Judith Traherne is at the height of young society when Dr. Frederick Steele diagnoses a brain tumor. After surgery she falls in love with Steele. The doctor tells her secretary that the tumor will come back and eventually kill her. Learning this, Judith becomes manic and depressive. Her horse trainer Michael, who loves her, tells her to get as much out of life as she can. She marries Steele who intends to find a cure for her illness. As he goes off to a conference in New York failing eyesight indicates to Judith that she is dying.
Bette Davis ... Judith Traherne
George Brent ... Dr. Frederick Steele
Humphrey Bogart ... Michael O'Leary
Geraldine Fitzgerald ... Ann King
Ronald Reagan ... Alec Hamm
Henry Travers ... Dr. Parsons
Cora Witherspoon ... Carrie
Dorothy Peterson ... Miss Wainwright
Virginia Brissac ... Martha, housekeeper
Charles Richman ... Col. Mantle
Herbert Rawlinson ... Dr. Carter
Leonard Mudie ... Dr. Driscoll
Fay Helm ... Miss Dodd
Lottie Williams ... Lucy
Judith Traherne, under other circumstances, could be that unsympathetic rich bitch that parties hard, hasn't a care in the world, and is a victim of her own whims much like today's Paris Hilton. Of course, had this film been done today with the character molded after the blond twit, we would have not just hoped she met her maker but maybe spawned a hideous creature from inside that tumor growing inside her head and gone to Hell in a hand-basket. Instead, Judith is not without her good points -- she's flighty and impulsive but not a mean person. She has it all... until she begins to get those pesky fainting spells and persistent headaches.
An actress who was at the top of her game at the time of the release of this movie, Bette Davis displays a marvelous gamut of emotions which layer her facial features and body language. This of course is crucial to understanding her character's psyche and if at times it seems a little overacted it's only because of the style of the times. Otherwise, her Judith rises above the male actors around her and comes to accept her destiny with beautiful dignity. Geraldine Fitzgerald, playing her friend and secretary Ann, is equally understated but moving as the one who stays by Judith's side. Both women reflect an interesting sisterhood about them; the transference of strength from one to the other is deeply affecting and one of quiet tears. Bette's final death scene is one of transcendent luminosity.
Nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, Actress and Music Score, DARK VICTORY found itself pinned under the massive competition that came out in 1939 and received not one, but stands today as one of Davis' quintessential pictures.
While I was watching my VHS copy of Dark Victory this afternoon, there was a quote from Bette Davis that her role of Judith Traherne was her most personal and that it was 98% of me.
It certainly is one of her most moving performances on celluloid. The movie is her show as so many of her Warner Brothers films were becoming at this point in her career. The rest of the cast almost stands back in awe of her.
We would call Judith Traherne a trust fund baby these days. Poppa made a fortune and drank himself to death, Mom is over in Europe as an expatriate. And she's got a big house on Long Island where she raises steeple chasers and gives a lot of parties.
But she's not an airhead. Bette Davis never was in any of her films. She's been having headaches and now blurred vision has been thrown in as a complication. When she crashes one of her horses into a side rail we the audience know right away that there are some serious health issues.
Dr. George Brent is called in on the case, he's a brain specialist. He operates and it's a success, but only in terms of relieving the symptoms. She's got a death sentence hanging over her.
The rest of the film is how she deals with it. Only an actress of incredible skill could have brought off the many mood changes that Judith Traherne has. If it wasn't for the fact that 1939 was the Gone With the Wind year, Davis might have gotten a third Oscar. She was nominated and lost to Vivien Leigh.
Humphrey Bogart was in this as her stable groom with an Irish accent that he was clearly uncomfortable with. My guess was that the brogue was there to emphasize the class distinction between Davis and Bogart. I'm not sure it was all that necessary for him, but at least it wasn't as laughable as the Mexican accent in Virginia City.
Geraldine Fitzgerald and Ronald Reagan are on hand as her two close friends. I understand that in the novel this is based on, Reagan's character is gay. This was the days of the Code, so gay was out. Probably in the long run helped Reagan's later career, given his politics playing a gay character wouldn't have gotten him entrée into his crowd. Still both he and Fitzgerald do very well as a couple of her friends who have a lot more character than most of them.
George Brent was Davis's perennial leading man. She was involved with him romantically at some point during her Warner Brothers period, I'm not sure if it was during the making of Dark Victory. He was a competent player who Davis could be sure would never upstage her.
I did however hear a clip from a radio performance of Dark Victory and George Brent's part was played by Spencer Tracy. Though Brent played in fact in the underplaying style that Tracy was known for, I'm sure if Tracy had ever done the film he'd have brought touches to the character that Brent could never have done. What a classic that would have been.
Dark Victory is a moving story that never descends into soap opera. This is Bette Davis at her finest.
"Dark Victory" is a classic film of the 30s. In some movies, like this one, all the elements came together to create a satisfying entertainment that has delighted audiences since its release in 1939. Edmund Golding was instrumental in getting one of the best performances out of Bette Davis. The movie is helped by the fine score of Max Steiner.
As Judith Treherne, Bette Davis shows us why she was a great actress. She does some of her best work in this picture. Her interpretation of the socialite is right on target. Ms. Davis goes from a happy go lucky rich girl into the woman who has to face an imminent death. This film is so enjoyable because of the nuances Ms. Davis brought to the role. Bette Davis' range was enormous.
George Brent, as the medical specialist who tries to help Judith, and falls in love with her in the process, is also quite good as Dr. Steele. Geraldine Fitzgerald is wonderful as Ann, Judith's loyal friend. Humphrey Bogart appears briefly as the horse trainer. Henry Travers put in a small appearance as the doctor who brought Judith into the world, and sadly, is not able to help her much. Also in the cast, Ronald Reagan, who doesn't have much to do.
This is the perfect film to watch the wonderful Bette Davis at her best.
* Originally there was to have been a final scene where Judith Traherne's horse wins the Grand National, reducing Michael O'Leary (Humphrey Bogart) to tears. Preview audiences found it anticlimactic and it was cut.
* The original play opened in New York on 9 November 1934.
* Bette Davis said that this was her favorite role to play.
* Offscreen, Bette Davis suffered a nervous breakdown during filming as a result of her crumbling marriage to Harmon Nelson. This didn't prevent her from embarking on an affair with co-star George Brent.
* On Broadway, Tallulah Bankhead originated the role of Judith Traherne.
* Bette Davis pestered Warner Brothers to buy the rights to the story, thinking it a great vehicle for her. WB studio chief Jack L. Warner fought against it, arguing that no one wanted to see someone go blind. Of course, the film went on to become one of the studio's biggest successes of that year.
* David O. Selznick had originally purchased the screen rights but gave up production plans so he could concentrate all his energies on Gone with the Wind (1939).
* This was Bette Davis' third Oscar nomination in five years, and her second of five consecutive nominations.
* The second of Bette Davis collaborations with director Edmund Goulding. They had previously worked together on That Certain Woman (1937) and would do so again on The Old Maid (1939) and The Great Lie (1941).
* Gloria Swanson had tried and failed to get the movie made a few years earlier.
* This was Bette Davis' biggest moneymaker up to that point in her career.
* Bette Davis claims that Edmund Goulding worked on the script and added the character of Judith's best friend Ann so that Judith would never have to complain about her tragedy.
* In 1938, Barbara Stanwyck and Melvyn Douglas starred in a Lux Radio Theatre version of the play, and in 1939 Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy starred in another radio version of the story.
* In an interview with Dick Cavett in 1971, Bette Davis said that the movie took four weeks to shoot.
* Greta Garbo was the original choice for Judith Traherne.