Based on a stage play by George Emerson Brewer, Jr., and Bertram Bloch that starred, I believe, Tallulah Bankhead, Dark Victory is perhaps the finest of the Warner Brothers “weepies” that helped establish Bette Davis as America’s premier film actress. One can debate the realism of its premise all one wants, that a person can suffer and die from a brain tumor while experiencing no physical pain, only a dimming of the sight and blindness right before the end; the fact remains that the film is exquisitely done and very moving. The script, by Casey Robinson, is first-rate, and the direction by Edmund Goulding is delicate, not mawkish. There are several moments, such as when children are suddenly seen and heard playing down the sunlit lane as Judith Traherne, the lead character, is on the verge of dying, that sparkle with poignancy.
Davis’s performance is a miracle of sensitivity and vibrant emotion; Judith Traherne was her own favorite among the numerous parts she played, and it may be mine as well. (Davis would be equally brilliant and just as powerful the following year, in a much darker and more convoluted part, in William Wyler’s The Letter.) Since Judy is also among the nicest, most sympathetic characters she played, it comes as no surprise that Davis claimed that Judy was the one character she played who was most like herself. “Darling,” Judith asks her spouse when she knows she is about to die and he doesn’t, “have I been a good wife?” Davis’s moment here, with Judith’s somewhat fragile arms holding on as best they can to the man she loves, is full of shining strength and humility. A more conventional, more subservient actress would not have avoided making the scene cloy, while Davis makes the waning Judith an incomparable instance of spiritual humanity. Judith is determined to send off her husband, a brain surgeon, to a medical convention without his being any the wiser about her failing condition so that the example of her courage, by which she faces death alone, can inspire him and his work in the years to come. That work is research; he is trying to find cures for the glioma that has attacked his wife’s brain and other cancers. Judith has been encouraging him to seek what she calls “revenge.” With each discovery, each advance on the path to a cure, he is to say, she has told him, “That is for Judith, my wife!” At the end, she thus sacrifices the comfort of her husband’s arms and arranges to fill his future heart with inspiration. Davis’s fetching, full-blooded acting makes it all work; and, yes, the tears come—and how they come!
Judith’s path to marital bliss is a rocky one. Frederick Steele, the man whom she weds (George Brent, in his finest performance, and Davis’s lover at the time), had been her brain surgeon; he was able to relieve her stabbing headaches but could not remove the tumor. Judith has, perhaps, months to live, but this Steele decides not to tell her so that death’s shadow will not taunt her new lease on pain-free life. They fall in love and plan to marry. However, when she discovers the truth, that her “prognosis” is “negative,” Judith rejects Steele, believing that he doesn’t love her and that he and her best friend, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald, marvelous), have concocted the marriage plot to fool her. She is at heart worried that Frederick loves Ann instead of her, and she is too proud to grab the authentic happiness, however brief, within her reach. Now Judith throws herself into a hedonistic existence of wild parties and profligate sex. In so doing, she exhausts herself emotionally and physically; in effect, she exhausts her defenses. She reunites with Frederick and becomes Mrs. Steele. Before she dies, she selflessly arranges for Ann to take her place in her husband’s life. In contrast to her chaotic emotions earlier, she now draws comfort from the idea that the two persons she most loves in the world will come together.*
The reason for this piece of mine, apart from celebrating a fine black-and-white film from Hollywood’s “golden era,” is to take note of the ambiguity implicit in Judith’s jealousy and subsequent arrangements for her spouse and Ann—if you will, Judith’s personal funeral arrangements. Of whom was Judith, earlier, jealous? There is the subversive possibility of a homosexual subtext here. (Goulding was gay.) Are Judith and Ann, at the beginning, lovers? Certainly something else asserts itself as a stronger possibility: Judith and Ann love one another romantically but do not act on their feelings, if indeed they are even conscious of those feelings, because of society’s taboo against same-sex love. Judith has everything to live for, but, given the state of American bigotry, she doesn’t feel she can have Ann and, indeed, may have suppressed her desire for Ann on account of this. For her part, Ann also is “left out,” although her devotion to Judith is unmistakable. Death allows Judith finally to come together with Ann, spiritually at least, by bringing together Ann and Frederick, by Judith’s own instruction, or at least in her imagination. This is her “victory over the dark”—the dark of prejudice—as much as her courageously solitary death and her husband’s continued scientific research, which she seeks to inspire, is her “victory over the dark” of death. Once the level of lesbian inference is permitted its place in the meaning of the whole, the film makes bolder and more wholesome sense. Absent this permission, there is something a wee bit creepy about Judith’s efforts on behalf of an Ann-Frederick partnership.
Whatever. Dark Victory is a wonderful film.
* Also in the cast are Humphrey Bogart, with an unconvincing Irish accent, as a horse trainer and stable hand, Henry Travers, as Judith’s kindly family doctor, and, in a surprisingly touching turn, Ronald Reagan as Judith’s alcoholic sort-of boyfriend.