Watching 1939: Dark Victory

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Dark Victory (1939)

Release date:  April 20, 1939

Cast:  Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, Henry Travers, Cora Witherspoon

Studio:  Warner Brothers

Director:  Edmund Goulding

Socialite Judith Traherne (Davis) has been behaving erratically. Many people believe she’s drinking and partying, but her friend Ann King (Fitzgerald) tries to get her to see a doctor. Judith finally sees Dr. Frederick Steele (Brent), who diagnoses Judith with a brain tumor. Dr. Steele does surgery, but will Judith live?

1939 Notes:
• The highest grossing film for Bette Davis at this point in her career.
• Geraldine Fitzgerald was in three films in 1939. Fitzgerald was also signed to Warner Bros. in 1939, which was her first year of making films in Hollywood.
• George Brent was in four films released in 1939, two of them co-starring Bette Davis. The second was “The Old Maid.”
• Humphrey Bogart was in five films released in 1939.
• Henry Travers was in seven films released in 1939, two of them were with George Brent. This film and “The Rains Came” (1939).

Geraldine Fitzgerald and Bette Davis in “Dark Victory.” Fitzgerald was signed to Warner Bros. in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Bette Davis said this was her favorite film.
• David O. Selznick owned the film rights but had not produced it yet, but had Greta Garbo in mind for the role. Bette Davis read the script, decided she wanted to play Judith Traherne and asked Hal Wallis to buy it for Warner Bros., according to the book The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis – A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler.
• Based on a Broadway play that starred Tallulah Bankhead.
• At the end of the film, when Bette Davis is going up the stairs, she didn’t want music and wanted it filmed in silence. “Either I am going up the stairs or Max Steiner is going up the stairs, but not the two of us together,” she’s quoted in Chandler’s book. The final film used Steiner’s music.
• Geraldine Fitzgerald’s character of Ann King was not in the original play but was written in for the film. This was so that a friend was weeping and worrying over Bette Davis’s illness, rather than Davis crying for herself, according to the book Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov.
• The film originally was going to end with Judith Traherne’s horse winning the Grand National and cutting to Humphry Bogart’s character in tears, according to Sikov’s book.
• Remade with Susan Hayward as Summer Flight (1963) (or Stolen Hours)

Awards and Nominations:
• “Dark Victory” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture
• Bette Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role
• Max Steiner was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
“Dark Victory” is a film that I consider one of the top films of 1939.

Film executives were convinced the film would fail, because who would see a movie with a terminal illness? But they were proved wrong when the film opened to great reviews and was number one in the box office for a week, making a total of $97,780,000 ($1,772,624,778.42 in 2018). The film was one of the highest films of the year and made more money than most Bette Davis films up until that point.

With all of that said, it was one of Bette Davis’s most important films in her career, and also her personal favorite.

Outside of Bette Davis, this film and 1939 were important to some of the supporting cast members. Humphrey Bogart became a huge star, but his star was still rising in 1939. The films he performed in this year, like “Roaring Twenties” only helped push him along until his big breaks in 1940 and 1941. Bogart’s role in “Dark Victory” is not a big one and it’s a little different than what we are used to. He’s a stablemaster with an Irish accent and admires Bette Davis’s character from afar.

This was also a big year for Geraldine Fitzgerald. Before 1939, she performed in British films and in American stage plays, but in 1939 she signed to Warner Bros., and “Wuthering Heights” and “Dark Victory” were her debut in Hollywood. Her first year in Hollywood brought her an Academy Award nomination too for Wuthering Heights.”

As for Ronald Reagan, his role as a constantly drunk friend of Davis’s was small, but it was his most important film released in 1939, out of the seven he was in.

Bette Davis and George Brent in “Dark Victory”

While “Dark Victory” is one of Bette Davis’s personal favorite roles, it’s also one of my favorite Bette Davis films. I think Davis gives an excellent performance and I love all the supporting actors and leading man George Brent. This definitely is a movie you need a few tissues for.

While the 1990s seemed to be filled with films dealing with terminal illness or people diagnosed with cancer (Beaches comes to mind), there are few pre-1970s classic films feature a dying lead actor, let alone someone who has a brain tumor. The word “cancer” was rarely used. So that is one thing that makes “Dark Victory” unique for a 1930s film.

“Dark Victory” is one of the shining pinnacles of 1939. If you haven’t caught this one yet, I encourage you to do so.

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3 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Dark Victory

  1. I didn’t know it was Bette’s favorite movie, but it’s one of my favorite Bette Davis movies. That scene at the end when she thinks a cloud has moved over the sun and then she realizes what’s happening…*sob*…it gets me ev-er-y time!


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