Monday, February 18, 2013

Dark Victory (1939)

Director: Edmund Goulding                            Writer: Casey Robinson
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Travers

For those of us who grew up with television in the sixties, our first exposure to Bette Davis coming in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as well as talk shows and TV guest spots, it’s hard to believe that she was once the same fresh-faced young woman who appeared in early Warner Brothers classics like Dark Victory. But the eyes tell us it must be her. Filmed shortly after her breakout picture, Jezebel, Davis brings the same feisty brand of wealthy entitlement to the role, this time instead of a Southern belle she plays a modern heiress.

The story is a tear-jerking melodrama in which Davis is diagnosed with a brain tumor and, though she resists at first, is smitten by the charm of brain surgeon George Brent. After an operation to determine the extent of the tumor, Brent discovers that it is inoperable and terminal. The rest of the story is fairly routine, at least as far as old movies go. There is romance, betrayal, and a brief moment of happiness before the final end. There is plenty of self-sacrifice to go around, but nothing really revolutionary. The film is simply a set-piece for Davis's acting and though she does a good job--as far as the script will let her--there’s not much else to recommend the picture.

Humphrey Bogart delivers a peculiarly callow performance as the horse trainer with a ridiculous attempt at an Irish accent. It’s difficult to believe that this picture predated by only two years the commanding presence that he would exhibit in The Maltese Falcon. Ronald Regan is also on hand as the the playboy lush who is one of Davis’s friends. Henry Travers would have managed a bit more gravitas in this film than he did later, coming several years before his role as the doddering Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. Geraldine Fitzgerald does her best to support Davis as the adoring personal secretary-cum-best friend, but both she and George Brent come off as rather generic stereotypes.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, for best picture, best actress for Davis, and best score for Max Steiner. But 1939 was one of the all time great years for films and Dark Victory was shut out. How good the film is for audiences today really depends on how much you like Bette Davis. The best bet is to pick the film up as part of a Turner Classics collection featuring four of Davis’s films. If this one doesn’t live up to expectations, there’s bound to be another in the set that does.

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