A romantic melodrama about brain tumors and death, Dark Victory (1939; dir. Edmund Goulding) gives us fatal illness in a vein that makes it a welcome opportunity for proving one’s nobility. With George Brent as a brain surgeon, a young Ronald Reagan as a perpetually drunk young friend, Humphrey Bogart as a horse trainer with an Irish brogue, and Bette Davis as the doomed young woman Judith Traherne, Dark Victory gives us death as only the rich can know it. It’s a good death, too, one that involves no suffering, only a few hours of blindness until the final moment comes. And it’s a kind and redemptive death too because Judy has the chance to win riding competitions, drink and smoke with abandon, offend all the people she doesn’t like, find love with the man she loves (not, surprisingly, the brain surgeon) and then to dump him bitterly only to seek his forgiveness and then to have a big wedding and then to run off to New Hampshire with him so they can live in a country cottage while he does brain research in an out building and she keeps house with servants and waits to die.
Davis apparently considered this film her favorite. It was a great commercial success. It’s not her best, however much money it might have made. An actor is not always the best judge of her best work.
A few random thoughts: the notion that a young woman can die happy and fulfilled with no pain and suffering from a brain tumor is offensively sappy. When Judy realizes that her last moments are approaching, she hides her condition from her husband, who is about to leave for New York to present his research. She tells him that she wishes to remain at home with her friend Ann, who has come to visit. I don’t believe this. So her husband leaves, and Judy lets him go, and Ann doesn’t let on that anything is amiss. I don’t believe this either. Then Judy orders Ann to leave too, so that she can show her courage and strength by dying alone. But before she dismisses her, Judy orders Ann never to leave her husband’s side after she is gone, obviously setting her up for matrimony on the rebound. Ann weeps and runs hysterically away down the road, flapping her arms like a suffering bird (or so I imagined it). What a friend.
Davis’ acting is frenetic, nervous, and rapid delivery throughout. Even when she isn’t insulting friends and behaving like a bitter doomed heroine, she isn’t particularly sympathetic. This film was made in the days when doctors and patients could smoke together in medical offices, when everyone admired heavy drinking, when dying patients weren’t told of their condition, when the poor didn’t matter except as props for the rich, or as servants.
The lesson here is that everyone is going to die, some sooner than others, and that we all must use well the time we have remaining, so that we can die a good and noble death in the end. We all should live the best we can. No doubt there. But if there is a good and noble death, I’d like to see it.