Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is suffering from frequent and disabling headaches. At the urging of her best friend, Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and her family doctor, Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers), she sees neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent). He diagnoses a glioma, and brain surgery. Will the results be a Dark Victory (1939)?
Bette Davis won an Oscar in for Jezebel (1938); her performance here is also Oscar-worthy. Of course, next to the juggernaut Gone With the Wind, it was not in the cards for her to win again, but she did receive a well-deserved nomination for the doomed Judith Traherne. In an era in which Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grief were unknown, Ms. Davis portrays Judith's reactions: first to her supposed cure, and then to the realization that, at age 23, she only has a few more months of life. Like Julie Marsden in Jezebel, Judith is alone in the world, but there the similarities end. Judith is very much alone in the world - her beloved father died of alcoholism and her mother has abandoned her to play in Europe. To make up for her lack of family, Judith surrounds herself with friends. And while she may burn the candle a bit at both ends, we soon realize that her devotion to her friends (and theirs to her) is real and lasting. Ms. Davis was not the first choice for the film. It had originally been considered for purchase by MGM for Greta Garbo; when she was not interested, Merle Oberon, Carole Lombard, and Janet Gaynor were considered. Eventually, Ms. Davis convinced Hal Wallis to purchase it for her. (AFI catalog).
Her dearest friend is played by Geraldine Fitzgerald in her first American film. The character of Ann was created for the film, and having her is an asset to the plot. Ann acts as a buffer for Judith, while giving Ms. Davis someone tangible to bounce off. Since Ann is the first person to discover Judith's fate, it is HER grieving that we concentrate on. When Judith ultimately finds out her diagnosis, the audience is ready to empathize with her, having already experienced the initial shock with Ann. Without Ann, the audience would have no outlet for their grief.
George Brent is the picture of professionalism as Dr. Steele. He's strong when he needs to be, but you believe in his frustration with his career - the high death rate for his patients have worn him out. He still wants to practice medicine, but needs a respite from the daily grind of death. In our age of informed consent, it is appalling that holds back the facts from his patient, but this was standard practice before Kubler-Ross.
Mr. Brent was not the first choice for the film - both Fredric March and Spencer Tracy were early choices (Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy by Matthew Kennedy ). Mr. Brent's interplay with Ms. Davis is delightful - they spar, but you can see the affection growing between them. The couple would appear in 11 films together during their careers; prior to this film, both were married. But, on this set, both were unattached - Mr. Brent had recently divorced Ruth Chatterton and Ms. Davis was finalizing her divorce from Harmon Nelson. The result was a romance that lasted several years, though Mr. Brent was unwilling to marry, fearing they could not have a long-lasting relationship. Ms. Davis would later say "Of the men I didn't marry, the dearest was George Brent" (TCM article).
The commentary that accompanied my DVD of the film immediately launched into a diatribe against Humphrey Bogart as horse trainer Michael O'Leary - miscast, a leading man shoved into a supporting part, etc. Except, Bogart was only starting to take on leading roles (like the gangster in King of the Underworld). His portrayal of Michael gives the film a character who is an equal to Judith. He works well with Davis, and their good-humored, toe-to-toe arguments about her horse are a breath of fresh air. He also brings a masculinity to the part that is important later in the movie. You can understand Judith's overtures to Michael when her life has literally fallen away from her. His response is appropriate, and paves the way for Judith's eventual healing process.
Ronald Reagan (Alec Hamin), on the other hand, is pretty much invisible in the film. He's there (Alec spends most of the movie drunk), but we found you don't pay much attention to him. Director Edmund Goulding wanted to make more of the part, and asked Mr. Reagan to play the part as a gay man - Mr. Goulding wanted to make it clear there was no possible relationship between Judith and Alec. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Reagan refused. (Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov).
This is a fantastic film, and one you should go out of your way to view. We'll leave you with a trailer from the movie.