Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Dark Victory (1939)

Apparently this film was remade as a 1976 TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame in the Bette Davis role and Anthony Hopkins in the George Brent role. Now that is something I'd like to see, if for nothing other than sheer novelty value. The original Dark Victory is no novelty; it's another solid 1930s melodrama for Davis, and yet another teaming of Davis and the terminally boring Brent. Despite those levels of familiarity, this is a great showcase for Davis' acting ability (she was nominated for an Oscar), and it has decent dramatic moments, although far too much is overplayed.

I also couldn't quite get over the idea that Brent's upstanding doctor character, Frederick Steele, decides not to tell Davis' socialite Judith Traherne that her brain tumor has not been successfully eliminated after a risky surgery. She has less than a year to live, yet he decides to let her believe she's cured, so that she doesn't get too upset. This seems both unethical and illegal, although I guess at the time doctors weren't bound by as many regulations, and protecting the emotions of a "fragile" woman could be used as a justification for keeping life-and-death information from a patient. Judith does eventually find out the truth, and she does get mad at Frederick for it, but it doesn't really diminish her love for him or her desire to marry him. Eventually she ends up apologizing to him for being upset.

But movies like this thrive on ridiculous twists and overblown emotions anyway, and Davis gives such a rich performance that she nearly sells them all. She sinks her teeth equally into Judith's early scenes of rich-girl bitchiness and her later, more tragic scenes of imminent mortality (Judith spends the last 15 minutes of the movie dying very slooooooowly). As usual, Brent's blandness is easily steamrolled by Davis' forcefulness, although Humphrey Bogart (with a variable Irish accent) and Geraldine Fitzgerald (as Judith's best friend) add a little color to the supporting cast. Director Edmund Goulding lays the tragedy on thick, and by the end it's definitely a little much. Once again, though, Davis' mesmerizing presence elevates the material.

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