Dark Victory (1939)
Dark Victory (1939)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 44 min.

Release Date: April 22nd, 1939 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Edmund Goulding Actors: Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, Henry Travers, Cora Witherspoon, Dorothy Peterson




n a massive estate, where phones ring continuously for various household departments, 23-year-old, extravagant socialite Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) groggily awakes for a phone call from impetuous yet highly skilled horse trainer Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart). At the tracks, she again has difficulties with Michael, a man she can’t help but like and despise simultaneously, before climbing aboard her prize colt for a brisk run, which results in a crash through a gate. “Courage is in the blood.”

“This is more than a hangover.” Judith’s accident isn’t to be blamed on the horse. She’s been having headaches, dizzy spells, and problems with coordination for several weeks now. Befuddled family doctor Parsons (Henry Travers) isn’t much help, requiring the employment of a renowned brain surgeon, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), who is currently making plans to leave his practice for further scientific research on cell mutation. But when Judith’s best friend Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald), along with Parsons, practically force the impatient, irritable girl to visit Steel’s office, the top specialist is immediately alarmed. And a few rudimentary tests are even more disconcerting. Judith may have something seriously wrong with her eyes … or her brain.

“This girl’s desperately ill.” Though she’s in denial – and plainly scared – about the possibilities, Judith is taken with Frederick. She doesn’t want to listen to him, but she also wants to obey; her spoiled upbringing prevents her from being quickly obedient to anyone, yet it’s possible it’s love at first sight where the doctor is concerned. After she’s taken to the hospital and eventually discharged, she then nervously awaits the medical professionals’ private review of her prognosis, while also steadfastly arranging additional time to see Steele. But there’s a nagging lugubriosity surrounding Judith’s recovery, particularly as the audience and supporting roles (save for Ronald Reagan as a well-suited lush) learn tragic details before she does.

“Poor fool. Don’t you know I’m in love with you?” Again, Davis is sensational in this potent drama (her oversized eyes are extremely expressive), remaining a high point even when conversations behind her back turn repetitive. Enough information is provided to viewers that some of the melodramatic interactions are unnecessary (or unintentionally comical), while others are disappointingly contrived, especially when inevitable revelations are unmasked. But there’s still a genuineness to Davis’ alternating flirtations and despondency – or alcohol-fueled coping mechanisms.

A young person confronting mortality head-on is certainly a rare topic for classic romance pictures; the hopelessness, the regret, the anger, the unfairness, and the pondering of the things that truly matter are quite cinematic. The themes tend to be more powerful than the individual events, however, as tinier episodes populate a tale in need of more significant happenings. But the conclusion is still bold and unforgettable, reminding audiences that much of this works only because of the inimitable Bette Davis.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10