Second Looks: Dark Victory (1939)

Second Looks is a series in which I re-watch a classic I haven’t seen in a few years, analyzing it with a fresh pair of eyes. Today I’ll be taking a look at Dark Victory, starring Bette Davis. Previous posts in this series can be found in the archives.

Judith Traherne is living the high society life. She’s got plenty of friends and is the heiress to a large fortune. She holds large parties at her house, which run late into the morning. She has a friendly rivalry with Michael (Humphrey Bogart), the man who tends to her horses. All in all, her life is exciting and contented.

(Image via Best Movie Classics Ever Made)
(Image via Best Movie Classics Ever Made)

But everything is about to change for Judith. She falls off of her horse one day after experiencing double vision during a jump, and later the same day falls down the stairs. She’s also been having frequent headaches, so she reluctantly agrees to see a doctor, Frederick Steele (George Brent). Dr. Steele diagnoses Judith with a brain tumor, turning her world upside-down.

Edmund Goulding (Of Human Bondage) directs 1939’s Dark Victory. Based on the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and and Bertram Bloch, Bette Davis herself fought for the studio to buy the rights to this film as a vehicle for her. The play was adapted for the screen by Casey Robinson (Now, Voyager).

Bette Davis can really do no wrong, and she gives a stellar performance in this film, which the description on the back of the DVD calls “a three-hankie classic.” While the film didn’t quite make me cry either time I viewed it, I have to agree that it has an incredible level of emotional impact.

The film is very moving, but never too melodramatic. After re-watching it, I would definitely place it in my top five Bette Davis performances. Since she is a star of such great caliber that it can sometimes be difficult to separate her characters from her reputation as “the great Bette Davis,” but I found myself totally absorbed in this film during both of my viewings of it.

(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Bette Davis and Geraldine Fitzgerald in Dark Victory (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Judith is a character who puts up a strong facade, but Davis gives her an underlying current of fear, which erupts on occasion – like in her first visit with Dr. Steele, where she tries to deny that she’s having any odd symptoms. She hides things by simply ignoring what’s wrong, but her illness become so serious that she must comes to terms with it. It becomes impossible to ignore.

The supporting cast in this film is fantastic as well. I was particularly impressed on second watch by Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ann, Judith’s best friend. Fitzgerald pours so much love and genuine concern for Judith into her character. She and Davis are highly believable as friends who are close enough to be like sisters.

Judith struggles after learning that her prognosis is negative. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
Judith struggles after learning that her prognosis is negative. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Dark Victory is not all doom and gloom. It has its lighter moments as well, despite the seriousness of its subject matter. All in all, it’s a wonderful film full of strong performances, surely one of the best pictures from the great Hollywood year of 1939.

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4 thoughts on “Second Looks: Dark Victory (1939)

    1. The Letter is a favorite of mine, too. (Though, I must admit… most of the Bette films I’ve seen, I consider “favorites,” so it isn’t a unique honor haha.) I’ve been meaning to do a comparison of the 1929 version and the Davis version!

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  1. Bette Davis, like stanwyck, is always worth watching. Being a male I’m not always terribly interested in the plot of what they called in sexist fashion back then “women’s pictures”. But the performances of bette Davis and barbs can’t help but draw ya in. They sell the stories so well that suddenly I care about the plot I had initially shrugged at.

    I liked now voyager, all about eve and dead ringer. I’ve seen a handful of bette but there is a lot I haven’t.

    I had a different expectation of dark victory before I watched it and was a little let down. I ought to re visit it with another watch. Great review/recap, Lindsey.

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