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The 2nd Annual Bette Davis Blogathon: «Dark Victory» (1939)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Edmund Goulding, Dark Victory (1939) tells the story of Judith Traherne (Bette Davis), a carefree heiress with a passion for horses and fast cars. When she begins suffering from chronic headaches, her family physician, Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers), insists that she see Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), a brilliant brain surgeon. Judith arrives at Steele's office on the day that he is to retire from surgery due to the death of his patients. Intrigued by Judith's symptoms and charmed by her spirits, however, he postpones his retirement and takes her case. After performing a delicate brain surgery on Judith, Steele discovers that she has a malignant tumor which will inevitably kill her within less than a year.

In order to allow her a few more months of happiness, Steele lies to Judith and assures her that the surgery was a success. However, he cannot hide the truth from her best friend, Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who agrees to continue the lie. Meanwhile, Judith and Steele became romantically involved and eventually engaged. While packing for their move to Vermont, Judith accidentally comes across her case history file and learns of her hopeless prognosis. Assuming that Steele is marrying her out of pity, she breaks off the engagement and reverts to her old lifestyle. Her conversation with her stablemaster, Michael O'Leary (Humphrey Bogart), ultimately convinces her that she should spend her final months happy and with the man she loves. Judith apologizes to Steele and the two get married, before moving to Vermont. A few months later, while planting bulbs in the garden with Ann, Judith realizes that she is losing her vision, which means that she is approaching the end. She does not tell anyone what is happening and even encourages Steele to leave without her for a medical conference in New York. She then goes to her room and lies down on the bed, feeling that she has won her own brief dark victory over death.

Judith Traherne: Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can't be destroyed. That's our victory our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we're not afraid.

Dark Victory began as a Broadway play written by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch for Tallulah Bankhead, who starred as an hedonistic socialite who succumbs to a brain tumor. Although critically acclaimed, the production was financially unsuccessful and ran for only 51 performances between November and December 1934. Variety atributed Dark Victory's commercial failure to the fact that Depression-era audiences «prefer to be amused instead of going through an ordeal.» Still, David O. Selznick found enough potential in the play to buy it as a vehicle for Greta Garbo and Fredric March. At the time, the two were scheduled to make Anna Karenina (1935) with George Cukor, but Selznick felt that the picture was too similar to Garbo's other costume dramas and suggested she consider Dark Victory instead. However, Garbo turned down the project and, in 1936, Selznick offered it to Merle Oberon, who had recently received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in The Black Angel (1935). Oberon was interested, but contractual problems prevented her from accepting the role.

In 1938, two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis discovered Dark Victory and begged Warners Bros.' studio chief Jack Warner to buy it especifically for her. He promptly refused, arguing, «Who's going to want to see a picture about a girl who dies?» When producer David Lewis and director Edmund Goulding expressed interest in the project, however, production head Hal B. Wallis agreed to buy the play to keep Davis happy. Warners subsequently purchased the property from Selznick for $50,000, engaging Casey Robinson, who had previously written Davis's It's Love I'm After (1937), to pen the script. Working closely with Goulding, Robinson made some changes to the original story. The most extreme of these, suggested by the director, was the invention of Ann King, social secretary and best friend to the protagonist, Judith Traherne. Goulding believed that it was the absence of such a character in the original version that forced Judith into too much suffering and caused the play to fail. As such, he created Ann so that Judith would never have to complain about her tragedy.

Bette Davis and George Brent
Robinson wanted Judith's doctor to be played by Spencer Tracy, who had appeared with Davis in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), but he proved unavailable, so George Brent was cast instead. Born in Ireland, Brent signed with Warners in 1932 and quickly reached the top ranks of Hollywood stardom as Davis' leading man. By the time they signed on to make Dark Victory, the duo had already co-starred in seven pictures, including Front Page Woman (1935) and, most notably, Jezebel (1938).

To play Ann King, the studio selected Irish-born Geraldine Fitzgerald, whom Wallis had brought to Warner Bros. after seeing her in on Broadway in George Bernard Shaw's play Heartbreak House. Dark Victory marked Fitzgerald's American debut, in the same year that she received an Academy Award nomination for Wuthering Heights (1939). The cast of Dark Victory also included future Oscar-winner Humphrey Bogart as Judith's stablemaster, Michael O'Leary; and future President of the United States Ronald Reagan, who appeared in a small role as Alec Hamm, Judith's friend.

Dark Victory was shot between early October and late November 1938. After filming started, the production was almost shut down because of Davis. She had just gone through a particularly messy divorce from her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, and was full of guilty and anguish. She felt that her nerves were on the verge of breakdown and that she could not devise the performance that she thought the role demanded. «Dark Victory really affected me,» Davis later said. «I was personally so upset about being so upset, that after the first week, I went to Hal Wallis as asked if I could give up the part. Hal said to me, 'Stay upset.'» To reassure her, Goulding enlisted the help of Brent, who had recently divorced his second wife, Australian actress Constance Worth, to whom he was married for only a few months. Before long, Davis and Brent were involved in a romantic affair, which lasted for about a year. She called him «one of the few men who gave me something besides himself,» adding, «People think actors and actresses have affairs with all their co-stars. I wasn't so lucky — or perhaps so unlucky. But George Brent and I did have something going. He helped me through Dark Victory, and we fell in love.» In later years, Davis admitted that she wanted to marry Brent, but thought that it would not work out. Still, she said, «of the men I didn't marry, the dearest was George Brent.»

Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Geraldine Fitzgerald
After a sneak preview at the Warner Hollywood Theatre on March 5, Dark Victory premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York in April 20, 1939. Critical reception was generally positive. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times observed, «A completely cynical appraisal would dismiss it all as emotional flim-flam, a heartless play upon tender hearts by a playwright and company well versed in the dramatic uses of going blind and improvising on Camille [1936]. But it is impossible to be that cynical about it. The mood is too poignant, the performances too honest, the craftsmanship too expert.« The reviewer for Variety agreed with this assessment, calling the film an «intense drama» and «a nicely produced offering [with] Bette Davis in a powerful and impressive role.» In a year considered as the best in Hollywood, Dark Victory was named one of the 10 films of 1939 by The New York Times.

At the 12th Academy Awards ceremony, held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on February 29, 1940, Dark Victory received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Bette Davis) and Best Original Score (Max Steiner). Davis lost to Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind (1939), which was also named Best Picture that night, while Steiner lost to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz (1939). Although she did not win the Oscar, Davis always regarded Judith Traherne as her favorite role, saying, «I hope there won't be a remake of Dark Victory. I've always felt it belonged to me.»

This is my contribution to The 2nd Annual Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE.

Bette Davis: The Performances That Made Her Great by Peter McNally (McFarland & Company Inc., 2008)
Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy by Matthew Kennedy (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster, 2006)
TCM's article on Dark Victory by Margarita Landazuri 
TCM's notes on Dark Victory 
Variety review by the Variety staff


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