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Seasons of Bette: Dark Victory (1939)

Seasons of Bette had a headache this week but is feeling much better now, thank you. Counterintuitively it was probably the gunshots in The Letter that chased the fogginess away. Herewith, your catch-up episode on Dark Victory (1939)

it was the ghastliest feeling, everything went fuzzy. 

Fallen out of order, have I. That's awfully dreadful of me given that the great revelation of both Anne Marie's brilliant A Year With Kate and my own intermittent Seasons of Bette series is that you can actually watch a movie star grow in power and nuance and embrace of their own specificity if you watch their films chronologically.

This is true, at least, of the studio system where stars were invested in for the long haul rather than dabbled with for a few months at a time if agents, lawyers, producer, directors and stars could agree on a one-time contract. The old system had its drawbacks of course, giving thespians less agency in their own filmography and less ability to test their range in different genres and with left turn character types. Despite that, and even because of it, it was uniquely ideal soil for the true movie stars to grow like majestic redwoods. You know the kind of superstar I'm talking about: they are emphatically always themselves no matter how well they play any particular character. [more...]

It's been so exciting to watch Bette develop: Her name-making role (Of Human Bondage) was all sloppy potent id; then came a  brief downgrade in power due to repetition (Dangerous) but, within it, a wider range of feeling; And with Jezebel (which Anne Marie covered for me) she really soared past previous limitations. I think back to something Nick Davis once wrote about that Oscar winning performance:

Jezebel finds her taking a first stab at mixing up all these sides of her persona. It's like she's entertaining herself with the confidence that she has made herself a star, and is testing out the flexibility of that star persona to see how far she'll be able to ride it. 

Which brings us to her 1939 dying woman melodrama Dark Victory. In the film Bette plays stubborn socialite Judith Traherne who ignores her headaches and blurry vision for months as she parties with friends (Ronald Reagan as her good time pal Alec) butts heads with her horse trainer (Humphrey Bogart, returning Bette's fire memorably in a pre-superstar role) and confides only in her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald who was having a great year in 1939, Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Wuthering Heights) and a brilliant brain surgeon (George Brent). The surgeon is horrified to learn that his patient's condition is irreparable despite his temporary fix. Her only warning before death will be blindness, hence the film's title. No one tells Judith this in a fit of stupidy. Don't they know it's impossible to hide things from Bette Davis; those giant darting eyes see all. 

Until of course, they don't in this gorgeous weepie.

Bette Davis's iconography is even larger than those immortal eyes. She is so much herself, always, that it's easy to miss the gifted actress when considering the star. Bette gets much softer in feeling this time, as befits a weepy melodrama. And yet, she finds in her performance, ample room for a full display of that early take-no-prisoners fire in the middle of the picture when Judith realizes she's been perpetually lied to by both her well meaning doctor and best friend. Somehow she alchemizes her already familiar poisonous potion, making her inner she-devil feel nothing like true character as it previously has but like external armor. It's a brilliant subversion of her persona; her bark and bite (this time) are all wounded animal adrenaline, rather than core instinct. Inside she's a romantic loving woman and amiable friend. She simply wants to life her too brief life to the fullest whether she's flitting manically about her parties, riding her beloved race horse, or throwing herself willfully into a grand love affair. 

Straight talk: Bette Davis is remarkable in Dark Victory. As with Jezebel, she retroactively converts those early legend-making star turns into mere warm-ups as if to say 'you ain't seen nothing yet.' And, rather impossibly, her subtextual boasting was true. Her best work was still years away. 

Bette at her Bettiest, giving Bogart the side-eye while lighting up (an entire picture)

Addendum: Dark Victory was nominated for three Oscars in 1939 (Picture, Actress, Score) the year that's oft called the greatest in the history of cinema. I'd love to explore that historic ten-wide Best Picture roster during this, its 75th anniversary if you're with me? But you'd have to be with me. Would you be game to watch and discuss them all? (Perhaps you already have). If you are, consider this the first of several celebrations of 1939's remarkable vintage. If you love it maybe we'll even make it a huge deal with a retroactive Film Bitch Awards in early 2015?

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Reader Comments (24)

Very much with you. And retroactive Film Bitch Awards sound Awesome.

May I start an early FYC campaign for the neglected but phenomenal Destry Rides Again and The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Yes, please, let's celebrate 1939! I have seen all the Best Picture nominees and some more greats (The Women, Destry Rides Again, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Babes in Arms, Gunga Din, Young Mr. Lincoln, .... so many!).
And so many of these films are readily available, it really offers itself to discussion.

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

I've finally seen all 20 acting nominees from this year. What a great idea...Makes me want to watch all 10 Best Picture nominees again. Celebrate!

I wonder what would have won the Oscars "Gone with the Wind" won for that year, had "Gone with the Wind," not be released until 1940.

Best Picture: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Wuthering Heights
Best Director: John Ford or Frank Capra
Best Actress: Bette Davis or Greta Garbo
Best Supporting Actress: Geraldine Fitzgerald or Maria Ouspenskaya

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Yes, yes, YES to revisiting 1939!

Also, I ADORE Bette Davis in Dark Victory and I love that it got a Best Picture nomination.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I am with you (and everyone else)! Let's celebrate 1939!

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

great idea to discuss the movies from 1939... I'll definitely be here for that!

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

Thankful for your site - one correction - in "Dark Victory" - the 'brain surgeon' is played by George Brent - her co-star in numerous early films. Not by Ronald Colman.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMombam

More 1939 coverage would be most welcome.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

So I actually have a dirty little confession... I've never seen Dark Victory all the way through. I know! I'm a terrible Bette fan. It just never seemed to be on at a convenient time. This has convinced me to *make* time for it, though. Thanks, Nathaniel!

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Nathan, gawd I wish I had your way with words...great article. You articulate so well what made Bette Bette. I recently saw this and it has lost none of its power. Judith Traherne is a prism that captures all of Bette's many starry facets, then mixing and shining them so brightly we can't help but blink a little.

This is apropos of nothing, but when you first wrote "dreadful of me," it sounded as if you were quoting Greer Garson in the train station scene of that same year's Goodbye Mr. Chips! So cool.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

A correction: Judith's brain surgeon/husband was played by George Brent, not Ronald Colman. Davis and Brent carried on an affair during filming, and Brent proposed marriage to Bette, which she respectfully declined. Another note of trivia -- Bette has said this was her favorite performance of her filmography and felt the most satisfied upon completion of filming.

Along with Jezebel Davis continued her arc of channeling her manic energy into an interior stillness in Dark Victory through her later Oscar-nominated performances. This acting technique could better emotionally engage the audience in her character. Davis was expert at this underplay of acting. An example in Jezebel would be her scene when she met Henry Fonda's fiancée. Her facial expression spoke volumes of Julie's emotions while remaining completely still. Or in The Letter, Davis's eyes projected her feelings upon learning - during the dinner scene - she would be arrested for murder. With a lesser actress, the performance would veer toward overacting, but Davis effectively underplayed each scene, permitting the viewer to project emotions upon her character.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

PS. totally down for a 1939 roundtable!

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Viva 1939!!!!

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Brilliant performance. In 1940, the rumor was that she lost Best Actress for 'Dark Victory' by a very narrow margin. Extremely impressive considering the winner...

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike

My favorite Bette performance! I'd say that Now, Voyager, Watch on the Rhine, The Sisters and All About Eve are films that I enjoy equally to this but I think her work in this is if not her absolute best very nearly so.

From the wild pulsating aliveness of the first half of the film to her quite acceptance and resigned dignity at the end the part allows her the fullest range of emotional life of any of her films. Her scene with Geraldine Fitzgerald (so great in this film) of quiet questioning and simple contemplation of choosing when to bow out tears me up every time.

I know a couple people mentioned that it was George Brent and not Ronald Colman as Dr. Steele but what an intriguing possibility that could have been! Colman was so much more skillful as an actor than Brent he would have made Judith's falling so hard for the stuffy doctor so quickly more understandable.

Even Reagan, an actor I never thought much of, is decent in this in a part that can easily be read as a coded gay man. Although I'm sure Ronnie would have been apoplectic if someone had suggested such a thing.

I love Bogie but must agree with his own assessment of his performance in this, which he was forced to do per his contract. He knew he was woefully miscast and considered his role a blot on a thing of beauty.

So many great lines too:
"Vermont? You don’t mean that narrow, pinched-up state on the wrong side of Boston?"
"What are you going to do there, between yawns?"
And of course with the flaring eyes:
"I think I'll have a large order of Prognosis Negative!"

I've seen both remakes, Susan Hayward's Stolen Hours and the Elizabeth Montgomery TV remake with Anthony Hopkins and both have their merits but neither come anywhere near the excellence of this film.

Absolutely all in for celebrating 1939!!

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

SORRY EVERYONE -- i don't know what i was thinking with the ronald colman thing. ugh. fixed.

i'm happy people are liking this article. It was really fun to write and Dark Victory is SO good.

April 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Excellent idea! I love the films of 1939 and am always revisting the Ted Sennet book "Hollywood's Golden Year, 1939"

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

YES to a 1939 retrospective. A million times YES!

LOVE Bette Davis in Dark Victory, and I love that it was nominated for Best Picture. Actually, the two big "weepies" she did - this and Now, Voyager - may be my favorites of hers (barring Baby Jane).

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

A review of the best picture nominations of 1939 is a brilliant idea. And may I suggest this becomes a series for review of seminal years in the history of cinema, such as 1962 and 1974? Or, closer to our contemporary age, 1999 and 2006? And Joel6, I whole heartily agree with your comments. Btw, my five favorite Davis performances are All About Eve; Now, Voyager; The Letter; Dark Victory; and Jezebel in that order.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

well that's a real LONG neck davis got there in the damn poster

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

Yes! Let's talk about 1939, a miraculous year for the movies.

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrotherfrancis

craver -- perhaps the artist was prophesying the eventual rise of audrey hepburn

April 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

patryk -- wirth 11 nominations i feel certain that MR SMITH would've won if GWTW hadnt been there

April 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathan, I have a strange sense that Wiz would have won if GWTW hadn't gotten it. Just a feelin.

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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