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.
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:
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.