Dark Victory (1939)

Directed by Edmund Goulding
Cinematography Ernest Haller

Judith Traherne is at the height of young society when Dr. Frederick Steele diagnoses a brain tumor. After surgery she falls in love with Steele. The doctor tells her secretary that the tumor will come back and eventually kill her. Learning this, Judith becomes manic and depressive. Her horse trainer Michael, who loves her, tells her to get as much out of life as she can. She marries Steele who intends to find a cure for her illness. As he goes off to a conference in New York failing eyesight indicates to Judith that she is dying.


During the filming of the emotionally-charged scene when Bette Davis‘s character needs to find her way upstairs to her room after the brain tumor has caused her blindness, the cast and crew and several visitors were watching as Davis grasped the banister and began to feel her way up the steps, one by one. Halfway to the top of the staircase Davis paused, stopped the scene, briskly walked back downstairs and addressed director Edmund Goulding. “Ed,” Davis said, “is Max Steiner going to be composing the music score to this picture?” Goulding, surprised by the question, replied that he didn’t know, and asked Davis why the matter was important enough to stop the filming of the scene. “Well, either I’m going to climb those stairs or Max Steiner is going to climb those stairs,” Davis responded, “but I’ll be God-DAMNED if Max Steiner and I are going to climb those stairs together!”


Bette’s victory

3 November 2004 | by jotix100 (New York) – See all my reviews

“Dark Victory” is a classic film of the 30s. In some movies, like this one, all the elements came together to create a satisfying entertainment that has delighted audiences since its release in 1939. Edmund Golding was instrumental in getting one of the best performances out of Bette Davis. The movie is helped by the fine score of Max Steiner.

As Judith Treherne, Bette Davis shows us why she was a great actress. She does some of her best work in this picture. Her interpretation of the socialite is right on target. Ms. Davis goes from a happy go lucky rich girl into the woman who has to face an imminent death. This film is so enjoyable because of the nuances Ms. Davis brought to the role. Bette Davis’ range was enormous.

George Brent, as the medical specialist who tries to help Judith, and falls in love with her in the process, is also quite good as Dr. Steele. Geraldine Fitzgerald is wonderful as Ann, Judith’s loyal friend. Humphrey Bogart appears briefly as the horse trainer. Henry Travers put in a small appearance as the doctor who brought Judith into the world, and sadly, is not able to help her much. Also in the cast, Ronald Reagan, who doesn’t have much to do.

This is the perfect film to watch the wonderful Bette Davis at her best.


When Death Creates a Passion for Life

Author: nycritic
7 February 2006
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Judith Traherne, under other circumstances, could be that unsympathetic rich bitch that parties hard, hasn’t a care in the world, and is a victim of her own whims much like today’s Paris Hilton. Of course, had this film been done today with the character molded after the blond twit, we would have not just hoped she met her maker but maybe spawned a hideous creature from inside that tumor growing inside her head and gone to Hell in a hand-basket. Instead, Judith is not without her good points — she’s flighty and impulsive but not a mean person. She has it all… until she begins to get those pesky fainting spells and persistent headaches.


An actress who was at the top of her game at the time of the release of this movie, Bette Davis displays a marvelous gamut of emotions which layer her facial features and body language. This of course is crucial to understanding her character’s psyche and if at times it seems a little overacted it’s only because of the style of the times. Otherwise, her Judith rises above the male actors around her and comes to accept her destiny with beautiful dignity. Geraldine Fitzgerald, playing her friend and secretary Ann, is equally understated but moving as the one who stays by Judith’s side. Both women reflect an interesting sisterhood about them; the transference of strength from one to the other is deeply affecting and one of quiet tears. Bette’s final death scene is one of transcendent luminosity.


Nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, Actress and Music Score, DARK VICTORY found itself pinned under the massive competition that came out in 1939 and received not one, but stands today as one of Davis’ quintessential pictures.


still gets me after all these years

Author: blanche-2 from United States
23 March 2002

I was probably 12 years old when I first saw this film on TV. It was shown in two parts and I didn’t get to see the second part, so my mother had to tell me what happened. Forty years later, I still cry every time I see “Dark Victory.” It remains one of my favorite films for sheer use of Kleenex and my favorite Bette Davis movie, “All About Eve” being right up there with it. I even saw it on the big screen in a revival house when I was in college. Yes, some of the dialogue sounds corny now, like the good doctor saying, “Women never meant anything to me before”. But the interesting thing is, when I did see it with an audience, though they laughed as some inappropriate spots, by the end you could hear the sobs on the next block.


There have been comments that Humphrey Bogart seems miscast in a somewhat minor role. I frankly thought he was just fine. He certainly was short enough to be a jockey and he pulled off the brogue. I’m sure it’s confusing for some to see him in such a small role in 1939 when only a few years later, he was a total superstar. But he was under contract to Warners and kicked around for years before “High Sierra” and “Casablanca”. He obviously wasn’t working when “Dark Victory” was cast, so why let him sit around taking a salary and do nothing?

And of course we have Ronald Reagan as a playboy. I actually find him delightful in this film. It called for charm and he had it.


In today’s fast-paced world, there’s nothing stronger than a message about time and our use of it. “Oh, give me time for tenderness…just give me time.” Like Bette’s character, I want to hear that song again too, in many more viewings of “Dark Victory.”

The ultimate tear-jerker!

Author: David Atfield (bits@alphalink.com.au) from Canberra, Australia
3 May 2001

Not only is this sublime classic the greatest tear-jerker of all time (well, let’s call it a tie with “Lassie Come Home”), it also contains one of the greatest performances ever given by Bette Davis. In the hands of a lesser actress this movie could have been a soppy pot-boiler. In the hands of Ms Davis it is close to being a masterpiece. If most of the supporting players can’t match her it’s no wonder – Bette is truly inspired here! The normally fine Geraldine Fitzgerald seems rather self-conscious in a difficult role (and an early one for her), and George Brent can’t handle the really emotional stuff. But Bogart is stunning in that sexually charged scene with Bette in the stables. Ronnie doesn’t have much to do, but Virginia Brissac is memorable as Martha and Henry Travers terrific as the old doctor.


Above all this is the excellent direction of Edmund Goulding, the fine cinematography of Ernest Haller and the great music of Max Steiner. Sure, dying in real life is never this beautiful, but don’t we all wish we could go out with the style that Bette Davis does? Be warned: the last 15 minutes of this film are almost torturously moving – but then ALL of “Lassie Come Home” is. And don’t we just love a good cry!


Tallulah Bankhead originated the role of Judith Traherne in the Broadway production, which ran for 51 performances at the Plymouth Theatre,  before being cut short when Bankhead fell ill with a bacterial infection. Davis openly admitted in later years that she had emulated Bankhead in the role. In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted to cast Greta Garbo and Fredric March in the leads, but Garbo chose to play the lead in Anna Karenina instead. In 1936, he offered the role to Merle Oberon, but contractual problems prevented her from doing the film.When Bette Davis discovered the play in 1938, she shopped it to every producer on the Warners lot, and Hal Wallis bought the rights from Selznick for her, for $50,000, when director Edmound Goulding and producer David Lewis showed interest in the project.


Davis had recently ended affairs with William Wyler and Howard Hughes and her husband Ham Nelson had filed for divorce, and after the first few days of filming she begged to be released from her contract, claiming she was too sick to continue. Producer Hal Wallis responded, “I’ve seen the rushes – stay sick!” She found comfort with Brent, who had just divorced Ruth Chatterton, and the two embarked on an affair that continued throughout filming and for a year – and three films – after. Goulding shot the film in sequence, and the arc of Judith’s relationship with Dr. Steele mirrored Davis’ relationship with Brent. Davis was later to say that she wanted to marry Brent, but thought that it wouldn’t work out. Still, “Of the men I didn’t marry, the dearest was George Brent.”


The tune, “Oh, Give Me Time for Tenderness” sung by Judith was written by Edmund Goulding and Elsie Janis. The voice of Vera Van was dubbed for Davis.

Another scene for the film’s ending was shot, but ultimately was deemed anticlimactic: after Judith’s death, her horse was seen winning a race, and her stablehand Michael (Bogart) was shown crying. The scene met with negative response with sneak preview audiences and was cut.

The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall.

98% of me

Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
3 October 2005

While I was watching my VHS copy of Dark Victory this afternoon, there was a quote from Bette Davis that her role of Judith Traherne was her most personal and that it was 98% of me.


It certainly is one of her most moving performances on celluloid. The movie is her show as so many of her Warner Brothers films were becoming at this point in her career. The rest of the cast almost stands back in awe of her.

We would call Judith Traherne a trust fund baby these days. Poppa made a fortune and drank himself to death, Mom is over in Europe as an expatriate. And she’s got a big house on Long Island where she raises steeple chasers and gives a lot of parties.


But she’s not an airhead. Bette Davis never was in any of her films. She’s been having headaches and now blurred vision has been thrown in as a complication. When she crashes one of her horses into a side rail we the audience know right away that there are some serious health issues.

Dr. George Brent is called in on the case, he’s a brain specialist. He operates and it’s a success, but only in terms of relieving the symptoms. She’s got a death sentence hanging over her.


The rest of the film is how she deals with it. Only an actress of incredible skill could have brought off the many mood changes that Judith Traherne has. If it wasn’t for the fact that 1939 was the Gone With the Wind year, Davis might have gotten a third Oscar. She was nominated and lost to Vivien Leigh.

Humphrey Bogart was in this as her stable groom with an Irish accent that he was clearly uncomfortable with. My guess was that the brogue was there to emphasize the class distinction between Davis and Bogart. I’m not sure it was all that necessary for him, but at least it wasn’t as laughable as the Mexican accent in Virginia City.


Geraldine Fitzgerald and Ronald Reagan are on hand as her two close friends. I understand that in the novel this is based on, Reagan’s character is gay. This was the days of the Code, so gay was out. Probably in the long run helped Reagan’s later career, given his politics playing a gay character wouldn’t have gotten him entrée into his crowd. Still both he and Fitzgerald do very well as a couple of her friends who have a lot more character than most of them.


George Brent was Davis’s perennial leading man. She was involved with him romantically at some point during her Warner Brothers period, I’m not sure if it was during the making of Dark Victory. He was a competent player who Davis could be sure would never upstage her.

I did however hear a clip from a radio performance of Dark Victory and George Brent’s part was played by Spencer Tracy. Though Brent played in fact in the underplaying style that Tracy was known for, I’m sure if Tracy had ever done the film he’d have brought touches to the character that Brent could never have done. What a classic that would have been.

Dark Victory is a moving story that never descends into soap opera. This is Bette Davis at her finest.




“Someday you’ll learn that courage is in the blood.”

Author: classicsoncall from Florida, New York
19 October 2005
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I can just picture theater patrons leaving this movie during it’s original release, not a dry eye in the house; an endearing testimony to the strength of Bette Davis’ portrayal of the young snooty socialite turned human over the course of the story. As Miss Judith Traherne, Davis exhibits a wide range of emotion in her role, helping establish her reputation as one of film’s finest actresses.


Along the way, Davis is supported by an unusually strong contingent of Warner contract players, most notably George Brent as the doctor turned husband, Frederick Steele. Established in a highly successful surgical career, Steele is continuously frustrated in his attempt to semi-retire to a life of research at his Vermont farm. Miss Judith is just his latest diversion, one that his professional reputation and personal responsibility will not allow to go without helping. During his association with Judith, he manages to fall in love, while creating the same intense and wonderful feelings in her. Where his nobility fails is in his attempt to keep Judith’s true condition secret from her, in collaboration with Judith’s best friend, Miss Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Fitzgerald’s performance in it’s own way is almost as touching as Davis’ own, as the loyal friend and confidante who must watch her best friend slowly fade toward an unhappy ending.


Ronald Reagan appears a number of times throughout the film as a member of Davis’ social circle, and whether by design or not, he never appears sober. Henry Travers, the diligent wing earning angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life” appears as Miss Judith’s family physician in a subdued role. And to be completely honest, my original interest in this film was in completing my collection of Humphrey Bogart movies; here he has minimal screen time as a horse trainer with an eye for Miss Judith who realizes that his station would never allow for such a match up. It’s interesting to see Bogey near the end of the film in the obligatory trench coat for which he’s well known.


The film’s ending is powerful and given added poignancy as Miss Judith plants a flower bulb after sending her husband off to an important medical gathering. With Judith’s vision dimming, Miss Ann cannot contain her tears and is sent off by Miss Judith as well to remember happier times. As Judith stumbles up the stairs to her bedroom, the maid symbolically draws the curtain against the sunlight, while Judith says a final prayer, and it’s over. Commence tears.

To date, my viewing of Bette Davis films have been limited to her collaborations with Humphrey Bogart, but that’s a total of six films, more than any other pairing with my favorite actor. Edward G. Robinson appeared with Bogey in five films, and one of them, “Kid Galahad” also featured Bette Davis, once again in a role showing many facets of her ability. Intrigued as I am with her performance in “Dark Victory”, I’ll be looking forward to more of her films.



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