Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bette Davis' Victory Over the Dark

"Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can't be destroyed. That's our victory — our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we're not afraid."

Judith (Bette Davis)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the fourth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
"Dark Victory," the Hal Wallis–directed movie that premiered 75 years ago today, had a star–studded cast — but anyone who comes across it while channel surfing and hopes to see a lot of Humphrey Bogart or Ronald Reagan or George Brent or Geraldine Fitzgerald will be disappointed.

Well, I suppose Brent had more screen time than the others. Not only was he Davis' doctor, but they got married as well. Still, this was purely a Bette Davis vehicle. The others were there, I suppose, because it couldn't be a one–woman show. They had their parts to play, and they played them well.

But make no mistake about it: "Dark Victory" was Davis' movie.

It was a bit melodramatic for my taste. Davis played a young heiress who likes horses, fast cars and partying. She's been ignoring headaches and dizzy spells, but when her vision is affected, she goes to see a doctor (Brent).

It is determined that Davis' character has an inoperable brain tumor. The diagnosis is confirmed by experts.

It is at this point that one sees a big difference between the way patients were handled in the 1930s and the way they are treated today.

In "Dark Victory," the option of deliberately concealing Davis' terminal condition from her is openly discussed by her doctor and best friend (Fitzgerald). It is even the strategy that is used for a time — until Davis' character learns the truth on her own.

I have to think that, in the 21st century, doctors would advocate being honest with their patients, even when the truth is unpleasant, and most patients probably want to play active roles in their treatment, to make choices as long as possible.

Still, it was consistent with a general theme of denial. Early in the movie, Davis' character ignores warning signs; it is never mentioned whether she might have been saved if a doctor had been aware of those symptoms earlier. Perhaps medical science had not found a preventive measure for that condition — perhaps it still hasn't — and medical personnel of that time believed it was kinder to ignore a terminal condition than confront it with the patient.

In the end, Davis' character clung to her denial strategy, sending her husband off knowing that she would soon be dead but never acknowledging the gravity of her condition. (You'd think that, being a physician, especially the one who made the original diagnosis, her husband would be aware of her declining condition. But he never showed any sign of that in the movie.)

I suppose that is in keeping with a long–standing American tradition of suffering in silence.

Frank Nugent wrote in the New York Times that "[a] completely cynical appraisal would dismiss it all as emotional flim–flam ... But it is impossible to be that cynical about it."

Perhaps that makes me cynical then. I found the story to be, as I have said, melodramatic. Davis was nominated for Best Actress, but when I first watched "Dark Victory," I felt she was guilty of overacting — and, in hindsight, I am glad Vivien Leigh won for "Gone With the Wind."

Leigh's was a better performance, anyway.