Dark Victory (1939)

Eighty-one years ago today, the film Dark Victory premiered. 1939 is wildly agreed as one of the very best years of film. For example, it was up against Academy Awards with Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Bette Davis is spectacular. You have to see this film.

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Title: Dark Victory
Directed by: Edmund Goulding
Produced by: David Lewis
Written by: Casey Robinson
Based on: Dark Victory, 1934 play, by George Emerson Brewer, Jr., Bertram Bloch
Starring: Bette Davis, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Travers, Ronald Reagan, Cora Witherspoon
Music by: Max Steiner
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Edited by: William Holmes
Production company: Warner Bros.
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Release date: April 22, 1939
Running time: 104 minutes
Budget: $1 million

Judith “Judy” Traherne is a young, carefree, hedonistic Long Island socialite and heiress with a passion for horses, fast cars, and too much smoking and drinking. She initially ignores severe headaches and brief episodes of dizziness and double vision, but when she uncharacteristically takes a spill while riding, and then tumbles down a flight of stairs, her secretary and best friend Ann King insists she see the family doctor, who refers her to a specialist.

Dr. Frederick Steele is in the midst of closing his New York City office in preparation of a move to Brattleboro, Vermont, where he plans to devote his time to brain cell research and scientific study on their growth. He reluctantly agrees to see Judy, who is cold and openly antagonistic toward him. She shows signs of short-term memory loss, but dismisses her symptoms. Steele convinces her the ailments she is experiencing are serious and potentially life-threatening, and puts his career plans on hold to tend to her.

When diagnostic tests confirm his suspicions, Judy agrees to surgery to remove a malignant glioma brain tumor. Steele discovers the tumor cannot be completely removed, and realizes she has less than a year to live. The end will be painless but swift—shortly after experiencing total blindness, Judy will die.

In order to allow her a few more months of happiness, Steele opts to lie to Judy and Ann and assures them the surgery was a success. As he is a poor liar, Ann is suspicious and confronts Steele, who admits the truth. Steele tells Ann, “she must never know” she is going to die soon. She agrees to remain silent and continue the lie.

Judith and Steele become involved romantically and eventually engaged. While helping his assistant pack the office prior to their departure for Vermont, Judith discovers her case history file containing letters from several doctors, all of them confirming Steele’s prognosis. Assuming Steele was marrying her out of pity, Judy breaks off the engagement and reverts to her former lifestyle. One day, her stablemaster Michael O’Leary, who for years has loved her from afar, confronts her about her unruly behavior and she confesses she is dying. Their conversation convinces her she should spend her final months happy, dignified, and with the man she loves. She apologizes to Steele, they marry, and move to Vermont. (Throughout the film Judith and O’Leary engage in arguments about the prospects of a colt, Challenger. O’Leary insists Challenger will never make a racehorse while Judith sees him as a future champion, and just before her death O’Leary admits she was correct.)

Three months later, Ann comes to visit. She and Judith are in the garden planting bulbs when Judy comments on how odd it is she still feels the heat of the sun under the rapidly darkening skies. She and Ann immediately realize she actually is losing her vision and approaching the end. Judy makes Ann stay mum, as Steele is leaving that day to present his most recent medical findings—which hold out the long-term prospect of a cure for her type of cancer—in New York. Judy makes an excuse to remain home, helps him pack and sends him off, telling him “What we have now can’t be destroyed. That’s our victory, our victory over the dark. It’s a victory because we’re not afraid.” Then, after bidding Ann, her housekeeper Martha (who has silently deduced the situation), and her dogs farewell, she goes to her bedroom. She kneels briefly, apparently praying, then lies down on the bed. Martha enters and drapes a blanket over her, then withdraws when Judy asks to be left alone. The camera focuses on the motionless Judith as the screen becomes blurry, then fades to black.

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