Bette Davis may be at her most lovely in Dark Victory (1939). Bette is glamorous, beautiful, and dressed to perfection in the film.
Dark Victory: A Bette Davis Classic
Gorgeous appearance aside, Dark Victory is a Bette Davis classic. It’s a complete “women’s picture,” and centers around a strong female heroine, just the type of role in which Bette excelled.
Dark Victory is melodramatic, and unashamedly plays with our emotions. But, as in Dangerous (1935) Bette’s acting is so superb, we believe the highly dramatic plot line.
You can rent or purchase Dark Victory here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s go through the plot of the film, then behind the scenes.
Bette is Judith Traherne, a rich society gal living the high life of endless parties, excessive drinking, and cigarettes. The only part of Judith’s life that seems to require any work or talent is her love of horseback riding. With help and training from her stable master Michael (Humphrey Bogart), Judith competes in the sport.
After a long night of partying with her pals, which include best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and favorite boyfriend Alec (Ronald Reagan), Judith goes down to the stables for a ride.
But as Judith rides her favorite horse, she misses a jump and falls.
Not Just a Hangover
Judith recovers from the fall just fine, but admits to Ann that for the last few months, she’s experienced headaches, dizziness, and double vision. It was momentary double vision that led to her riding accident:
“Confidentially darling, this is more than a hang over.”
Judith tells Ann. Luckily, Ann is an awesome friend, and insists that Judith go see a doctor. Obstinate Judith resists, but finally gives in. She’s referred to a specialist, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent).
Dr. Steele is about to close his practice to pursue his passion for research. But Steele is so intrigued by Judith and her case that he postpones his retirement.
And, there’s definitely a glimmer of romantic interest as Steele and Judith banter in his office.
A quick study of Judith convinces Dr. Steele that she has a brain tumor, which must be removed immediately.
A Successful Surgery?
Once the tumor is removed, her symptoms disappear, and Judith is convinced that she’s completely healthy, and that Dr. Steele saved her life.
It’s true that Steele saved her life. But Steele knows something critical that Judith does not: though he successfully removed the tumor from Judith’s brain, it will come back, and Judith has only 10 months to live.
According to Steele, she will experience rapid darkening of vision and blindness just before dying painlessly.
Dr. Steele intends to keep this information from Judith, but ends up telling her friend Ann at a party Judith throws in celebration of her returned health. Ann agrees that it’s best for Judith not to know the truth, and the two keep the secret, even after Judith and Dr. Steele profess their love for each other and become engaged.
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Judith’s ignorance of how much time she’s got left doesn’t last long. She discovers her file in Dr. Steele’s office one day, and sees that Steele and several other specialists have deemed her “prognosis negative.”
Judith is, understandably, annoyed—to say the least—at Ann and Steele. She gives them a tongue lashing at a restaurant that only Bette Davis could deliver with such clipped perfection.
“I think I’ll have a large order of prognosis negative!”
Judith says with flashing eyes as Ann and Steele look at their menus.
Judith reacts to the news that she’s only got months to live by breaking off her engagement to Dr. Steele, and returning to her life of competitive horse racing, partying, and drinking, with old boyfriend Alec as her near constant companion and drinking buddy.
Coming to Terms with Reality
Eventually, Judith realizes this is not how she wants to live her last days on earth. She makes up with Steele and Ann. Finally convinced that Steele wasn’t just marrying her out of pity, the two wed and move to Vermont, where Steele can research a cure for Judith’s condition while the two of them cherish the few months they have left together.
Life seems almost too perfect in Vermont. And of course, it is.
Eventually, on one of Ann’s visits, Judith experiences the sudden darkening of vision. Ann and Judith both know this means the end is near.
Dark Victory: The Epitome of Sacrifice
Judith decides not to tell her husband she’s dying, for Steele is packing to go to New York, where he will introduce his study findings to a group of peers. It’s a once in a lifetime career opportunity that Judith does’t want him to miss.
Judith pretends her vision is fine, and tells Steele just before he leaves, under the pretext that she’s merely talking about their first separation after becoming man and wife:
“Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can’t be destroyed. That’s our victory, our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we’re not afraid.”
With her husband on his way to New York, Judith says goodbye to Ann, and heads to her bedroom to die alone.
The final scene of Judith on her bed is presented to us just as Judith may have experienced her final moments: first we see Judith clearly on her bed, then the screen begins to blur before darkening to blackout.
And that’s the end of the film.
Bette's Personal Heartache
When Dark Victory began filming, Bette Davis wasn’t sure she wanted to make the movie. She was recently separated from husband number one, Harmon “Ham” Nelson, after Ham found out about Bette’s affair with Howard Hughes, and recorded the two of them in the act with sound equipment he had wired in the bedroom.
It wouldn’t be long before the divorce was finalized.
Bette took the failure of her marriage to Ham hard. She worried that her heartsickness and disappointment in her personal life were infusing her portrayal of Judith Traherne with self-pity, something the character did not have–and could not have, if the film were to be a success. In Bette’s own words:
“Judith did not know what self-pity was. It was Ruth Elizabeth [Bette’s full name], damn her. She was calling the shots.”
Bette shared her concerns with producer Hal Wallis, and asked to be taken off the picture. Wallis considered Bette’s request. But then he watched the footage of what Bette had already filmed for Dark Victory, and was beyond impressed with what he saw. Bette’s characterization of Judith Traherne was clearly benefiting from Bette’s heartsickness in her personal life. So Wallis told Bette:
“I’ve seen the rushes—stay sick!”
That was all the encouragement Bette needed. She continued filming Dark Victory.
Bette vs. Jack Warner on Dark Victory
Even though Bette had a hard time once Dark Victory began filming, she had actually fought Warner Brothers head, Jack Warner, for two years to play the role of Judith Traherne. Bette insisted that the melodramatic story of a strong young woman facing the knowledge of her impending death with bravery, and actually dying on screen, was perfect for her, something audiences would flock to see. Jack Warner disagreed, believing that such a somber film would be a poor career choice.
And he told Bette so on several occasions:
“When you’re just getting into high gear, why go morbid on your audience? All those women out there want to see you making love, fulfilling their dreams vicariously. Then you conk out on them!”
Jack Warner did eventually concede, but not before warning Bette once more about what a dud and career killer the film would be:
“Go ahead and hang yourself if you want to!”
Dark Victory: A Hit!
Of course, Jack Warner couldn’t have been more wrong about Dark Victory. When it premiered in April 1939, critics were unanimous in their praise for the film, and Bette in particular. Dark Victory became the highest grossing of any Davis film to date, and Bette received the best notices of her career. Time said of Bette in review of the film that:
“Dark Victory, if it were an automobile, would be a Rolls Royce with a Brewster body and the very best trimmings…it puts [Bette] well up in line for her third Academy Award.”
Bette was elated by the outstanding reviews she received for Dark Victory. And proving Jack Warner wrong was the icing on the cake. After Dark Victory became such a hit, Bette remembered feeling that:
“By damn, I was right, everyone in America wants to see a story where the heroine dies in the end! I’ve won my battle, and I just may win my third Oscar!”
The Fourth Warner Brother
It was the success of Dark Victory and the other three Bette Davis films released in 1939, each bringing in at least $1.6 million–remarkable film earnings for 1939, that finally convinced Jack Warner how invaluable Bette Davis was to his studio.
There may have been only three biological Warner Brothers, but Bette soon earned the nickname of the “Fourth Warner Brother” because of how successful all her films were for the studio. After the runaway success of Dark Victory, Bette’s sway and influence at Warner Brothers just continued to grow.
Dark Victory’s Men
A youngish Humphrey Bogart plays his supporting role in the Dark Victory perfectly. It’s fascinating to see Bogie with curls in his uncharacteristically not slicked back hair.
Brent starred in So Big (1932) with Bette before she became a star, and Bette harbored a crush on him from that time on.
The handsome Irish-born actor was recently divorced when Dark Victory began filming, and with Bette’s divorce from Ham all but finalized, the two began an affair that lasted a few years. Bette was thrilled that Brent returned her affections this time around.
Brent was only 35 at the time of Dark Victory, but experienced premature graying of his hair. The studio dyed Brent’s hair dark as a result. And for Bette, this was a bit of a pain:
“He used to stain my pillowcases with hair dye!”
Dyed pillowcases aside, Bette always insisted that:
“Of the men I didn’t marry, the dearest was George Brent.”
A 27-year-old Ronald Reagan plays “Alec,” Judith’s number one suitor before Dr. Steele sweeps her off her feet. Reagan had only been in Hollywood for a few years, yet Dark Victory was his fifteenth film. Bette Davis had a reputation for being difficult on her film sets, but the future President of the United States had nothing but glowing things to say about Bette, and his experience filming Dark Victory with her:
“She was not only a great star and probably our greatest actress, but also a professional of the highest order.”
Reagan credits Bette with ensuring that he could play his character in the film, Alec, the way he saw him–as a nice guy with pure intentions towards Judith, even if he is drunk or drinking all the time. Director Edmund Goulding disagreed with Reagan’s interpretation of Alec, and it was only through Bette’s star power that Reagan won out: with Bette’s powerful influence, Goulding allowed Reagan to play Alec his own way.