Tag Archives: Dark Victory

Camelia (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1953)

A melodrama; a combination of Camille (George Cukor, 1936) and Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939), with the beautiful Jorge Mistral and the even more beautiful María Felix. He’s the bullfighter so besotted he dedicates a bull to her only to be so blinded by her beauty, he loses concentration and gets gored. She send him a check to pay his expenses but he won’t accept it. Thus their love story begins.

She triumphs nightly on stage in ‘Our Lady of the Camelias’ but in truth is ‘the most expensive woman in Mexico,’ selling her lifestyle to the highest bidder. ‘ ‘I’m bad, egotistical vain. I enjoy making fun of men and I’ve had so many lovers I can’t remember their faces. I love you but I’m very ambitious. You’ll suffer very much because I can’t deny myself anything. Flee from me! If you can’t, I only ask that you don’t reproach me anything or ask me any questions’. She continues accepting fabulous suites of jewels from endless admirers whilst saving her heart for Jorge Mistral’s gorgeous bullfighter. The maid thinks he doesn’t appreciate this enough: ‘You have the most sought after woman in Mexico and still complain. Those of you who receive love for free are vey curious. You think because you have lovely faces you get all the rights and none of the responsibilities.’

Love is the only thing that can shipwreck such a life, and so it comes to pass. She gives up everything for him. He’s still driven mad with jealousy over her past. They decide to marry but, the night before the wedding, his brother appears. It turns out, he’s one of her previous lovers, and spent three years in jail as a result of a robbery he committed so he could buy her favours. She’s forced to leave her true love almost at the moment of culmination, just as everything she dreamed of her life as a young girl is about to come true. But no matter, she’s got a rare form of cancer and will die soon, the moment she becomes blind, just like Bette Davis in Dark Victory. She does, but onstage, and not before each avows their love for the other and seal it with a kiss.

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-01 at 11.48.10.pngThe film is essential viewing for anyone interested in melodrama. Each phrase is like a little lesson in life, spoken in hushed tones, like in a dream. If the phrasing has a poetic intensity, so do Gabriel Figueroa’s beautiful images, with the scenes in the country, the could-have-been section of the film just before everything turns to dust, being particularly lovely.

The first third of the film alternates what’s happening onstage in ‘Our Lady of the Camelias ‘with what happens in the world of the film; the film bookends and rhymes the beginning and the scene before the end in a bullfight arena; there are three glorious love songs, each giving voice to what the characters feel; there’s a scene in a train station where Felix, dressed in mink, renounces everything she’s lived by to be united with the man she loves; and there’s even  a scene in Church where God’s representative forgives all the sinning, a necessary pre-amble to the glorious death-bed scene, which here happens both onstage and off. Just like much of the film. It’s directed with an intense, quasi-musical tone sustained throughout so that the film seems to take place purely in a world of feeling. A must-see.

 

José Arroyo

Dark Victory (Edmond Goulding, USA, 1939)

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Pauline Kael called Dark Victory a ‘kitsch classic’. It was certainly one of her most popular films and continues to be one of her most enduring. If it weren’t for her, I’d find most of it hard to bear. The script is one cliché after another. Edmund Goulding directs skillfully, but cynically — one can’t imagine him believing what he’s trying to get us to swallow. It’s got George Brent, arguably the dullest leading man in film history (though it’s a category not short of contenders), Ronald Reagan (another contender for the title: leaden, amateurish and completely unconvincing as a drunken playboy), and Humphrey Bogart as an Irish ‘stable boy’ (you’ll find it hard not to giggle at his accent).

Davis plays Judith Traherne, a rich Long Island heiress who lives for parties and horse races (‘I won’t be tamed!’). She gets headaches; she begins to see double. She doesn’t mind putting herself in danger, but when she almost kills a horse she allows her best friend Anne (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to get her to her family doctor. A younger, smarter, doctor, Dr. Steele (George Brent), finally diagnoses a fatal disease.

An operation is called for. It’s only a partial success: she’ll live normally for a few months but then one day her vision will begin to cloud and that will be a sign that she’s only got a few hours to live. Anne and Dr. Steele decide to keep the verdict from Judith, who falls in love with the doctor, finds out they’ve been hiding information from her, suspects the Doctor’s only agreed to marry her out of pity and decides to live life to the full while she can; a situation Irish Bogart threatens to take advantage of. Eventually she ‘sees sense’, marries the Doctor, and a has a few happy months until one day she imagines the sky clouding over whilst the sun is still hot on her hands, and then she and Ann, in a neat reversal, keep the good doctor from knowing she’s just about to die in order to minimise his hurt.

The only reason to see the film today is for Davis and for the celebrated final scene. In the trailer for the film, Warner Brothers promises: ‘In the career of every great actress one role lives forever as her finest creation….The most exciting star on the screen in a story that light the full fire of her genius’. Whilst Judith Traherne is far from Davis finest creation — she’s better in Jezebel and The Letter, amongst many others —  she is definitely a star of fire and genius in Dark Victory. Most of the fire is misguided, the first scenes are all snap and verve, and such are the mannerisms that would be accentuated in later years by female impersonators defining her by what are essentially her worst characteristics: the bulgy eyes, the nervy arm movements, the speedy clip of a walk, the turn of the head.

She’s got some beautiful moments, the famous ending of course, but also a drunk scene with a wooden Ronald Reagan (see clip above) where she gets the band to stay after hours and play ‘Oh Give Me Time’ for her. It’s very restrained: she doesn’t overdo the drunkenness. It’s also poignant of course, because Judith has little time. It’s very-well directed (as opposed to merely ‘professional’, like the rest of the film). She’s very glamorously made up. Orry-Kelly has her in a black dress, with a fur bolero and matching hat, the hairs of which match and rhyme with the shadows cast by her eyelashes, her face framed by the fur, and a glistening diamond brooch on the black dress. It looks exquisite. She’s clearly at her peak yet soon to die. It’s beautifully done. But Davis is even better, and her acting is part of the mise-en-scène. Just look at the very last shot, where she sighs, her shoulders droop and she seems to expire before us as the scene fades to black (see image below): At her most beautiful yet soon to die. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But Davis elevates it, makes it beautiful and true. With her, it’s melodrama at its best.

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Aside from Davis, I’m interested in how the story lends itself to a gay reading, not in all its aspects, more like a kaleidoscope in which only some parts glisten towards that particular audience. It’s a place I suppose where the female audience the trailer addressed might have intersected with a gay male audience (of yesterday and today). The trailer (see below) tells us Dark Victory is, ‘The story of a free soul: ‘I’ve never taken orders from anyone, as long as I live I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me’; dialogue extracts include: ‘‘What a relief to know you’re no better than I am’; ‘Are you afraid to burn Michael’? We’re told that she’s:

 

Reckless

Provocative

Defiant

Loving

Dangerous (the title of the film she won her first Academy Award for; Reckless is the title of a Jean Harlow vehicle)

 

 

 

I’m sure many gay men felt the same way. The line, ‘She tried to give her heart honestly and completely, fighting the terrible shadow that stood between her and the man she loved’ might still have particular resonance with men with HIV.

I suppose it’s kitsch because its full of clichés we know are false, yet their particular rendering here is entertaining. We recognise them, laugh at them, enjoy them. Yet, one can’t deny there are moments when one becomes genuinely moved in spite of the kitsch. These are the moments we owe to Davis. It’s why we still continue to see these films; why these films are still worth watching.

 

José Arroyo

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