10/14/12: Dark Victory (1939)

“Nothing can hurt us now. That’s our victory. Our victory over the dark!”

Edmund Goulding’s 1939 classic, Dark Victory, stars Bette Davis as Judith Traherne, a wealthy 23-year-old Long Island socialite speeding through life in the New York fast lane. Her passions are her prized steeplechase colt Challenger, going to & hosting parties, and playing bridge. The film is based on George Emerson Brewer, Jr. & Bertram Bloch’s Broadway play of the same name. The play, which starred Tallulah Bankhead, was panned and closed on 12/1/34, just 24 days after opening night. The film, on the other hand, went on to become one of the great motion pictures from 1939, the greatest movie year of all time. A year which included: Gone With the Wind; The Wizard of Oz; Stagecoach; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Of Mice & Men; Gunga Din; Young Mr. Lincoln; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Goodbye Mr. Chips; and The Rules of the Game.

Although Judith has a lust for life & thoroughly relishes her every moment, she has chronic headaches & experiences problems seeing. When she gets double vision while running Challenger & falls off him, her best friend & secretary Ann (played wonderfully by Geraldine Fitzgerald) becomes very concerned & calls her doctor – noted character actor Henry Travers, perhaps best known as Apprentice Angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. He schedules her to see brain specialist, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent). Although Dr. Steele was in the middle of closing his practice & heading for a train to begin his new career as a researcher in Vermont, when he notices cigarette burns on Judy’s right hand, he examines her. Challenger’s trainer, Michael, is Humphrey Bogart. He’s doesn’t turn in a pedestrian performance but isn’t exactly Rick Blaine yet either. And a young, handsome Ronald Reagan plays Alec, Judy’s happy-go-lucky, alcoholic friend.

Dark Victory was nominated for 3 Oscars in 1940 at the 12th Academy Awards: Best Picture; Actress; and the incredible Max Steiner’s Score. Steiner was nominated 24 times including 3 wins. Davis received 11 nominations in her lifetime, including an unofficial write-in nomination for Of Human Bondage, winning twice. In all, Steiner composed the score for 21 of the movies in which Bette Davis acted. Davis was a perfectionist and notoriously difficult to work with. She wanted the final dramatic scene in Dark Victory to be unaccompanied by music, but Goulding overruled her.

Davis claimed that Dark Victory took only 4 weeks to film, and that Judith Traherne was her favorite role to play even though she suffered a nervous breakdown during filming as her marriage to Harmon Nelson dissolved. She drowned her sorrows by having an affair with Brent.

While Dark Victory is a second tier film for 1939, very few movies released today that win Best Picture are its equal. It’s honor was that it was released that year; its misfortune, as well. All 11 of the aforementioned ’39’s are required reading. Most of us have already seen Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Few, perhaps, have had the opportunity to screen Dark Victory. It should be at the top of your 39’s to see. And tomorrow, it should no longer be on that list! 4 stars!!


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