Oscar has a storied history, especially in Best Picture, with films that are largely a vehicle for a single performance, especially it seems in these still-early years. To the credit of today’s film, Dark Victory, the decision was made to center it around Bette Davis, which is a decision that few of the time or even perhaps today would find too much fault with. Davis, one of my now favorite classic actresses, had just come off a Best Actress win for Jezebel, and evidently she was hungry for more, given how much she puts into her role in Dark Victory. Thankfully, everybody else involved with the film seemed to pick up on this, as they also put everything they have into making this not just a star vehicle for Davis, but a damn fine film in its own right.
Davis is Judith Traherne, a young socialite concerned with little more than living life at the absolute maximum, through parties and adventures and especially horseback riding, though her own body seems to be starting to break down from her hedonistic lifestyle, with intermittent headaches beginning to plague her. It’s when she suffers a spout of double vision and takes a tumble off her horse that her friends, especially her closest friend Ann, are convinced there’s something more wrong with her, even as Judith refuses to see it for herself. The family doctor brings in Dr. Frederick Steele, a specialist in the brain, who breaks through Judith’s hardened facade and manages a diagnosis. It’s only after surgery that things become even more complicated, both romantically between Judith and Dr. Steele, as well as medically when the prognosis of Judith’s condition post-operation becomes known. It was quite the pleasant surprise to find that the film, especially with Davis doing her thing, was up to the challenge of matching her skill level; while Davis is still by and large the best thing Dark Victory has going for it, the film is elevated through everyone else trying and largely succeeding at matching her. The plot is rather simple, when one stops to think about it, but that the film manages to make as much of it that it does without overstepping into melodrama or cramming in needless side narratives is to be congratulated. That’s not to say that the film isn’t a little melodramatic, given the story of course, but it works, mostly thanks to the cast really managing to sell it instead of cranking it up to eleven. The narrative itself is also perfectly structured, making the most of whatever shortness the story inherently has; there’s an excellent section in the middle of the film, for instance, where Judith has been told her surgery was a success, despite Dr. Steele admitting to Ann that the reality is almost precisely the opposite, and Judith goes about living her life anew while the people around her, namely Ann and Dr. Steele, are forced to wear a smile and act as if nothing is wrong. The one aspect of the story I unfortunately wasn’t too much a fan of was Humphrey Bogart’s role; while I saw what the film was trying to do with including him, I also saw that the film was basically married to the idea of including him despite the fact that he isn’t given much to do in the narrative, which given that it’s Humphrey Bogart playing him makes it that much more saddening.
Even with everything that this gets right, and it gets quite a bit right, I still couldn’t help but feel that if it weren’t for the presence of Bette Davis, this wouldn’t have gotten the nom for Best Picture. It is clearly her star power that got this noticed, and I suspect that it is almost entirely because of her star power that this managed a nom for the big one. And really, if that’s the case, that’s a shame, because there’s a sophistication about this one and how it discloses its narrative that frankly a lot of other films that wrangled a Best Picture nom in the past (and future) could look toward and learn from. I got distinct vibes of 1931’s Bad Girl; this doesn’t have much in terms of story, but what it does have is delivered beautifully, with nary a semblance of camp or putting on airs because Hollywood movies were expected to do that. In short, this impressed the hell out of me, and it wasn’t just because of Bette Davis that it did (though it goes without saying that she is excellent in the role regardless). If it was released in another year, I could see this making a heck of a push for a potential win for Best Picture, but given when it was released, it’ll have to settle for being a part of the best year in Hollywood history, and seeing how good a film it actually is, that’s not a bad thing to settle for.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10