Dark Victory (1939)
Dark Victory is a melodrama par excellence, a three-hanky weepie starring one of the masters of the genre, Bette Davis. Variety noted that the “picture is studded with several intense sequences that are tear-jerkers of the highest caliber,” and The New York Times reviewer agreed, writing that that “The mascara was running freely at the Music Hall yesterday. For essentially the picture is simply a protracted death scene in which the heroine’s doom is sealed almost in the first sequence.”
(Despite the poster, the heroine is not doomed because a crazed scientist attempts to attach her head to the Winged Victory of Samothrace.)
The reviewer is right about the protracted death scene. You know exactly what is coming early on, and the movie is packed with those familiar cliches of impending death (sudden headaches, falling down stairs, brusque dismissals that anything might be wrong, and an unequivocal diagnosis). Looking back on the film, I can calmly reflect on the emotional manipulation and scoff at the soap-opera dialogue, but when I watch it I am right there with the 1939 audience, mascara running freely as I cry like a baby at the end. That is this film’s genius.
This quality was apparent immediately upon the film’s release in 1939. That same review notes: “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. But it is impossible to be that cynical about it.”
“The mood is too poignant, the performances too honest, the craftsmanship too expert. Miss Davis, naturally, has dominated—and quite properly—her film, but Miss Fitzgerald has added a sentient and touching portrayal of the friend, and George Brent, as the surgeon, is—dare we say?—surprisingly self-contained and mature.”
And the end is so heart wrenching that it ought to be included as one of those personality tests where scientists search for any sign of empathy in a potential sociopath. I can see it now: right after the yawn test, a subject has to sit through this film. If he doesn’t get a little choked up, there might be something wrong…
All this is to warn you that this movie will twist you up, but the release is very cathartic. So grab your hanky and let’s begin.
Dark Victory was based on a play that opened on Broadway in 1934. Tallulah Bankhead starred, but it wasn’t very successful and closed after only 51 performances. Despite that, the play caught the attention of Hollywood, and producer David O. Selznick snapped up the film rights.
Although Bette Davis would eventually “dominate” the film in a grand performance, she almost missed out on the role. Selznick originally hoped to star Greta Garbo, but Garbo passed in order to play another tragic heroine in Anna Karenina (1935). Selznick then turned to Merle Oberon. There were notices in the trade papers announcing her casting, but it was not to be. Oberon was actually waiting on a different project, plus she was not happy with Mr. Selznick.
Fun fact: in April 1936, Oberon filed suit against Selznick, claiming that he’d planned to star her in a Florence Nightingale biopic. After that project was cancelled, Oberon said that Selznick had promised her the lead in The Garden of Allah (1936). But when Oberon showed up for work, she learned that Marlene Dietrich had been cast in the part. So she sued Selznick for breach of contract, though she would eventually drop the charges in 1940. But that took her out of the running for Dark Victory.
Eventually, Bette Davis heard about the project. She wanted the part, so she lobbied director Edmund Goulding, and Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis to make the movie. Warner Bros. bought the rights, and the film swung into production.
George Brent was cast opposite Davis, making this their eighth of eleven films together. Their first movie came way back in 1932 when both actors were rising stars at Warner Bros. They would make movies for the next decade, with their final film, In This Our Life, premiering in 1942.
There had always been a spark between Davis and Brent, but it had never graduated to an actual affair until their work on Dark Victory.
They had been involved with other people, but when they made this movie, both were finally single. Brent had just divorced his wife Ruth Chatterton, and Davis’ first marriage had recently dissolved, too.
She had also just ended affairs with William Wyler and Howard Hughes (one reason her husband divorced her), which left Davis free and clear for a romance with Brent, though she was in a great deal of pain from all the break-ups.
In fact, she was so emotionally fragile that a few days into production she asked to be released from the film that she had begged Warner Bros. to make. But Edmund Goulding and Hal Wallis convinced her to keep going. Fun fact: when she told Wallis that she was sick and couldn’t possibly continue, he reportedly told her, “Bette, I’ve seen the rushes – stay sick!”
So Davis got down to work. Dark Victory opens very early in the morning in a large mansion on Long Island. It’s about 5AM, but the phone is ringing obnoxiously. The call is funneled through the staff to the mistress of the house, who is awfully hungover after a huge party the night before.
Judith “Judy” Traherne (Davis) is annoyed that her impertinent horse trainer Michael (Humphrey Bogart) dares to call her so early. I’m distracted by that magnificent white phone, and the contrast with the stable’s old fashioned “candlestick” phone.
Despite the early hour, Judy and her secretary/best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) rouse themselves and head to the stables.
We learn that Michael disagrees with Judy about one of her horses, Challenger. Judy is convinced he is a champion steeplechaser, but Michael (played by Bogart with a thick but inconsistent Irish accent) thinks the horse lacks the drive. They argue while Judy speeds to the course with Michael perched precariously on the running board. The rear projection is hilariously obvious behind him.You can watch the scene here.
It becomes clear immediately that Judy is a headstrong, selfish, and reckless woman whose wealth and social position let her do whatever she wants. Her father is dead and her mother lives in Paris (we learn that last fact in a throwaway line and never get the backstory), so Judy is on her own. She loves that independence and has arranged her life to gain maximum pleasure with minimal responsibilities.
She can’t stand being told what to do, so it infuriates her when Michael tells her to sell Challenger. She decides to hop on the colt herself to prove Michael wrong. But first, she leans against a tree and sags in pain. Ann is concerned, but Judy brushes it off as just one of her silly headaches…
The pain subsides, and Judy takes Challenger for a spin. She is an excellent horsewoman; in fact, her life revolves around her horses and her parties. Fun fact: that man in the top left image is future president Ronald Reagan, who plays Judy’s drinking buddy Alec.
Michael, Alec, and Ann marvel at Judy’s courage and skill as she and Challenger rocket over jumps and gallop across the course. But then something odd happens.
As Judy prepares for the next jump, we see her view of the course: three jumps instead of one swim in a murky haze, and Judy isn’t sure which one is real. Rather than slowing down, though (told you she was reckless!) she directs Challenger to the right towards what she hopes is a real jump and not a hallucination.
Challenger and Judy crash into the side of the jump, sending horse and rider to the ground in a grisly fall.
Cut to the mansion. Judy is shaken but miraculously unhurt. She confesses to Ann that she missed the jump because she had the “ghastliest feeling” of seeing “two jumps” instead of one. But this isn’t the first time she’s experienced such confusion. In fact, she’s been suffering occasional vision problems for the last several weeks. She says she’s been running into people recently, and although everyone assumes she is drunk, hungover, or just plain rude, in fact she’s having trouble seeing and so occasionally crashes into people. (I’m sure Ann is thinking back in horror of all the times Judy has driven her around recently…) Judy has also been suffering from headaches and memory lapses.
She’s kept all this from Ann, but she doesn’t want Challenger blamed for her fall, so now she has to admit to her odd symptoms. Ann begs her to see a doctor, but Judy refuses with the classic line of a doomed character: “But I haven’t any time for doctors!”
Ann calls Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers), anyway. When he arrives, Judy rushes by and claims that she can’t possibly spare the time to talk with him. Then she falls down the stairs.
Fun fact: you might recognize Henry Travers from his most famous role as Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or from the minor role of Esther Williams‘ uncle in Thrill of a Romance (1945) or Ginger Rogers‘ pal in Primrose Path (1940).
After Judy’s spill down the stairs, she finally agrees to a check-up. Dr. Parsons is troubled by what he finds, so he calls upon preeminent brain surgeon Dr. Frederick Steele for help. But Dr. Steele doesn’t want to get involved.
In fact, he has closed his practice and is catching a train to Vermont that very evening (what a coincidence!), where he plans to devote himself to research. He wants to learn more about cancer cells rather than just keep operating. Plus, he’s not interested in coddling a snobbish socialite.
Dr. Parsons begs Dr. Steele to talk to Judy, and after glancing through her case file, Dr. Steele agrees. Judy masks her fear with haughty disdain and stubborn insistence that she’s fine.
Judy is about to snap with fear, so Dr. Steele just sits beside her and talks with her. At first, he shows little real interest in her case, but his eyes widen when he watches her struggle to light her cigarette.
The lit match bobs in front of her face, and he realizes that Judy is seeing multiple matches and can’t quite bring the real flame to the tip of her cigarette….
Fun fact: apparently, Edmund Goulding came up with this cigarette lighting business to demonstrate Judy’s vision problems. He said, “When Bette Davis can’t light her own cigarette, you know something is seriously wrong with her.” It’s a brilliant device, as Davis always seems to be wreathed in wafting smoke!
Goulding knew his star well; this was his second time directing Davis. They’d worked together on That Certain Woman (1937), and would work on two more films after this one, including The Old Maid (1939) and The Great Lie (1941), both of which also starred George Brent.
Back to the film! After the match hallucination, Dr. Steele begins to examine Judy more intensely. Something isn’t quite right with Judy’s eyes, and she’s having a terrible time recalling what she did yesterday. She peevishly admits that she’s been struggling with her short term memory for months.
Dr. Steele notices burns on Judy’s right hand. After a brief experiment, he realizes that Judy has lost all feeling in that hand. The burns are from her cigarette lighting struggles, but she hadn’t noticed since she couldn’t feel the flame.
The more Dr. Steele learns, the more concerned he becomes. Judy is very, very sick. But she refuses to cooperate, remaining defiant and sassy, and gifting the doctor with classic lines like, “As long as I live, I’ll never take orders from anyone. And I’ll tell you something else. I’m well, absolutely well! I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me. ” So now we know that something bad is absolutely going to happen to her.
Dr. Steele cancels his train to Vermont, and tells her she needs to get some tests done right away.
Costume appreciation break. Orry-Kelly designed the costumes for this film. This number with its fur-trimmed sleeves and skirt just bristles; it’s perfect for this tense scene. It’s a great contrast to Ann’s simpler suit, and it provides a somber reminder: Judy might be rich and stylish and dripping in fur, but none of that will help her, now.
You can watch Judy’s visit to the doctor here.
A few days later, Dr. Steele comes to Judy’s mansion with the bad news. She needs immediate brain surgery. (All the health stuff is kept vague and terrible, but it’s a brain tumor, we think.) At first, Judy refuses. Then she freaks out and runs to her dressing table, where she stares into the mirror and wonders where the incision will be. She’s very frightened. She’s only twenty-three-years-old, and it’s all too much.
You can watch this intense scene here.
Cut to the hospital, where our characters are waiting for the surgery. Judy is mad that she has to wear such an unbecoming nightgown, but Dr. Steele calms her down. The sleeping pills help, too. Judy likes her doctor, and Ann is grateful to have such a gifted surgeon on the case.
After the surgery, Dr. Steele tells Ann and Judy that everything went great and she can expect a full recovery.
But he’s lying. The test results are dire. A recurrence is certain, and death is inevitable. Judy only has about ten months to live.
Dr. Steele and Dr. Parsons decide to keep the prognosis to themselves because that is kinder than the truth, or so they think.
Their deception means that Judy leaves the hospital in high spirits. She plans a homecoming party and invites Dr. Steele. Judy is thrilled to be out and about again, and buys a new party dress complete with a cunning little cap to cover her scar.
Costume appreciation break. The button top is bejeweled like crazy over a simple straight skirt.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History had this outfit and the cape from Now, Voyager on display as part of their Warner Bros.’ rotating costume exhibit. You’d never know both outfits were so brilliantly crimson from watching the two black and white films!
Anyway, everyone is delighted that Judy is home from the hospital and completely “cured.” Michael even brings Challenger to the house so Judy can see him. Michael might have a thing for his pretty boss.
When Dr, Steele arrives, Ann notices a certain look (she’s very sensitive and perceptive) and presses him until the truth comes out. He admits that Judy isn’t cured at all. He says that she’ll live a normal, symptom-free life for a few months more, but one day she’ll go blind, and a few hours after that, she’ll die.
Ann is understandably distraught and angry at the unfairness of it all, but she agrees with the Doctor’s decision not to tell Judy. She barely gets her expression under control when Judy gleefully and unexpectedly bounds out onto the terrace.
Judy flirts with Dr. Steele at the party, and then later confesses to Ann that she loves him. Ann is in a difficult situation, to say the least. Does she encourage Judy’s love for Dr. Steele, knowing that she only has months to live?
Ann isn’t sure how Dr. Steele feels about Judy, so she rushes to his office to ask him what to do. Fun fact: Fitzgerald was born in Ireland, became a star in England, and came to Hollywood in 1938. This was her first Hollywood movie. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Isabella Linton in Wuthering Heights the same year that Dark Victory was released.
Dr. Steele tells Ann that he loves Judy, but is it right for him to encourage her or even marry her? Ann doesn’t think so: “You couldn’t marry her. Do you know what she’d expect of marriage? A home, children, plans for the future. You couldn’t do that to her.” But the Doctor responds “The main thing is for her to be happy–every hour,” which means not telling her the truth and marrying her. Sounds ethical.
Judy, meanwhile, is getting suspicious. Not of her “cure,” but of Ann and Dr. Steele. Ann said she was just going shopping, but Judy found out she was with the Doctor. So now Judy waits impatiently on the stairs with her dogs for Ann’s return.
But before she can confront Ann, Dr. Steele arrives. And they play a love scene. Dr. Steele has decided to marry Judy, try to make her as happy as possible, and keep her in the dark about her impending doom. You can watch the scene here.
All is going swimmingly. Judy is deliriously happy, and Ann and Dr. Steele are gratified to know that her final months will be joyful ones. This happiness can’t last, though, so off we go to complicate it!
Judy stops by Dr. Steele’s office on her way to meet him for lunch. He’s out, and his nurse is finishing up the packing before the move to Vermont after the wedding. Judy chats with the nurse while she wanders through the office and settles at the desk. And then she sees it:
It’s awfully careless of the Dr. Steele to leave that lying around. Judy opens the file, naturally, and is horrified by what’s inside.
Judy flees the office and starts knocking back cocktails at the restaurant as she waits for her best friend and her fiancé. She assumes that Dr. Steele doesn’t love her after all, but instead pities her. She’s afraid that he agreed to marry her because he knows it will only last for a few months, and it will make poor Judy so happy! For an independent, intense woman like Judy, this is the highest insult.
Ann and Dr. Steele arrive and are surprised by her odd behavior, but soon it all becomes clear in high dramatic fashion.
Judy’s feelings are magnificently expressed in Davis’ wildly intense eyes!
Then Judy runs off in her magnificent fur coat and hat. Here’s a publicity still in the costume. Film scholar Jane Gaines noted that this costume, particularly the hat, seems reminiscent of eyelashes, which draws attention to Judy’s eyes. The hat lies lower on her forehead than her other hats, and it even casts a shadow over her eyes. This is a particularly loaded site, as blindness will be the first and only warning of Judy’s death.
Judy runs off and meets Alec at a bar. They drink together until both are soused while the band sings the extremely relevant song, “Oh, Give Me Time for Tenderness.”
Fun fact: the song was written for this exact moment by director Goulding and Elsie Janis, a screenwriter and songwriter.
Despite the song, Davis determines to use the time she has left not for tenderness but for wild fun! And we can’t really blame her. So for the next few months, she drinks hard, embarks on short love affairs, and turns in an especially reckless but winning performance on Challenger at a big horse show.
Only Ann and Dr. Steele know she’s dying, so her society friends just think she’s being especially selfish and crazy. And they love it! Except the women whose husbands with whom Judy is amusing herself, of course. They’re less enthused.
Michael is bewildered at Judy’s sudden, callous disinterest in her horses (though she remains obsessed with Challenger). When Michael tells her that one of her mares is sick and may not live through the night, she says she may come by the barn later if it suits her, but probably not. She’s got cocktails to down and men to flirt with, and not enough time to enjoy all the hedonistic pleasures of life!
After the horse show, Dr. Steele makes one more attempt to reach Judy. He tells her that he really does love her, and that all he wants for her now is to find peace, and to meet death “beautifully and finely.”
When he says depressing things like that, we see why Judy prefers the company of empty-headed, tipsy Alec to her somber Doctor.
She brushes him off with those fiery eyes and that ever-present cigarette, and returns to her friends.
Costume appreciation break. Judy looks lovely in this glamorous evening gown and sparkly cap. It’s quite something with the sheer halter, barely-there back, satin skirt over floaty tulle, and coordinating plumed purse.
But Judy’s determined, devil-may-care stride and attitude makes the dress seem ill-suited. One feels that Judy should be wearing a wizard’s cape, cowboy boots, a tiara, and a rhinestoned body suit, or something equally individual and indifferent to the world’s norms when she is in this utterly self-absorbed, pleasure-seeking state.
A lovely pale gown seems too fashionable and meek. It says “debutante” more than “frenzied-pleasure-seeker-determined-to-be-wild-in-the-little-time-she-has-left.”
But maybe it’s supposed to seem slightly off, as at this point Judy is bent on denying her reality and pushing all feelings to the side as she pretends to be nothing but a rich lady out on the town.
Anyway, the conversations with Michael and Dr. Steele have ruined Judy’s mood. She’s been reminded of her prognosis, and she can’t distract herself with booze. So she heads home and visits Michael and the mare in the barn. In an ironic, hopeful twist, it seems that the doomed horse will pull through. It doesn’t cheer Judy up, though.
Instead, she and Michael have an intense conversation where Michael says such melodramatic gems in his Irish brogue as: “I should have lived in the days when it counted to be a man–the way I like to ride and the way I like to fight. What good’s ridin’ and fightin’ these days? What do they get ya?”
Judy just stares in a disconnected haze, and hardly reacts when Michael admits that he loves her. She comes to life a little when he kisses her, though.
But then she pushes him away. Apparently, even dying socialites can’t break through the taboo of an affair with their horse trainers. Or maybe it was just the wrongness of kissing Michael when she should be kissing Dr. Steele.
Judy returns home, and feels so terribly weary and sick of waiting. She even asks Ann if it would be so wrong to “make it happen.” Ann begs her not to think of suicide. You can watch the scene here.
Meanwhile, somewhat improbably, Dr. Steele is hanging out with Alec. And that’s where Judy finds him. She’s come to say she is through with wild pleasure and instead wants peace. She wants to be ready for her fate when it comes, just as he said. It’s a very tender scene.
Fun fact: unlike most movies, this film was shot in sequence, so Davis “lived” the ups and downs of Judy’s life in order. It’s safe to assume that by the time Brent and Davis shot this scene, they were in love in real life, too. Their romance would last for another year after they finished this movie, and Davis wanted to marry Brent. But he didn’t think it would work, though the two remained good friends after they parted. Davis said later that “Of the men I didn’t marry, the dearest was George Brent.”
Judy and Dr. Steele get re-engaged, and Judy is excited at the thought of having a real wedding with orange blossoms. That’s something she had been upset about missing. It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t really ring true, especially since earlier in the film, Judy told the Doctor that she loved her life of minimal responsibilities. She told him that she would “probably marry someday,” but she seemed more excited about her horses and where she would build her house than about a wedding dress and flowers. Judy seemed like the type of person to elope or give a crazy party after getting married at City Hall, so the “princess” wedding seems out of character. But beware, the rest of the film gives us a very domesticated Judy. This movie’s version of “peace” evidently includes a husband, home, and a garden far from the life Judy led before.
Fun fact: Judy’s transformation from fiercely independent, wild, and happily single to proper wife happily engaged in a quiet home life has attracted attention from feminist film scholars. It’s not an uncommon trajectory in these melodramas, but the swing is especially pronounced in Dark Victory.
The various elements in Judy’s life that she said she loved (independence, her horses, her friends) disappear once she marries Dr. Steele. She’s transplanted to a new state and occupies herself in entirely new activities that she once would have found incredibly dull. She even dresses differently. Judy has been “tamed,” “domesticated,” and otherwise morphed into the perfect little wife.
This change is illustrated nicely in these two shots. The one on the left is Judy in her ballgown and fur coat heading up her intricate staircase in her Long Island mansion. The one on the right is Judy in a flannel coat and trousers inside her home in Vermont with its “country” furnishings and simple staircase. She’s traded one lifestyle for another.
It could have been more of a compromise with the Doctor moving to Long Island and Judy enjoying the happiness of their marriage while keeping her horses and friends, but, as some scholars might say, that wouldn’t be a strong enough solution or “repentance” for such a wild lady. She needs to be thoroughly reformed into a noble, self-sacrificing wife before the fade to black.
Judy needed to be brought to heel, and Dr. Steele was just the man to do it! You can go crazy searching for (and finding!) such themes and “normalizing” plotlines in melodramas like this, but I think I’m finished for now. Maybe.
We don’t get to see the lavish wedding, but instead cut to the Steele house in Vermont. It’s been three months, and Judy and her husband are very happily settled.
Fun fact: to make “snow” for this Vermont scene, which was actually filmed in the San Fernando Valley, they dipped cornflakes in white lead so they wouldn’t be blown away.
Judy is thrilled to bring Dr. Steele his lunch as he works in his laboratory. They’re both very happy, and they don’t ever talk of Judy’s illness. I get a kick out of the Doctor’s high-tech research lab in a barn in Vermont. He even scolds Judy for barging in with his lunch and ruining the “sterile” environment, but how sterile could the barn be?
Judy is very ashamed for messing up his work. (The pre-wife Judy would most likely have fired back with a sassy retort when he scolded her, but nice girls like New Judy don’t do that.)
Ann comes to visit (she had been finishing up some business regarding Judy’s estate), and she’s delighted at the change in her friend. Judy has indeed found peace.
But that brings up another question. Is Dr. Steele going to inherit Judy’s estate? I’m sure he would do the noble thing and use it for research, but it brings up some intriguing issues. It’s clearly questionable ethically for a doctor to marry his terminally ill patient, but can you imagine the court cases over inheritance? Especially if there were some distant relatives who could claim the Doctor just married her for the money and helped keep her condition secret…that doesn’t happen in this movie, but it would have been a cool twist.
Ann and Judy have a lovely time gardening. Until it comes, as we knew it must. Judy remarks brightly that a storm is moving in. It’s getting darker every moment, she says to Ann. Ann looks curiously at the bright, cloudless sky and then she stares at Judy in horror. She realizes that the blindness that the doctors said would precede Judy’s death has come. Judy realizes it, too. She comforts an anguished Ann as she stares around her, the world dimming.
Judy stays calm. The last few months have prepared her for this moment. But Ann is inconsolable.
Fun fact: the character of Ann wasn’t in the original play on which this film is based. Davis said that it was director Edmund Goulding’s idea to add the best friend character so that Judy wouldn’t have to complain or weep at her fate. Instead, Ann takes over the complaining/mourning duties. It certainly does help make Judy a more noble character.
Ann wants to fetch Dr. Steele, but Judy begs her not to. He and Judy were planning to leave for New York that very evening for a medical research conference. She desperately wants her husband to go and present his findings. The next conference isn’t for another six months, and his research is terribly important. It would be awful if the scientific community was deprived of his research because he stayed with Judy. See how unselfish and noble she has become?
There’s another reason he must go to the conference; Judy doesn’t want him to stay and have to watch her die. So she tells Ann not to tell Dr. Steele that the blindness is descending, and asks for her help in making sure he goes to the conference unaware of Judy’s quickly approaching demise.
Do you have a hanky handy?
Judy summons all her courage and cheerfulness, and helps Dr. Steele pack his suitcase. He doesn’t want to leave her, not even for a night. But she convinces him that he must go.
It’s a terrifically affecting scene. He’s upset about leaving his beloved, and says many nice things, and she’s trying to hide her ever-increasing blindness. She knows that if he realizes what’s happening to her, he will stay. She casually reaches for bedposts and lunges for furniture to get her bearings, but he doesn’t notice. It makes you wonder how good of a doctor he is, though.
They pause on the stairs for a tender goodbye.
This scene makes me appreciate Davis’ skill as an actress. She has to deliver lines like this monstrosity: “Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can’t be destroyed. That’s our victory, our victory over the dark.” And she does it so believably!
Ann miraculously keeps her countenance as she and Judy wave goodbye to Dr. Steele.
Once his car pulls away, Ann leads Judy to the garden so she can finish planting the hyacinths. They’re Dr. Steele’s favorite flower, and Judy really wants to plant them before she dies. Daggers in the heart, filmmakers.
Then Judy asks Ann to tell all their friends goodbye, and to take care of her husband. I think maybe Ann and Dr. Steele will get married later on. (That would complicate my imaginary inheritance battle quite nicely!)
Then Judy asks Ann to go. She wants to face this alone. Ann runs off down the lane in hysterics while Judy calmly feels her way back to the house. Judy pauses on the landing and calls her dogs to her. She hugs them and then sends them back downstairs. (This is the part where I usually lose it, and I’m tearing up now just writing about it! Ridiculous.)
Fun fact: there’s definitely something going on with staircases in this film. Recall that Judy fell down the one in Long Island, then waited on the stairs for Ann’s return. And she trudged slowly up the stairs after kissing Michael. Then she pause to say goodbye to her husband and then her dogs on the Vermont staircase before climbing upstairs to die. Stairway to heaven, perhaps?
Martha, Judy’s longtime housekeeper, follows her blind mistress into the bedroom and pauses in prayer with Judy. Then she silently covers Judy with the blanket, and leaves the room. The camera finds Judy’s sightless face, and then slowly goes out of focus as a chorus of angels swells in song. It is beautiful and fine, just as she hoped.
You can see why the reviewer wrote that “The mascara was running freely” at a 1939 screening. I’ve seen this movie three or four times now, so when I watched it again before writing this post, I was determined to be a clinical, distant viewer. I didn’t want to get sucked into the melodrama, but despite my best efforts, I blubbered like an idiot at the end, of course. Every damn time. When she calls her dogs to her for one last embrace…
Okay, I’ve dried my eyes. Fun fact: when filming the final scenes, Davis apparently stopped mid-death and asked Goulding, “Well, Eddie, am I going to act this, or is Max?” Max is Max Steiner, the highly expressive Warner Bros. composer.
Goulding said that it was Davis’ acting that would make the scene, not an emotionally intrusive piece of music. But Steiner got his angels in there anyway, which Davis apparently hated. I think Davis was right: the choir actually breaks the mood for me; it’s too over the top even in this insane movie.
Fun fact: the movie ends when Judy dies, but that wasn’t the original plan. A scene where Michael breaks down in tears after Challenger wins the Grand National after Judy’s death was the final scene in the preview version of the movie. But preview audiences thought it was anti-climactic and unnecessary, so it was cut. When the film was released, the final scene was Judith’s death.
Variety forecast a healthy take at the box office for this film, especially from female audiences: “Subject is a cinch to bring out the femme trade that delights in long and lusty weeps. It’s an exposition of feminine fortitude, courage, and determination that is always relished by the women.” Oh, those women and their weeping!
The trade paper also praised Davis’ “sincere and realistic performance,” and predicted she would garner nominations come award time. Variety was right: Bette Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance, which made it her third such nomination in five years.
She’d won the previous year for Jezebel (1938), and she would receive nominations the next three years after Dark Victory, making it five consecutive nominations between 1938-1942. She was nominated a total of ten times in her long career.
Max Steiner’s score received an Oscar nomination, and Dark Victory was up for Best Picture. It lost to Gone with the Wind (1939) in that most magical of movie years.
Fun fact: in 1953, Dark Victory was adapted for TV on “Broadway Television Theatre” starring Sylvia Sidney and Christopher Plummer. A decade later the film was remade as Stolen Hours starring Susan Hayward, and ten years after that it was turned into another TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Anthony Hopkins in 1973.
Variety excerpts: “Dark Victory.” Weekly Variety. 15 Mar 1939. 16. 134: 1.