Friday, August 31, 2012

Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory is a bright spot in Bette Davis' filmography.

The American film legend lobbied hard for the play by George Emerson Brewer, Jr. and Bertram Bloch to be made into a motion picture.

Good call, Bette.

Her Judith Traherne is a well-off socialite living very well off her late father's fortune. Much like a 1930s version of the Kiss song, Rock and Roll All Night, Traherne parties well into the morning and enjoys regular intakes of alcohol and tobacco.

She's hesitant to say anything about painful headaches that have bothered her for several months. Her eyesight is getting wonky too. It's not until she a) takes a bad spill when riding a horse and b) falls down a flight of stairs that others get a concerned about her well-being.

Enter Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent). Steele is an accomplished brain surgeon. He's getting ready to pack up his practice and head to Vermont where he can focus on his scientific research.

Tarherne is a reluctant patient, loathe to reveal details about her serious ailments.

"It's just a boring subject," she suggests about her health. "I'm accustomed to looking after myself."

Steele has an idea what's happening and X-rays confirm his suspicions. He must operate, but even that surgery isn't a complete success. Traherne will die in less than a year. Steele swears Traherne's best friend, Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald), to secrecy.

Sparks start flying between Steele and Traherne. All this talk about illness and mortality sure doesn't impact her looks. She's luminous and full of life. That sunny attitude takes a big dip when she happens on her medical file and learns of her fate. It's back to her hard-living lifestyle. Suicide begins to look like attractive rather than counting the days waiting for her demise.

Will she reunite with Steele? Will she find peace before her death?

Dark Victory is a joy to watch even with all its deep subject matter. Brent is the rock solid caregiver to Davis. As Traherne, Davis gives a role of a lifetime. Her work in this 1939 feature fromd director Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, The Dawn Patrol) earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress.

It's a little odd seeing Humphrey Bogart as a horse trainer after tough guy roles in Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. Both films were also released in the late 1930s.

Future American president Ronald Reagan is more a tippler than the Gipper as Alec, a party-going friend of Traherne's. There's even a small role for Henry Travers. He's known most for his role as Clarence, the angel, in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.

The death of Traherne's father allowed her a life of wealth and privlege. She battles illness while Steele does research to save lives. Should doctors tell their patients when death is imminent? When should someone speak up about secrets others are keeping? There are some meaty questions to chew on in addition to the film's fine performances.

RATING: 8/10

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