In Dark Victory, Bette Davis gives one of her most legendary performances as fatally ill socialite Judith Traherne, but the curious thing about this film is that’s there’s not much to it other than its lead actor. Though competently made, it has hardly any substance beyond Davis’ commitment to playing a character who manages to transcend limitations that, before she developed her brain tumour, she never knew she had.
The supporting cast do little to distinguish themselves. Amongst them are: George Brent as Doctor Frederick Steele, who diagnoses Judith, falls in love with her, and tries to cure her; Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ann King, Judith’s secretary and best friend; and, most bizarrely, Humphrey Bogart as Michael O’Leary, the Irishman who runs Judith’s stables. Perhaps the actors are at fault for not bringing much to the screen, or perhaps the film is designed to make them barely more than cardboard cutouts for Davis to react to. There’s also an actor who plays one of Judith’s drunken friends, who is so underwritten that I found myself wondering how it felt to be in that part. My sympathies were misplaced; not being an American, I didn’t instantly recognise the actor as Ronald Reagan.
Dark Victory is built around how Davis plays her role. Headstrong but playful, Judith is a far cry from Davis’ usual commanding, selfish divas. She’s a sympathetic character, though not without her flaws. Her gradual acceptance of her fate, and her ability to meet it with eyes open, is terribly moving. It doesn’t even matter that the film is hugely manipulative and takes sudden religious overtones in its last moments that had not been hinted in anything that had come before.
One of the reasons I watch so many Bette Davis films is that they are often interesting for reasons beyond her performance, more so than is the case for plenty of equally talented actors. Dark Victory, however, while not a bad film, is focused upon Davis to the exclusion of almost everything else. As such, she’s the only reason to watch it.