence, which showcases the George Brent acting talent; rarely do we find such passionate idealism motivating real, much less fictional, doctors.

That’s the setup, and it’s a beauty. Dr. Parsons has brought along his dear Judith, with her friend Ann. They’re sitting in the waiting room. Before you know it, Steele is back in his office with Judith and deep in pondering the puzzle of her illness; he’s also enduring her skeptical banter that rather pointedly questions a profession that ‘likes to make guinea pigs of human beings.’ Game on. Steele skips on his train ticket, he’s going to do one more case. Despite his cool analytical mind, it’s clear to the viewer that such a bright and willful woman as Judith can kindle his long dormant romantic flames. By the time of the initial diagnosis, then surgery, they each warm to the other: she sees the big-hearted idealist, he sees her joie de vivre… and he is driven to save her at any cost.

***Moderate spoiler alert***
Okay, Dark Victory is a melodrama to end melodramas, and to tell you it’s a tear jerker hardly gives anything away. I won’t go into any more of the plot except to tell you that Steele and Judith do fall in love and they do deal poignantly with a number of twists and turns of fortune. Bette Davis was a leading actress of my parents’ generation, but I know that leading actors of my generation—I’m thinking particularly recent comments of James Woods—regard her as a breed apart in the profession. As a layman I can confirm that Davis brings a unique energy to the role of Judith Traherne, she moves crisply and decisively, her expressions are full of assertiveness and the quickest brightness. You cannot see anyone else in the part.

But does she steal the show? No, not in my humble opinion. George Brent is the perfect coupling for her, the perfect leading man… leading as in a superb dance partner. He’s no slouch. In fact, I would venture that without Brent as the passionately humanitarian doctor, Dark Victory would have never become the iconic love story that everyone talks about and that lays the foundation for so many others. Perhaps no other cinematic couple in history is so warmly regarded as Judith Traherne and Frederick Steele, no other that we all wish maximum good things for… because they are so worthy of the greatest happiness life holds.

The score by the famous composer Max Steiner, in the style of the times, drips with sentimentality, but even so does not weigh down the emotions, issues, or conflicts. One can make some subtle criticisms of some of the other characters: for one thing Bogie doesn’t handle his Irish brogue with much gusto. I see most of those slighter criticisms applying to the writing of the parts than to their execution: an example is Alec’s constantly inebriated one-trick-pony performance. In fact, I don’t see the relevance of that character at all; the writer could have used those pages to better effect by providing more background to Judith. Interestingly, this lack of literary development of the Traherne character makes the Davis performance even more impressive.

Dark Victory has a special place in my own heart because the  love of my life, while we were courting—back in the 1970s when she lived with her parents in East Detroit and I lived in Ferndale while attending Wayne State University in Detroit (we would shuttle back and forth along 8 Mile to see each other)—found out DV was playing on a local movie channel. [I was so taken with Ayn Rand and libertarianism at the time, and all the artistic accouterments that stressed romanticism.] Here was a movie that she simply liked for SunFLOWersentimental reasons, and she wanted me to see it with her, not on anyone’s “approved” list. It was great as I recall, and despite poo poohing chick flicks, I did get an honest tear in my beer…. and lucky.

A great classic with some minor reservations.

[1] Alert viewers will recognize Travers as the rookie angel who tries to help George Bailey feel better about his life in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

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