Dark Victory (1939)

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Promotional photograph of Geraldine Fitzgerald and Bette Davis in the film Dark Victory. Public Domain Photo.

Plot: Judy Traherne is a 23 year-old socialite who loves riding horses. One afternoon, she takes a nasty spill and tests conclude she has a brain tumor. Though hesitant, she eventually concedes to a surgery that is ultimately unsuccessful. But she’s not told by either her doctor-turned-lover/fiancé or her best friend that she will die within months. But like every good story, Judy discovers her prognosis and confronts her saboteurs. While initially angry, Judy eventually softens, and reconciles with both of them, marries the doctor, moves to New England so the doctor can focus on research, while they both ignore Judy’s reality. The film ends with Judy sending away her husband, her friend, and EVEN HER DOGS, so she can die alone on her bed.

Best Moment: Maybe I’m a tad bit pragmatic, but early on in the film, the good doctor goes on a rant about the lack of cancer research. I loved it. He is frustrated with his inability to understand the disease, so he decides to quit surgery and focus on research. He does this because he hopes for “a serum for cancer, like insulin for diabetes.” Oh, that it were so, dear doctor.

Worst Moment: Can there be a bad moment in a film that stars Bette Davis? Perhaps if I redefine “worst”–the worst moment was when I realized just how powerless doctors often are. So many times in film and television, doctors are the heroes, those who know all. Here, I felt a great deal of empathy for all doctors. As my brother-in-law once said to me, “There’s a reason we call it a practice.”

Fun Facts: Well, probably the funnest fact is that Judy’s horse trainer is played by Humphrey Bogart, and her friend that’s a boy is played by Ronald Reagan. Bette Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance–and she really is quite wonderful–but the film had the unfortunate timing of coming out the same year as Gone With The Wind, so I’ll let you figure out how that ended up for Ms. Davis.

(Vivien Leigh totally won.)

Recommendation: Oh, see it. The end isn’t gut-wrenching. And it really is a good testament to how we all can live fully, even when we know our time is running out. Plus, when my friend Lynne found out what this week’s movie was, she was so excited I’d seen it! She loves this movie! So if Lynne loves it, and if I say see it, then you should probably see it.


One thought on “Dark Victory (1939)

  1. Thanks for a fun blog on a great film! I totally agree that medicine is not an exact science. In reality, doctors cast about until they figure out some kind of solution. Would that medical reality could be more like another great film- Magnificent Obsession, but that is another blog! It is interesting that Dark Victory does have a relatively hopeful finish. You can check out my Queen of the Lot blog at: maxmcmanus.com.

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