Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory (1939), directed by Edmund Goulding.

A hard-partying socialite resists surgery for her brain tumor, but eventually has it done and falls in love with the doctor. What they don't tell her: she has less than a year to live, suffering from a curious "Hollywood" disease. She'll be in perfect health until the end when she loses her sight and dies peacefully a few hours later.

It's a "General Hospital" soap opera, but I think the open discussion of cancer and surgery was rare for that era, as were considerations of suicide. The melodrama works better toward the end when she finds love, acceptance of death and even generosity in her final moments. That's the meaning of the title: the victory is over the fear of dying.

1939 was a famous "golden year" for film, but this doesn't rank with the best of them. It's a Bette Davis vehicle and the rest of the actors are barely there by comparison. Still: it's a chance to look into those Bette Davis eyes and see her close to her peak. Later her characters would become hardened, and later still, caricatures of herself.

You cast her for aggressive, combative female flamboyance. This seems too extravagant today, but sometimes she makes it smaller, more personal, and her character is more interesting then.

Goulding shot it in sequence. The commentary track points out how the lighting changes: standard bright and flat at the beginning, becoming darker, deeper and more shadowed as the tragedy proceeds.

Humphrey Bogart is badly miscast as an Irish horse trainer with a feeble accent. His "intense" scene with Davis in the stable is honestly very poor.

Ronald Reagan is ok in a small role as a drunken hanger-on.


Max Steiner score.

Available on Blu-ray with a commentary discussion by two film scholars.