Dark Victory
Director: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Brissac, Henry Travers. Screenplay: Casey Robinson (based on the play by George Emerson Brewer, Jr., and Bertram Bloch).

Photo © 1939 Warner Bros./First National Pictures
My friend Matthew Kennedy has recently published a fantastic new biography of director Edmund Goulding—remarkably, the first published chronicle of the life of this popular, prolific, notoriously dashing filmmaker. The book was written partly in hopes of drawing attention to Goulding's diverse and hugely entertaining movies. With the same hopes, but also to bring readers to this great and long-overdue book, I'll be adding reviews of some of Goulding's most famous and accomplished movies. Congratulations, Matt!

Judith Traherne, the character Bette Davis plays in Dark Victory, might be the only major part in her repertoire that Katharine Hepburn or Norma Shearer might have played. Particularly in the years surrounding Dark Victory's release in 1939, Davis was the undisputed master of neurotic but formidable power, barreling her way through Old Southern mores in Jezebel, following her imperial heart in Juarez, striding down her porch and right into a willful murder in The Letter, masterminding an economic perfidy and a family's ruin with equal resolve in The Little Foxes. Most of these performances were realized under the iron hand of William Wyler, whose fascination with individual power in clenched, hostile societies was a perfect match with Davis' gift for playing iron conviction. But iron conviction wasn't all she could do, or at least, she was capable of bringing it to a wider range of parts than Wyler tended to cast her in.

We meet Judith Traherne as she wakes up in bed, barely cognizant but already sparring with her mischievous Irish stableman (Humphrey Bogart in a supporting performance even his stauncher fans are unlikely to champion). This bit of repartee concluded, Davis friskily wrangles with her beloved doggies while still in bed, then bounces into the day in her silk pantsuit pajamas, all the while exchanging familiar niceties with her secretary and confidant Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald). All those perky heiresses brought to life by Shearer, those spry sportswomen conjured by Hepburn, are near cousins to Judith Traherne, who also might be the first Davis character who really gets along with a female friend. By the time she's smooth-talking her own business deals (but not in a Little Foxes way), keeping prospective suitor Ronald Reagan in gingerly abeyance, and leaping atop a galloping steed, Dark Victory is quickly taking shape as the lightest, most gracefully energetic movie the young Davis ever made. She's not quite playing comedy—Bette Davis in a full-out comedy remained an intriguing but unrealized proposition until All About Eve—but for what seems to me like the first time, she's playing the potential for comedy. It's the only one of her classic Warner Bros. movies that's primed and ready for a roistering Cary Grant character to pop in, and the atmosphere casts a new light on Davis. Even if you've seen Dark Victory before, even if you know this was one of the definitive pictures of her career and one of her biggest box-office hits, this film still has a renewable, invigorating spark. You never quite get used to seeing Bette this way, and you wish she'd been given more chances.

The breezy, graceful momentum of Dark Victory, its refusal of portentousness even when death comes calling, is largely a credit to its director, Edmund Goulding. Davis enjoyed a short, happy life as a Goulding actress, encompassing this picture as well as her appearances in That Certain Woman, The Old Maid, and The Great Lie, all between 1937 and 1941. Each of these pictures should be of interest to both Goulding and Davis fans, but Dark Victory catches both of them operating at their best while also learning new tricks from each other. He allows her acting to breathe a little more than usual, as he did for Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel; she offers gravity and a dramatic center to the movie when Goulding's basic generosity toward all of his actors starts to spread things a little thin. The group scenes in Dark Victory are the weakest ones, since there's rather little texture to the second-tier parts, and blandish actors like George Brent and Ronald Reagan can't do anything to help. But Davis obviously can, and when the picture needs her to be, she's as redoubtable as ever, with Judith insisting on her dignity even as a grave illness she seems to have beaten returns with an unbeatable vengeance. Briefly, Ann and Dr. Frederick Steele, Judith's benevolent caretaker and eventual husband, conspire to keep her ignorant of her unavoidable fate. Keeping Bette Davis in the dark, even this kinder and gentler Bette, is never an easy proposition or a truly good idea. Scenes are made, nostrils are flared. But soon enough, Dark Victory returns to its characteristic register, and when Judith decides to turn the tables on hubby Frederick and keep her own secrets, the movie reprises its essential gentleness. This isn't a power play, it's a gesture of love. It's also a gift and a challenge to this great actress, who has to keep giving her best right through to the end. Judith makes some kind of silent decision or mental calibration almost every time we see her, but she's hoping people aren't noticing. Yes, Bette Davis is playing someone who wishes not to command attention, and she rises to this peculiar occasion with a creative, detailed performance, diffused across her body and less reliant on facial close-ups than almost any other role she played in that phase of her career.

Because Goulding paces the movie so steadily, drawing clear lines of emotion from his actors but subordinating all of them to the brisk speed of the story, Dark Victory is never bogged down by the screenplay's over-fondness for hairpin turns and changes of heart. The almost mundane way Goulding films this story—it's a storybook reality of prize horses, pleasure gardens, and sublime romances, but it's nonetheless a reality—is a truly inspired approach, and it tempers the grand martyrdom of the film's end into a more accessible form of domestic heroism. Don't get me wrong, you'll weep plenty during the final act of Dark Victory, if you're that kind of moviegoer, but it's the modest details that will get you: the way Judith fumbles a little for a banister she can't quite see, the way she and Ann make a tacit pact in the full light of morning, the way she pats her husband affectionately on the back as she sends him off on a trip. Did Bette Davis ever bid such a wholesome farewell to anyone onscreen? Was she ever so plucky in bidding someone bon voyage when she wasn't, you know, killing them? Was she ever again encouraged to bury the outsized dramatic import of a scene beneath the pleasant veneer of a lover's politesse? Dark Victory is one of its era's great weepies, but what really distinguishes the movie is its unexpected lightness of being. B+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Actress: Bette Davis
Best Original Score: Max Steiner

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