Dark Victory (1939, Edmund Goulding)

Bette Davis and George Brent never kiss in Dark Victory. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon, she’s a mysteriously ill young socialite. He saves her, they fall in love. But does he really save her….

Victory gives Davis an excellent part, right up until the end of the film. It’s a somewhat bumpy ride–in the first act, which is three acts of its own, Davis isn’t particularly likable. The film establishes her on her Long Island estate, twenty-three and free. And very rich. With some decent suitors (Ronald Reagan in an affable performance) and her best friend (and secretary) Geraldine Fitzgerald. Davis goes riding during the day, out on the town in the evening, then home to party all night.

The film opens with her dealings with Humphrey Bogart, who plays her stablehand. He’s Irish and sexist. Bogart’s accent is usually Irish, though very noticeable when not. The sexism just leads to banter; it’s not a great part, in the end, for Bogart. He’s a tool of the melodrama. But he’s still likable, especially at the beginning, when Davis comes off like a spoiled brat and Fitzgerald her enabler.

The film’s focus moves soon to Brent, who gets her case from a decidedly underused Henry Travers. Brent’s excellent as the conflicted doctor, enough so to humanize Davis in their first scene together. From then on, although the action sticks with Brent for quite a while, Davis’s part gets better. She’d had some good dialogue quips, but she was the film’s subject–more, the film’s characters’ subject–not the protagonist.

Whether or not she ever truly gets to be the protagonist is questionable (and one of the film’s eventual failings; it shouldn’t be in question).

So the first thirty-five minutes concern Davis’s recent headaches and how Brent treats them. There’s never a discussion of medical ethics in Dark Victory and it kind of needs it. A lot, as it turns out. Because the only way for the film to function without them–which leads to Brent and Fitzgerald alternately and jointly infantalizing Davis–is through melodrama. After forty-five minutes, Dark Victory never tries for more than melodrama; it promises more than melodrama, but it never attempts to fulfill those promises.

The melodrama does give Davis and Fitzgerald some good material. Not really Brent. Brent gets overshadowed by everyone in the second half of the film, including Reagan (not to mention Bogart, accent or not). The script avoids dealing with Brent, once he’s done just as a doctor. Brent still has some fine moments in the film, but nothing like he had in the first half, when his forced calm demeanor ached with tragedy. It’d be a lot to keep up the entire runtime, sure, but at least screenwriter Robinson could’ve had him in some longer scenes.

Robinson’s adapting from a play, which might explain some of the pacing after the first act. Davis goes through a minor character change, with some fabulous costuming, incidentally, but it requires a rather extreme narrative distance. For her next character change–she gets a lot of character development with the part, going through four distinct phases–the narrative distance closes in, which is great, but the script gets real choppy. It’s a stagy bit of narrative. Not stagily filmed, but stagily plotted. There’s a jump forward, then an exposition-heavy sequence taking place over a single night, with characters strolling through in order to explain what’s happened since the jump forward. All the acting’s fine–Davis is great–but it’s too jammed, too rushed.

And if it’s going to be so jammed, so rushed, at least have Travers do a walkthrough. He goes from leading the second tier supporting cast in the first act to complete, inexplicable onscreen absence.

Davis’s performance makes the film. Brent’s, for a while, seems like it could but their relationship is way too chaste (exceptionally so considering they were carrying on off-screen). Fitzgerald and Davis have a wonderful relationship, full of character development and so on… until the development stops. The film foreshadows a lot for its characters and delivers none of it. Ostensibly it delivers on one thing, but through cop out.

Technically, the film’s fine. Goulding’s composition is decent, if unimaginative in his overuse of interior long shots–the sets aren’t that great and even if they were, they’re immaterial to the melodrama–and Ernest Haller’s photography is good. Max Steiner’s score is excellent.

Davis gets to do so much in Dark Victory, it’s unfortunate the film doesn’t let her do all it promises for her. I almost started talking about the film as the difference between a part and a role. If there’s such a difference, Dark Victory gives Davis a great part but promises her a great role.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William Holmes; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Judith Traherne), George Brent (Dr. Frederick Steele), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Ann King), Ronald Reagan (Alec), Humphrey Bogart (Michael O’Leary), Virginia Brissac (Martha), Cora Witherspoon (Carrie), Dorothy Peterson (Miss Wainwright), and Henry Travers (Dr. Parsons).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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