Dark Victory

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Dark Victory
Dark movieposter.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Produced by David Lewis
Written by Casey Robinson
Based on Dark Victory
1934 play
by George Emerson Brewer, Jr.
Bertram Bloch
Starring Bette Davis
George Brent
Geraldine Fitzgerald
Humphrey Bogart
Henry Travers
Ronald Reagan
Cora Witherspoon
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by William Holmes
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • April 22, 1939 (1939-04-22)(US)
Running time
104 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1 million (est) [1]
Box office$1.3 million (initial U.S. release) [2]

Dark Victory is a 1939 American melodrama film directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Bette Davis, and featuring George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, Henry Travers, and Cora Witherspoon. The screenplay by Casey Robinson was based on the 1934 play of the same title by George Brewer and Bertram Bloch, starring Tallulah Bankhead.



From the trailer Bette Davis in Dark Victory trailer.jpg
From the trailer

Judith “Judy” Traherne is a young, carefree, hedonistic Long Island socialite and heiress with a passion for horses, fast cars, and too much smoking and drinking. She initially ignores severe headaches and brief episodes of dizziness and double vision, but when she uncharacteristically takes a spill while riding, and then tumbles down a flight of stairs, her secretary and best friend Ann King insists she see the family doctor, who refers her to a specialist.

Dr. Frederick Steele is in the midst of closing his New York City office in preparation of a move to Brattleboro, Vermont, where he plans to devote his time to brain cell research and scientific study on their growth. He reluctantly agrees to see Judy, who is cold and openly antagonistic toward him. She shows signs of short-term memory loss, but dismisses her symptoms. Steele convinces her the ailments she is experiencing are serious and potentially life-threatening, and puts his career plans on hold to tend to her.

When diagnostic tests confirm his suspicions, Judy agrees to surgery to remove a malignant glioma brain tumor. Steele discovers the tumor cannot be completely removed, and realizes she has less than a year to live. The end will be painless but swift; shortly after experiencing total blindness, Judy will die.

In order to allow her a few more months of happiness, Steele opts to lie to Judy and Ann, and assures them the surgery was a success. As he is a poor liar, Ann is suspicious and confronts Steele, who admits the truth. Steele tells Ann, "she must never know" she is going to die soon. She agrees to remain silent and continue the lie.

Geraldine Fitzgerald and Bette Davis, after "Judy" has lost her sight, in final minutes of Dark Victory Dark-Victory-Fitzgerald-Davis.jpg
Geraldine Fitzgerald and Bette Davis, after “Judy” has lost her sight, in final minutes of Dark Victory

Judith and Steele become involved romantically and eventually engaged. While helping his assistant pack the office prior to their departure for Vermont, Judith discovers her case history file containing letters from several doctors, all of them confirming Steele's prognosis. Assuming Steele was marrying her out of pity, Judy breaks off the engagement and reverts to her former lifestyle. One day, her stablemaster Michael O'Leary, who for years has loved her from afar, confronts her about her unruly behavior, and she confesses she is dying. Their conversation convinces her she should spend her final months happy, dignified, and with the man she loves. She apologizes to Steele, and they marry and move to Vermont. (Throughout the film Judith and O'Leary engage in arguments about the prospects of a colt, Challenger. O'Leary insists Challenger will never make a racehorse, while Judith sees him as a future champion. Just before her death, O'Leary admits to her that she was correct.)

Three months later, Ann comes to visit. She and Judith are in the garden planting bulbs when Judy comments on how odd it is she still feels the heat of the sun under the rapidly darkening skies. She and Ann immediately realize she actually is losing her vision and approaching the end. Judy makes Ann stay mum, as Steele is leaving that day to present his most recent medical findings—which hold out the long-term prospect of a cure for her type of cancer—in New York. Judy makes an excuse to remain home, helps him pack and sends him off, telling him “What we have now can’t be destroyed. That’s our victory, our victory over the dark. It’s a victory because we’re not afraid.” Then, after bidding Ann, her housekeeper Martha (who has silently deduced the situation), and her dogs farewell, she goes to her bedroom. She kneels briefly, apparently praying, then lies down on the bed. Martha enters and drapes a blanket over her, then withdraws when Judy asks to be left alone. The camera focuses on the motionless Judith as the screen becomes blurry, then fades to black.


Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis (center, left to right) in the film's trailer Dark Victory trailer group shot.jpg
Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis (center, left to right) in the film's trailer

Cast notes:


Tallulah Bankhead originated the role of Judith Traherne in the Broadway production, which ran for 51 performances at the Plymouth Theatre, [6] before being cut short when Bankhead fell ill with a bacterial infection. Davis openly admitted in later years that she had emulated Bankhead in the role. In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted to cast Greta Garbo and Fredric March in the leads, but Garbo chose to play the lead in Anna Karenina instead. In 1936, he offered the role to Merle Oberon, but contractual problems prevented her from doing the film. When Bette Davis discovered the play in 1938, she shopped it to every producer on the Warners lot, and Hal Wallis bought the rights from Selznick for her, for $50,000, when director Edmound Goulding and producer David Lewis showed interest in the project. [3]

Davis had recently ended affairs with William Wyler and Howard Hughes and her husband Ham Nelson had filed for divorce, and after the first few days of filming she begged to be released from her contract, claiming she was too sick to continue. [7] Producer Hal Wallis responded, "I've seen the rushes – stay sick!" She found comfort with Brent, who had just divorced Constance Worth, and the two embarked on an affair that continued throughout filming and for a year – and three films – after. [5] Goulding shot the film in sequence, and the arc of Judith's relationship with Dr. Steele mirrored Davis' relationship with Brent. [5] Davis was later to say that she wanted to marry Brent, but thought that it wouldn't work out. Still, "Of the men I didn't marry, the dearest was George Brent." [5]

The tune, "Oh, Give Me Time for Tenderness" sung by Judith was written by Edmund Goulding and Elsie Janis. The voice of Vera Van was dubbed for Davis.

Another scene for the film's ending was shot, but ultimately was deemed anticlimactic: after Judith's death, her horse was seen winning a race, and her stablehand Michael (Bogart) was shown crying. The scene met with negative response with sneak preview audiences and was cut. [8]

The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall.


Marquee at the Oakwood Theatre in Toronto promoting Dark Victory Oakwood Theatre in 1924.png
Marquee at the Oakwood Theatre in Toronto promoting Dark Victory

Frank S. Nugent, in his review in The New York Times , observed: "A completely cynical appraisal would dismiss it all as emotional flim-flam, a heartless play upon tender hearts by a playwright and company well versed in the dramatic uses of going blind and improvising on Camille . But it is impossible to be that cynical about it. The mood is too poignant, the performances too honest, the craftsmanship too expert. Miss Davis, naturally, has dominated—and quite properly—her film, but Miss Fitzgerald has added a sentient and touching portrayal of the friend, and George Brent, as the surgeon, is—dare we say?—surprisingly self-contained and mature. This once we must run the risk of being called a softy: we won't dismiss Dark Victory with a self-defensive sneer." [9]

Variety called the film "intense drama" and "a nicely produced offering [with] Bette Davis in a powerful and impressive role." [10]

Time Out London critic Tom Milne writes: "[Davis] and [director Edmund] Goulding almost transform the soap into style; a Rolls-Royce of the weepie world." [11]

On Turner Classic Movies, Margarita Landazuri said: "Dark Victory was a three-hanky hit. Filmgoers and critics alike knew their emotions were being manipulated, but so expertly and touchingly that they couldn't help but cheer." [5]

The film was included at #32 in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions.

The film is mentioned in the play "Steel Magnolias," by Clairee in Act Two, Scene 1. [12] It is also mentioned in the 2015 movie The Frontier by the Luann character as a missed opportunity in her career.

Dark Victory currently holds an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on twenty-three reviews. The site's consensus states: "Bette Davis does it her way with a tour de force performance in Dark Victory, a moving melodrama that snatches triumph from the jaws of mortality." [13]

Awards and honors

Bette Davis was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress but lost to Vivien Leigh, star of Gone with the Wind . Max Steiner, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score for both this and Gone with the Wind, lost to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz . The film itself lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Gone with the Wind.

The New York Times named Dark Victory as one of the "10 Best Films of 1939", as did Film Daily, and the National Board of Review picked both Bette Davis and Geraldine Fitzgerald for Best Acting that year. [14]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Adaptations and remakes


On January 8, 1940 Davis and Spencer Tracy appeared in a 60-minute adaptation of the film on Lux Radio Theatre . [18] Barbara Stanwyck and Melvyn Douglas had previously performed an adaptation, one based on the original Broadway play, on Lux Radio Theatre on April 4, 1938. [19] On March 6, 1952, CBS Radio's Hollywood Sound Stage aired a condensed 30-minute version starring Stanwyck and David Brian. [20] [21]


In 1963, the film was remade as Stolen Hours with Susan Hayward and Michael Craig, directed by Daniel Petrie. The action took place in then-contemporary England.


It was remade in 1953, under its original title, as a TV adaptation for the Broadway Television Theatre , starring Sylvia Sidney, Christopher Plummer, and Ian Keith. In 1976, the story was produced under its original title as an NBC television movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery as television producer Katherine Merrill under the care of Dr. Michael Grant, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins; this version was directed by Robert Butler. [3]


Max Steiner's original score to Dark Victory was released in 2006 by Screen Archives Entertainment and Chelsea Rialto Studios. The album contains the majority of the score as heard in the film in chronological order. It was produced using digital copies of the composer's personal reference acetate discs stored at Brigham Young University which were digitally restored by Ray Faiola. This rare limited edition includes a lavishly illustrated 32 page color booklet featuring extensive liner notes by film and music historians Rudy Behlmer, Ray Faiola and James V. D'Arc (Curator of the BYU Film Music Archives) detailing the film's production and scoring. [22]

Track listing

  1. Main Title - 0:55
  2. The Accident - 1:53
  3. Ann’s Concern - 2:27
  4. Running Away From the Truth - 5:13
  5. Diagnosis - 2:46
  6. In Your Hands - 1:38
  7. Telling Ann the Truth - 3:57
  8. Judy’s Suspicions - 2:18
  9. Prognosis Negative - 1:53
  10. Oh! Give Me Time for Tenderness - 0:28
  11. The Tack Room - 2:55
  12. Ann Weeps Over Judy - 1:17
  13. Fred Proposes to Judy - 3:06
  14. Home in Vermont - 1:56
  15. The End is Near - 4:25
  16. Our Victory Over the Dark - 5:01
  17. End Cast - 0:28

Total Time: 38:76

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  4. Sikov 2007, p. 138.
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  7. Schickel and Perry 2009, pp. 102–103.
  8. DVD audio commentary by film historian James Ursini and CNN film critic Paul Clinton, 2005 issue, Warner Home Video
  9. Nugent, Frank S. "Dark Victory (1939): Bette Davis scores new honors in 'Dark Victory'; George Brent also is seen in the music hall feature" The New York Times (April 21, 1939)
  10. "Dark Victory (1939)." Variety, December 31, 1938. Retrieved: August 20, 2012.
  11. Milne, Tom. Time Out London review 2008, p. 242.
  12. Harling, Robert (1988). Steel Magnolias. Dramatists Play Service. p. 45. ISBN   978-0-8222-1078-8.
  13. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/dark_victory
  14. "Awards" on Allmovie.com
  15. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions" (PDF). American Film Institute . Retrieved 2016-08-18.
  16. "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-18.
  17. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers" (PDF). American Film Institute . Retrieved 2016-08-18.
  18. "KSL – THE VOICE OF THE WEST (advertisement)". The Deseret News. 1940-01-08. p. 14. Retrieved 2020-11-03.
  19. "KSL – THE VOICE OF THE WEST (advertisement)". The Deseret News. 1938-04-04. p. 16. Retrieved 2020-11-02.
  20. Goldin, J. David. "Hollywood Sound Stage." radiogoldindex.com, 2012. Retrieved: August 20, 2012.
  21. Kirby, Walter (March 2, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 42. Retrieved May 28, 2015 via Newspapers.com. Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  22. "DARK VICTORY Soundtrack Now Available!". FSM Board. Retrieved May 24, 2021.


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