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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
25 Mar 2023

NextImg:Popcorn and Inspiration: 'Dark Victory': Learning to Live With Death

PG | 1 h 44 min | Drama | 1939

“We all have to die. The tragic difference is that you know when, and we don’t. But the important thing is … to live our lives so that we can meet death whenever it comes, beautifully, finely.”

If only all doctors could speak as firmly to their terminally ill patients, so many would conquer their fear, and meet death with equanimity.

In Edmund Goulding’s film, brain surgeon Dr. Steele (George Brent), does speak these words, as firmly as he can, to his patient, Judith Traherne (Bette Davis). And it works wonders. 

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) and her doctor Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent) in “Dark Victory.” (MovieStillsDB)

Judy is a fun-loving, young, wealthy socialite, who behaves as quite the spoiled brat with housekeepers, maids, butlers, and servants in attendance every waking moment of her life. Her idea of having a good time is to indulge in endless leisure: playing bridge, riding horses, partying, driving fast cars, shooting, yachting, raising dogs, traveling, gossiping.

Suddenly, Judy develops a bunch of symptoms she can’t explain: headaches, fainting spells, blurred vision, flagging memory and concentration, and growing irritability. Her hands tremble so much that she burns herself lighting cigarettes but can’t sense the burn.

Dr. Steele falls for her but, desperate not to curb her free spirit, persuades her that, following a surgery he performs, she’s now normal, when in fact she’s far from it.  Deeply in love with Steele, Judy bounces back and, for the first time, takes an interest in people around her, instead of losing herself in a succession of experiences.

But when Judy stumbles upon the truth of her irreversible glioma she recoils, from Steele and everyone else, in a spiral of self-loathing and self-pity. Before long, she’s throwing herself again into a merry-go-round of activity for its own sake.

Steele and Judy’s friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) try to make her focus rather than fritter away her shortened life, to make her realize that gratitude makes life worth living, no matter how short or traumatic it is. Steele’s point is that the darkness that seems to overwhelm her isn’t so much her increasingly blurred vision, but her fears.

Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald, L) talks with her friend Judith Traherne (Bette Davis), in “Dark Victory.” (Warner Bros.)

Not quite “Taming of the Shrew,” Davis’s film shows enough of the shrew for viewers to place love and happiness firmly above and beyond all-too-fleeting pleasure.

Davis plays both against type and with it. One moment she’s in command, fiery, straight-talking, just as audiences have seen her for most of her screen life. The next moment she’s fidgety, fearful. Playing sick, there’s an inexplicable rush about her, words bubbling out in a stream of nervous energy. She’s lighting cigarettes, clasping and unclasping her palms, and breathing short, gasping breaths all at once.

Davis’s unbelievably expressive eyes convey every shade of emotion from doubt, boredom, and spite to wonder, anticipation, and shock. Just when you think her eyes can’t get any bigger, they do, and they’re riveting. When she defiantly declares, “I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me!,” you believe her.

Brent is the perfect counterpoint: a picture of manly restraint. He’s rarely romantic, never possessive or clutching, ever affectionate and gentle, and centered on her and how she feels. You sense Steele’s frustration when he almost punches the air while slipping on his jacket, furious that a girl like that, so alive, so entitled to live, should be struck by something that threatens to snap life out of her so prematurely.

Fitzgerald is convincing as Judy’s fiercely protective friend. She faithfully echoes Judy’s first instinct, denying that the disease exists. She stands by even when Judy feels suicidal.

Goulding doesn’t use supporting actors Ronald Reagan and Humphrey Bogart much, and apart from Davis, most actors play two-dimensional characters. Still, his three principal actors make you care enough.

Screenwriter Casey Robinson has Steele wanting to leave his clinical practice and turn to research well before he finds Judy. That heightens the nobility of his resolve when he discovers Judy’s fatal disease and intensifies research into why otherwise healthy brain cells should go berserk. His entire bearing reinforces the sacred but sensible mandate of medicine: to continue to cure where possible, and where impossible, offer healing instead. When Judy asks where she’ll find peace, he offers a solution that isn’t remotely clinical: “Within yourself.”

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) and Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart), in “Dark Victory.” (MovieStillsDB)

To Judy’s credit, she does find peace. Not by denying death but by embracing its reality and using it to inform how she lives. She wants to take back the rotten things she’s said about Steele. She admits her stupidity in cramming life with wasteful activity, instead of being thankful for each new morning. She hopes that when death does show up it’ll find her contrite, thinking of others rather than herself. And she will have robbed it of its dark victory by shining her light.

Bette Davis stars in “Dark Victory” as a woman coming to terms with death. (Warner Bros)

‘Dark Victory’
Director: Edmund Goulding
Starring: Bette Davis, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 1939
Rated: 4 stars out of 5