Filmsite Movie Review
Dark Victory (1939)
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Dark Victory (1939) is a sentimental, tragic and moving melodrama (a "weepie" or "woman's picture") from Warner Bros. studios - made in Hollywood's most famous and competitive year. The film contains an electrifying, compelling, tour de force, tear-jerking performance from its major star Bette Davis. It was a bit of a risk for the movie studio to make and publicize an intense film about a terminally-ill patient with "prognosis negative."

The protagonist is a young socialite-heiress named Judith Traherne (Davis), who suffers from a brain tumor and ultimately falls in love with her supportive and dedicated doctor Frederick Steele (Brent). In the midst of her deadly illness, she comforts her best friend Ann King (Fitzgerald), and courageously meets her fate when her eyesight dims. She climbs her stairs for the last time - accompanied by Max Steiner's swelling score in the film's finale. A title from a film trailer proclaimed: "The love story no woman will ever forget!"

The film's screenplay by Casey Robinson was based on the brief and unsuccessful (due to its morbid subject matter) mid-30s Broadway play (starring Tallulah Bankhead) of the same name by George Emerson Brewer, Jr., and Bertram Bloch. David Selznick had originally purchased film rights, but gave up production plans for the property - and Warner Bros. picked up film rights.

The adult drama was nominated for three Academy Awards - Best Picture, Best Actress (for two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis), and Best Original Score by Max Steiner, but lost in all categories. [Note: This was Davis' third Oscar nomination in five years, and her second of five consecutive nominations.] Gone with the Wind (1939) took the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actress (Vivien Leigh).

Dark Victory was the second of Davis' four films with director Edmund Goulding - the others were That Certain Woman (1937), The Old Maid (1939), and The Great Lie (1941). Humphrey Bogart was completely miscast in a minor role as Michael O'Leary - an Irish stable groom/trainer, although Ronald Reagan as Alec Hamin, a bar-hopping, slightly decadent playboy, was effectively believable.

The film was remade as Stolen Hours (1963) and as a made-for-TV movie in 1976 with Elizabeth Montgomery.

Plot Synopsis

The film opens with a quick introduction to some of the main characters - Michael O'Leary (Humphrey Bogart in an extraneous role), the family's Irish horse trainer and stable man, calls on the phone early in the morning from the feed room/stable to the country mansion of the Trahernes, a wealthy Long Island family. Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald in her exceptional American film debut), the heroine's best friend and confidential secretary, intercepts the call and scolds him for disturbing them at "this unholy hour of the morning." In another upstairs bedroom, attractive, young socialite and heiress Miss Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is fast asleep - her eyes are closed [prefigurative of her later condition and the film's closing image], and she is "woozy" from the previous night's hedonistic party. She is summoned by Michael who confers with her about a "cash customer for that colt" - her prized horse named Challenger.

Early that morning, strong-willed Judith Traherne is living in the fast-moving lane of the race-horse set - she drives recklessly down a country road in her open roadster with Ann disapproving: "It's a nice world if we can just stay in it." At the training track, Michael jumps on the running board and is given a lift - he immediately acts impertinently and freshly: "I hear you've got the finest string of horses in the country. The least you could do is to come down and let them have a look at ya. Surely if the little horses can get up early in the morning to run and jump for ya, you can get up to watch 'em." Ann and Judith banter about firing Michael:

Judith: He thinks he can lead us around like a lot of horses. You're right, Ann, fire him.
Ann: Me? Oh no, I'm not the mistress here. I'm only the secretary.
Judith: Oh, but darling, you have the character. You're always telling me so yourself.

Alec Hamin (Ronald Reagan), Judith's party friend (a "parasite" according to "sensible" Ann), is there to help persuade her to sell her horse to Carrie Spottswood (Cora Witherspoon) or to Colonel Mantle (Charles Richman), but she stubbornly refuses and then defends the courage of her horse to her insolent stableman, employed for only a little over a month: "Michael, you might fold up and I might fold up, but that horse has the breeding."

Although she suffers a slight spell of dizziness that "comes and goes," Judith mounts her "little darling" horse Challenger that Michael labeled a "coward": "Some day you'll learn that courage is in the blood." The group watches as she rides her horse over the jumps on the infield, and then experiences double vision as she steers and steadies her horse for a final hurdle. Unconsciously, she pulls on the reins - the horse changes course and crashes into the right wing of the jump, sending her tumbling to the ground.

In the next scene, Judith recovers from her accident, sipping milk and petting her Irish setter Daffy - she "escaped being hurt." She blames herself: "That colt didn't throw me. I threw him...You know what happened? I saw two jumps. I tried to take him over the wrong jump...It was the ghastliest feeling. Everything went fuzzy." She has had similar physical problems in the recent past, knocking into passers-by as if she was drunk or disoriented. She already senses her condition is serious and confides in Ann:

Judith: Confidentially, darling, this is more than a hang-over.
Ann: If you don't tell Parsons these things, I will.
Judith: No you won't, Ann. You're my best and my truest friend and you won't tell a soul. I wouldn't have told you except - well, I won't have a dumb animal blamed for my mistake.

Ann has already arranged for Judith to go to a specialist "about that giddiness." Judith ("stubborn as a mule") dismisses and ignores any thought of her own illness: "Oh, but I haven't any time for doctors...I haven't time to be ill. It's just some minor nonsense." Her friend is concerned that her dizziness, headaches, and occasional attacks of double vision may indicate that she is "really ill." Ann's fears are confirmed when Judith tumbles down the stairs - the camera follows her as she moves out of sight at the top of the stairs, and then finds her in a heap at the bottom of the steps.

The worried family doctor, Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers) refers Judith to a specialist, a brain surgeon named Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), who is in the midst of retiring and closing his office and practice. He dismisses the importance of seeing Parsons' patient, telling his nurse/assistant Miss Wainwright (Dorothy Peterson):

Well, you tell Dr. Parsons I've waited nine years to catch this train. I'm not gonna miss it just because some Long Island nitwit fell off her horse...Miss Judith Traherne - daughter of the late sportsman and wire manufacturer.

His most recent patient's operation "was a brilliant success - but the patient just happened to die...Look at any brain surgeon's mortality rate. You'll find out just about how unfunny it is." Steele tells a colleague, Dr. Carter (Herbert Rawlinson) that he is "going back to medicine" in northern Vermont to carry out valuable brain cell research and scientific study on the growth of cells:

I'm not quitting...I have a little laboratory on my farm up there in Vermont. The Medical Research Bureau is backing me. Fisher in Philadelphia is going to do the pathology, incidentally, the best man in the country...Brain cells. Why do healthy normal cells go berserk and grow wild?...Nobody knows. But we call them cysts and gliomas and tumors and cancers. And we operate and hope to cure with a knife and half the time we don't even know the cause. Our patients have faith in us because we're doctors...Someday, somebody will discover a serum that will be to these growths what insulin is to diabetes and anti-toxins to diptheria, and maybe earn his title of Doctor of Medicine.

According to Parsons, Judith is "desperately ill...and she's been losing ground each day." She has been having persistent headaches "even before the accident, I suspect...She calls them hangovers...She's a very stubborn patient...She won't cooperate. She won't even tell me anything...It was a queer sort of accident. She crashed into the right wing of a jump almost as if she'd held her horse deliberately at it. I was there, I saw it."

When Judith meets Dr. Steele in the waiting room, she is cold, openly hostile and antagonistic, and contemptuous. As he makes her acquaintance, he calmly observes burn marks on her right hand:

Judith: My name's Traherne. Judith Traherne, or don't names matter?
Dr. Steele: Hmm.
Judith: I mean, to that cold scientific eye of yours. We're just little guinea pigs, aren't we? So glad to have met you, Doctor. (She turns to Ann to leave.)
Dr. Steele: Where did you get those burns?
Judith: What burns?
Dr. Steele: On your right hand here, between the first two fingers.
Judith: Well, I never noticed them before.
Dr. Steele: I see, will you come in here a minute, please?

In his inner office during her first exam, she continues to be defiant, flippant and seemingly invincible, but nervously edgy in her movements, vulnerable and intensely frightened on the inside. In contrast, Dr. Steele is respectful, dedicated, and completely professional:

Dr. Steele: I understand you don't like to talk about your health.
Judith: That's right.
Dr. Steele: Any particular reason why?
Judith: It's just a boring subject, that's all.
Dr. Steele: Oh, most people love it. I make my living by listening to them.
Judith: Then I'm afraid you're wasting your time.
Dr. Steele: I'll send you a bill.
Judith: I'm twenty-three years old. An only child. I weigh one hundred and ten pounds - stripped. I've had measles, mumps, and whooping cough, all at the proper ages. I believe I have no congenital weaknesses. Shall I go on?
Dr. Steele: Oh yes, please.
Judith: My father drank himself to death; my mother lives in Paris. I take a great deal of exercise. I'm accustomed to a reasonable quantity of tobacco and alcohol. I'm said to have a sense of humor. Is that enough?
Dr. Steele: All the inconsequential facts. (She tries to light the end of her cigarette, but has difficulty and misses the end of it with her lit match. Dr. Steele guides her hand.)
Judith: Thank you. What are the consequential ones?

Admitting to drinking and smoking a bit more than she should, she is insensitive to the bright light from the window, but struggles to keep her poise. When Dr. Steele questions: "Do you use your eyes a great deal?", she quips: "I generally keep them open, Doctor." He rises to walk around and intently study her behavior, as she speaks about her rich, full, and comfortable lifestyle on Long Island:

Oh, horses, dogs, shooting, yachting, travel, parties, gossip - all the pleasures of the station wagon crowd. You don't think much of that, do you?

In contrast to her unappealing pursuits, his "racket" is similarly "awful": "brain surgery, a large practice, about ten days off every summer." He must guide her hand to light his own cigarette - she exhibits more problems with her vision. She reduces her hostility slightly when envying him for his complete dedication to his work while dreaming about her own carefree future:

Judith: Still, I almost envy you - it must be nice to believe in what you're doing.
Dr. Steele: Don't you?
Judith: Not in the way you do. Oh, I'm not complaining...take it all in all, they dealt me a very good hand. I'm young, I have no particular responsibilities, I don't intend to cultivate any, either. One is freer without. I shall probably marry someday, no hurry about that. When I do, I shall build a house on a ridge I know, with a glorious view. I have my horses. With any luck, I'll have about forty years of that. I think that's a pretty good setup.
Dr. Steele: (He lowers the shade on the window.) That light was bothering you.
Judith: Why do you keep harping on that? There's nothing wrong with my eyes.
Dr. Steele: You were squinting.
Judith: I was not squinting.
Dr. Steele: Sorry, but you were.
Judith: Well, suit yourself, it's your office.

When he probes with questions about her short-term memory, she shows signs of mental deterioration and memory loss. She is unable to remember if she saw the play Cyrano in the afternoon and played bridge in the evening, or vice versa. She accidentally divulges that she has been suffering from headaches, and then attempts to recant and dismiss her illness:

As long as I live, I'll never take orders from anyone. And I'll tell you something else. I'm well, absolutely well! I'm young and strong and nothing can touch me. And neither you nor Dr. Parsons can make an invalid out of me. And I'm going. (She rises and rushes to the door.)

He presents her with the truth of her decreasing capacities and the serious nature of her ailments. Her head is bowed and she stares at the floor as she listens to his diagnosis and silently admits the threats to her life:

Run away because you're frightened...That's why you held certain things back from Dr. Parsons. (He leads her by the arm back to a chair.) You were afraid to admit them. And that's why you didn't tell him you've been having these headaches for months - but you have, and lately, they've been getting worse until now you're never free of them. And your eyes - they've been cutting up too - just like somebody shutting a pair of folding doors - until your vision is almost cut in half. You pretended it was your imagination, but it isn't. Then that queer dull feeling in your right arm. You can't laugh that off. I'll tell you how you got those burns on your fingers - a cigarette! You didn't feel the burns because your sensory nerves are paralyzed. Your memory's all shot to pieces - you can't concentrate. Look at your bridge scores! And you're irritable because your nerves are all on edge. You won't admit it, but you can't deny it, can you? Now I think we'll get somewhere.

Further tests are utilized to probe more deeply into her condition, including a squeezing test with her right and left hands. With a reflex hammer, he tests her elbows and knees and he examines her eyes with an electric light or ophthalmoscope. She commends him on his patient technique: "You're very kind to your guinea pigs, aren't you?" Judith is unable to "make out" or identify the objects that are placed in her right hand. Upon further questioning, Judith describes the onset of her headaches and vision problems:

Dr. Steele: How long is it since you first noticed these headaches?
Judith: Oh, horrible months ago. About five or six.
Dr. Steele: Have your eyes been bothering you for that long?
Judith: No, that's only lately, in the last few weeks.

The doctor cancels his train tickets to Vermont and temporarily postpones his plans to leave his practice: "Never mind. There are other trains on other days...A few days one way or the other doesn't matter." Judith finally lets down her guard, cooperates and apologizes - she is grateful and relieved:

Judith: I'm sorry I've been so difficult.
Dr. Steele: You were a good sport.
Judith: If I weren't that, doctor, I'm afraid I wouldn't be much of anything. Tell me, what's wrong with me? Is it my eyes?
Dr. Steele: Why, I'd be a pretty poor excuse for a doctor if I told you before I was positive myself. Anyway, for the next few days, I want you to have some X-rays taken, lots of them. Otherwise, you're to lead your normal life, see your friends, give parties, do everything you have been doing - with one exception.
Judith: What's that?
Dr. Steele: You've got to see a good deal of me.
Judith (smiling tearfully): I'll bet you'll be a frost at a party.

Later in her bedroom, Judith is surrounded by two other specialist doctors that Dr. Steele has consulted with. They have just completed further diagnostic tests to confirm his tests and findings. Afterwards, on the stairwell, Judith jokes to Alec about her supposed ailment: "Maybe it's kittens," but it is definitely more serious than that. The "verdict" is delivered by Dr. Steele - she makes light of his pronouncement as if she is being sentenced: "The prisoner will rise. The sentence." He suggests that immediate brain surgery is imperative: "We've got to operate...Well, after all, the brain is like any other part of the body. Things get out of kilter, have to be adjusted." Judith rejects Dr. Steele's orders with a frightful, alarmed look: "Oh no I won't!" He has discovered, in all likelihood, that she has a possibly-malignant brain tumor or "glioma" originating in the central nervous system: "It is rather like a plant - a parasitic one." Judith is stunned and denies the reality of the situation with repression: "Suppose we just don't talk about it anymore." In front of her dressing room mirror, she pulls back the hair above her forehead as her maid Martha (Virginia Brissac) shows concern:

Martha: Another headache, Miss Judith?
Judith: No, not another headache...Yes, a big headache! And I want a bottle of champagne for it.

The scene fades out to black and then fades in to the name plaque of "FAIRVIEW HOSPITAL" in New York City. In the hospital corridor outside Judith's room, Dr. Steele overhears her loud, spoiled, off-screen voice: "I said no and I mean no." She rejects the wearing of an ugly hospital gown and he grins: "Oh my, they are pretty dowdy, aren't they?" She also reacts to taking a sleeping pill: "But I don't want to sleep. Anyway, how could I in a two-by-four like this? At home, I have a bed that's big enough for six - why I can't even move." As she becomes drowsy, she complains about having her hair cut off for the operation, but then rests back on her pillow and peacefully expresses confidence in her doctor and in the outcome of the operation (performed off-screen):

I feel so good. Nothing to think about...I must do everything you say. I put myself in your hands - they're rather nice hands, good strong hands. Doctor?...Will you do something for me?...When you get inside my head, see if you can find any sense in it.

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