Before soap operas could be broadcast daily on television, there had to be movies that gave viewers the same impact of a melodrama about eccentric people getting into life-and-death situations. One such film is “Dark Victory,” a 1939 film staring Bette Davis, George Bent, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan and Henry Travers and its utterly manipulative and forced story, which follows a young selfish socialite (Davis) being diagnosed with a rare brain tumor and that she has only months left to live.
Her doctor (Brent) slowly starts to fall in love with her and believes he shouldn’t have the power to say who lives and who dies, and so he doesn’t tell her that she’s dying, instead letting her lead her hedonistic lifestyle like she always has, without any knowledge that her end is coming very soon.
While this type of story can be quite an emotional rollercoaster, “Dark Victory”‘s execution of this story is more eye-rolling and manipulative than it needed to be. The film is filled to the brim with clichés – her doctor was ten minutes away from retiring from brain surgery before she walked in, she has no regard for human life but loves her horses and dogs to death, and of course the classic doctor falling in love with his patient cliché, even though Davis and Brent’s characters have next to nothing in common. But what really drives it all home is how forced it feels that the doctor has to hide her own faith from her for reasons that don’t even begin to make sense.
The only reason he doesn’t tell her that she’s dying from the start is because the plot says so. Because they need half an hour of the doctor and her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) hiding the truth from her while pretending like nothing is wrong, and then another half hour of Davis reacting to the truth. The movie would be so simple if she knew what was going to happen, and the last thing this film wants to be is simple.
If there is one positive out of “Dark Victory” it is the acting from everyone in the cast. I was surprised to learn that George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan and Henry Travers were all in the same film, but I was even more surprised to see that all of them turned out stellar performances. All of them felt like they were moments away from emotional breakdowns, or in Henry Travers case, breaking into tears.
But the real star of the show was Bette Davis, who sold this entire character and her wide range of character quirks, both subtle and over-the-top. She undergoes one of the most melodramatic metamorphosis’ I’ve ever seen, and she never comes across as anything more than authentic and genuine, all while remaining strong and fiercely independent. She makes the big emotional scenes feel bigger and the sad moments stick in the back of your mind long after you’ve watched the film. Davis owns this role and she makes this a movie worth seeing.
Although, other than a great cast of actors, “Dark Victory” doesn’t have much else going for it. The film feels dated and is more than a little manipulative. There were many times that the film tried to force an emotional response, and it often did not work. If you like cheesy and cliché melodramas that feel like something out of “General Hospital” or “Days of Our Lives,” then you’ll enjoy this one just fine. But besides that, the only reason I’d want to check out “Dark Victory” is because of its surprising amount of great performances.
Final Grade: C