- Bette Davis as Judith Traherne
- George Brent as Dr. Frederick Steele
- Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ann King
- Humphrey Bogart as Michael O’Leary
- Henry Travers as Dr. Parsons
A memorable tear-jerker from the 1930’s, Dark Victory contains one Bette Davis’ best performances. Although highly skilled and supremely effective at playing the bitchy ,wicked and sometimes down right evil woman, she could also be sympathetic and quite touching as evidenced by her portrayal of the tragic heiress Judith Traherne in Dark Victory. Although it is clearly a melodrama or “women’s picture” as they were known during the 30’s and 40’s in Hollywood, the performance of Bette Davis coupled with an emotive score by the great Max Steiner make the film a must see example of a classic tear-jerker.
The plot of the film focuses on Long Island heiress Judith Traherne, who lives life to the full by smoking and drinking too much, as well as going to parties as often as she can. Although hedonistic and at times very flippant, she has recently been suffering from severe headaches and slight dizziness that she quickly dismisses as nothing at first. But after her eye sight begins to fail causing her to tumble whilst out riding her horse, her sympathetic best friend Ann suggests she see the doctor about it. Judith is very stubborn as she believes she is perfectly well and is deliberately oppositional when confronted by Dr Frederick Steele. After various checks, the young socialite is diagnosed with a brain tumour which Steele believes he can successfully operate on. After the surgery takes place and further tests are done, it is determined that the tumour will resurface again and eventually kill Judith. Steele, who has fallen deeply in love with the young heiress, confides in the caring Ann about this and both agree to stay silent about it, but later on Judith accidentally discovers the truth about what will eventually happen to her. The most tragic thing about it is that before she dies, her vision will begin to deteriorate and she will then become completely blind. This begins the lead up to one of the most emotional and deeply moving death scenes ever seen on the cinema screen. It is a moment that only a person with a hard heart and no emotional warmth would not find poignant.
Bette Davis is absolutely compelling as the tragic Judith, later in her life she said that her performance in Dark Victory in her opinion was her best performance, out of many from her illustrious and lengthy career. Her best moment on screen is when she realises that she is going blind, the way her face changes from happy and joyful to sad is just heartbreaking to watch. The reason that it is so effective is the look in those famous eyes as she calmly realises that her impending death is gradually approaching and that she must face it. Although the main plot could have been contrived and unrealistic, in the hands of Goulding it becomes a thing of beauty and immense emotional power. In one of her early Hollywood roles, Geraldine Fitzgerald brings warmth and pathos to the character of Ann, as she helps Judith throughout her ordeal. George Brent is slightly wooden in his role of Dr Steele, but still manages moments of greatness when confessing his love for the young heiress. As much as I am a fan of the great Humphrey Bogart, I do think he is underused in the film and somewhat miscast as the horse trainer who has a soft spot for Judith. If his role had been better written it would have added something more to the film. Despite these minor flaws, the film remains an outstanding example of an emotional melodrama equipped with a classy design and direction that aims straight for the heart of the viewer and succeeds.