Throughout the final quarter-century of her life, in countless feature films, TV dramas and talk-show appearances, Bette Davis (1908-89) went out of her way to sustain a self-satirizing image as a bug-eyed, raspy-voiced, age-ravaged eccentric. For movie buffs who came of age in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the career-reviving gothic-camp extravaganza that permanently recast her as a cantankerous harpy, it may sometimes come as a shock to be reminded of the unconventionally beautiful and uniquely charismatic superstar that Davis was in her prime.
Fortunately, film is a medium that ensures even the dearly departed are always in the present tense, at their very best. In Dark Victory, the must-see 1939 tearjerker directed by Edmond Goulding (Grand Hotel), Davis continues to delight and dazzle in a role that she ranked among her favorites. And despite the passing of years — not to mention the abundance of remakes, rip-offs and spot-on parodies — the movie itself still packs a potent emotional wallop.
Davis earned her third Academy Award nomination for her cunningly dynamic portrayal of Judith Traherne, a fast-living, hard-drinking Long Island socialite who lives her life as one long New Year's Eve party until she realizes her occasional dizzy spells and blurred vision can’t be blamed on hangovers. Dedicated surgeon Frederick Steele (George Brent) — who, not surprisingly, falls in love with Judith – identifies her malady as a brain tumor. But, of course, the audience knows better: Judith has Old Movie Disease, a humbling affliction that strikes only carefree and capricious leading ladies. Victims become progressively more beautiful, and increasingly less self-absorbed, as they stoically approach a peaceful quietus. (Sporadic spasms of kookiness are common symptoms.)
For no very good reason, her doctor and her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) opt to keep Judith blissfully ignorant of her death sentence. When she inadvertently learns the truth, she turns against her confidants, and resumes her wastrel ways with bad influences. (Chief among the latter: a pre-Presidential Ronald Reagan, who’s unsettlingly convincing as a party-hearty libertine.) Ultimately, however, Judith decides to spend her final months as a supportive wife for Frederick. During the profoundly affecting final scenes, she refuses to tell him of her abruptly fading eyesight – the telltale sign, alas, of a rapidly approaching demise. Instead, she sends him off to an important medical conference, so she can die alone — to the accompaniment of Max Steiner's heart-wrenching musical score — in bed.
Dark Victory is a textbook example of the glossy Hollywood product that rolled off dream factory assembly lines during the heyday of the studio era. And like most similar product – especially the brand produced by Warner Bros. – it features a strong supporting cast of contract players. Brent, an actor best remembered for providing handsome window dressing in movies built around remarkable leading ladies, is impeccably noble as Frederick. Fitzgerald makes the most of a largely thankless part, while Reagan is amusingly lightweight as Alec, a feckless fellow who spends most of the movie in various stages of inebriation. And third-billed Humphrey Bogart struggles manfully with an on-again, off-again Irish accent as Michael O’Leary, a virile horse trainer who’d like to corral Judith.
The main attraction, though, is Bette Davis. Whether Judith is gliding coquettishly through a country-club gathering, or bravely comforting a weepy buddy before striding off to her solitary destiny, Davis demonstrates just what being a gloriously larger-than-life movie icon is all about. An under-rated element of her timeless appeal: She’s not afraid to appear infuriatingly selfish, if not aggressively unlikable, when a scene calls for potentially off-putting extremes. That alone is sufficient to set her far apart from most image-conscious stars of any era. If they don't make movies like Dark Victory anymore, maybe it’s because there’s no one like Davis — this Davis, the luminous immortal of 1939 — to star in them.
And by the way: Never argue with a star who has a sharp eye for spiffy vehicles. Bette Davis saw Dark Victory on the stage, and pressed mogul Jack L. Warner to buy screen rights for her. Warner reluctantly agreed, even though he famously groused: “Who wants to see a dame go blind?”