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starring Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald
screenplay by Casey Robinson
directed by Edmund Goulding
by Walter Chaw There's been almost as much written about the life of Bette Davis as there has about her work, and I must confess that, with few exceptions, I consider her life to be far more interesting than her films. The best Davis picture from start to finish is probably The Letter--and the most honoured of her superfluity of clunkers is Edmund Goulding's really quite dreadful Dark Victory, released in the annus mirabilis of 1939. Fanatics point to La Davis's performance in this one as her most stirring, but all I see is a terminal ham pretending to have a brain tumor and cinematic blindness. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, I suppose, but then there's the vomitous condescension of the hero doctor, the woeful miscasting of Humphrey Bogart as an Irish stable hand, and the wish unfulfilled that the great Geraldine Fitzgerald, in her screen debut, would take centre stage. The picture is also horribly dated, playing today like some weird, contrived burlesque of common sense as a terminally ill patient isn't told of her condition, has to ask someone what "negative" means, and doesn't inform her husband that she has about three hours to live. It's not to say that there isn't material of interest here, just that the material of interest doesn't live organically with the narrative. Thus there exists on the one hand the possibility of appreciating the picture in an aloof way, and, on the other, a situation where respect and conventional enjoyment veers into something as ugly as camp appreciation.
You can, for instance, read Dark Victory as the evolution of brittle, shallow socialite Judith Traherne (Davis) into a fully-actualized human being in three broad steps (note Judith's tri-paned vanity mirror and, of course, the early subjective glimpse at equestrian gates through a three-chambered kaleidoscope), each progression bookmarked by a would-be beau of a distinct class. First and earthiest is Bogie's stable master; next comes drunken high-society lush Alec Hamm (Ronald Reagan); and lastly she meets virtuous and stalwart Dr. Steele (George Brent), drawing a Darwin chart from good man/poor man to rich man/drunk man to (ostensibly) dashing, self-sacrificing intellectual of no specific social status in the process. Steele is so good that as we're introduced to him (by Henry "Clarence the Angel" Travers, no less), he's mulling a career in research following years of heartbreak watching patient after patient fade away from inadequate knowledge and technology. There's also a minor vein to be mined concerning the sly animalism of the piece--the equation of the higher classes with animals to be herded, experimented upon, and put down for being sick.
Most of all, though, Dark Victory is a prime example of that great Golden Age feminist melodrama in which a woman is necessarily identified by the man who chooses her, undermined only slightly by the fact that this masculinized woman picks her mate instead of the other way around. Points for Judith appearing to try on every member of a gentleman's club in a fit of pique upon discovering that Dr. Steele and best pal Ann (Fitzgerald) have conspired to keep the mortal nature of her condition a secret--points I'm inclined to take away for Davis (assisted by a prototypically invasive score from composer Max Steiner) ratcheting up her performance to the rafters in what begins to feel like an attempt to do with volume what she's incapable of doing with eloquence. Look at the scene where she realizes she's relapsed and throws herself into the arms of Ann: it's not acting, it's a fit. Blame part of that, perhaps, on what various sources call an offscreen nervous breakdown caused by Davis's crumbling marriage to Ham Nelson (a marriage she worked diligently to undermine with a very public dalliance with Howard Hughes)--or on the rollercoaster effect of her embarking on a torrid affair with co-star Brent. There's a lot of energy here, it's just all over the place, off-putting, unbecoming, and finally exhausting. Of course, Casey Robinson's appalling screenplay (from a play in which fellow ham Tallulah Bankhead originated the role of Judith) and a hack editing job by conveyor belt-editor William Holmes don't do much to bolster the cause, either.
Warner has supplemented the DVD release of Dark Victory with a feature-length commentary pairing author/critic James Ursini and the late Paul Clinton, formerly of CNN.COMThe Petrified Forest as a film that succeeded Dark Victory rather than one that predated it by three years and, further, made Bogart a viable headliner, more likely than not leading Jack Warner to want to cast Bogie in a light romantic role opposite his mega-star in order to groom him for bigger things. (Like Casablanca, for instance.) Ursini corrects Clinton, but then says that The Maltese Falcon came next when, in truth, there's a two-year gap between those films--and nine Bogart movies in-between. It seems like nit-picking until one considers that their insight that Warner played puppet-master with his contract players' careers segues naturally into a discussion of how this film (and the Private Lives of Elizabeth of Essex) was a make-good for Davis, whom Warner unsuccessfully tried to lend out for the Scarlett O'Hara role, and of how Fitzgerald's big-screen career largely fizzled because she resisted Warner's "suggestions" to accept substandard roles.
Amid a lot of plot explanation and a few extended silences now and again (chapters five and ten pass largely without comment), Ursini opines that Davis was far superior to Joan Crawford. He's welcome to that opinion, of course, but he and Clinton support Ursini's contention by saying that Davis took more chances while Crawford was only ever Crawford--and that Davis risked looking unattractive while Crawford nurtured a diva image. It's an ironic position to take, for starters, during a film where Davis's radiance is constantly admired (and in which she's stricken by one of those diseases that exhibit no physiological symptoms until the hammer falls). Irony aside, contrary examples abound, specifically 1947's Possessed, in which Crawford--a woman in her forties--appears without makeup for the whole of a ten-minute opening sequence as well as for the remainder of a framing story, plays a schizoid with fewer histrionics than Davis resorts to as the bubble-headed Judith, and (looking to Mildred Pierce as well) infuses her character with depths of subtlety and personal heartbreak.
Put Davis in Mildred Pierce or, contrarily, Crawford in this mess, and tell me again how Davis was the actress and Crawford the personality. Maybe they're referring to pre-Warners Crawford, or maybe they've mistaken Crawford for Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. It's a pretty common misconception, but one I'd hope would be limited to the common viewer. In a weird documentary called "1939: Tough Competition for Dark Victory" (10 mins.), Clinton and Ursini are again front and centre (alongside Rudy Behlmer and NEWSDAY's John Anderson) in trumpeting the wonderfulness of 1939, talking about how much better, and more prescient, Dark Victory is than anything else from that year (including the "best" Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). An unscrubbed trailer also accompanies a relatively tic-free video transfer that's only marred now and again by the flickering indignities of age. Contrast is sharp and fine detail is excellent (you can count every fibre of Davis's fur coat in chapter 18), though it seems to come at the expense of too much grain. The accompanying centre-channel mono audio is vibrant, deftly modulating Davis's shameless (and trademark) over-acting and Steiner's shameless and likewise laboured score. Available individually or as part of Warner's five-disc Bette Davis box set. Originally published: February 21, 2006.