1939, Still the Best Year: Dark Victory

Dark Victory 81939 was very eventful. The country was just beginning to come out of the worst economic depression in history. Mohandas Gandhi began a hunger strike to protest British rule in India. The Spanish Civil War ended, and Francisco Franco became the dictator of Spain. Europe was plunged into a second world war in just twenty years.

However, from this great turmoil came great art. Most film historians recognize 1939 as “the greatest year of film.” That year, ten films were nominated for Best Picture of the Year at the Academy Awards. This was the first time so many films were nominated for the year’s top prize. The films nominated were: Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Love Affair, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind. However, this list does not completely encompass all of the great films that year. Other amazing films that year included: The Women, Beau Geste, Gunga Din, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Four Feathers, Intermezzo: A Love Story, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

These films shaped the way movies were made and stories were told. They also launched the careers of several screen legends, as well as solidifying the legendary status of others.

Bette Davis, Ronald Regan
Bette Davis, Ronald Regan

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the Academy Awards for 1939, I will be viewing several of these films, to see if they are, in fact, timeless.

There are spoilers below. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In 1939, Bette Davis was already a star. She had won two Academy Awards for her roles in Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938). She was famous for playing tempestuous women, infusing characters with her particular brand of fire. In 1939, Davis found the role she had been waiting to play.

Dark Victory is based on the stage play of the same name. The film was directed by English director Edmund Goulding and stars Davis, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart, and a 28-year-old contract player for Warner Brothers, Ronald Regan.

Dark Victory is the story of Judith Traherne, a young socialite who is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her only chance at survival is if she has a risky operation to remove the tumor. Luckily for her, world-renowned brain surgeon Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent) has agreed to take her case.

Dark Victory 5
Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis

Once the operation is complete, Dr. Steele admits to Judith’s best friend, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) that the surgery was not a success and that Judith will live quite normally for a time but will then go blind and die. However, Dr. Steele does not disclose this information to his patient, as he has fallen in love with her. Judith obviously finds out and rejects Dr. Steele, believing that it is better for him to not get more attached if she is just going to die.

During a heartfelt talk with her horse trainer, Michael (Humphrey Bogart), he confides in Judith that he is in love with her. Even though she does not love him, he tells her that she needs to get as much out of life as she can, especially before it is too late. Judith then marries Dr. Steele and dies a short time later.

The entire synopsis of this film screams “melodrama,” and in the hands of a lesser actress, it certainly would be. The entire premise of the film lends itself to overacting. However, Davis eschews the acting trend of the day and allows herself to be just emotive enough. The true pièce de résistance of the film is the final scene. Judith’s eyesight starts to go just as Dr. Steele is leaving for a conference. She, selflessly, does not let him know that she is close to death and he leaves. Alone with Ann, Judith says a sweet goodbye, ascends the stairs to her bedroom, lies down in her bed, and falls asleep. She knows her death is imminent, and she quietly embraces the dark. It is amazing how much is conveyed in these simple actions. Davis’s face as she closes her eyes says more than the entire screenplay. Judith only began to live when she found out she was going to die: the beautiful symmetry of life expressed in a moment.

Behind the scenes, things were not quite so tranquil. While filming the scene of Judith walking to her room, Davis stopped the scene and ran to the director, Edmund Goulding. Davis asked if famed composer Max Steiner would be writing the score of the film. A surprised Goulding responded that he did not know. The score would be assigned to a composer during post-production. When Goulding asked why Davis thought this was important enough to stop the scene, she replied, “Well, either I’m going to climb those stairs or Max Steiner is going to climb those stairs. But I will be God-damned if Max Steiner and I are going to climb those stairs together!” Davis knew that this was her scene and the last thing she wanted was for a large orchestral score to tell the audience how to feel. She was going to show the audience how to feel.

Davis succeeded. While this is not my favorite Bette Davis film, I do think that it is some of the finest work she ever did. I have always lamented that this film did not come out in another year, for this role was award-worthy. Unfortunately, one of Davis’s fellow Best Actress nominees that year was Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind. Leigh’s performance was one of the greatest in cinematic history, so I can’t lament Davis’s loss too much.

Ultimately, Dark Victory is a triumph.

—Ari Ansbro

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