Sunday, December 29, 2019

Bette Watch: Dark Victory (1939)

Watched:  12/29/2019
Format:  Criterion Channel
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1930's

Look, it's possible Bette Davis is one of 5 or so finest actors to have graced the screen, at least in Hollywood films.  Yeah, she is "of the era" on some things, but - man, even in not-great films she's a power house, and then in something that plays to her range and strengths?

In 2019, Dark Victory (1939) would land as Oscar-bait of the highest caliber, and I'd be curious to see who would get dream-cast in a remake (so drop your ideas in the comments if you've seen this movie).  A complicated lead, a heaping helping of melodrama, tears are jerked, and fate and romance intertwine.  At the center you have one of Hollywood's brightest stars and given her pathos, mania, and a hell of a character arc.  And - that greatest of Oscar check boxes - inescapable death!

The plot is:  socialite horse-enthusiast enjoying the hell out of being rich, single and care-free experiences symptoms of a neurological issue.  She's diagnosed by George Brent, but is in a bit of denial.

While her surgery is more or less successful and removes her symptoms, Brent realizes the tumor is spreading and will kill her within a year.  He tells her best friend, but swears her to secrecy.  Also, he falls in love with Davis, as one does.  Eventually, Davis and her doctor find love only for her to learn he's been hiding her diagnoses and she dumps him and goes on a wild-ass bender before they reunite.  And then after finding peace and a quiet life (with domestic help), she finally succumbs, triumphant in her acceptance and welcoming of death.

I'm making it sound terrible, but it's really something.


The movie includes a "just before Maltese Falcon" Humphrey Bogart trying his hand at an Irish accent - which he absolutely cannot pull off, but he's good nonetheless.  Geraldine Fitzgerald plays "the best friend" so well - as Jamie put it - you kind of wish they'd jettisoned the romance for a story about two best friends, instead.  Henry Travers plays a sort of country doctor, and we get a young Ronald Reagan playing one of Davis' beaus.

Reagan, btw, is pretty darn good here!  He's not the world's best actor in most of the movies in which I've seen him, but as a socialite drunk of amiable disposition, he's pretty dang charming.

sometimes you just need to get plowed with Dutch

George Brent gets a lot of screen time, and I'll be up front:  I am not the world's biggest George Brent fan.  I'd previously seen him in Baby Face, FBI Girl and 42nd Street, but always feels like he's got the acting range of a fence post.  He sort of stands around like one while Davis is sort of acting at and around him.  He's not George Raft tough to watch, but you want to cheer for the romance of a movie and it felt kinda lopsided to me.

When you're talking a 1930's movie about socialites, you kinda maybe should check who did the costuming/ gowns - and that's Orry-Kelly, who - personally - I think did a great job here.  Davis looks amazing here, and it's no wonder he and Davis seem to have paired on a great number of movies.

Look, this movie is a weepy melodrama, which I'm surprisingly tolerant of up til about, I dunno, 1970?  After that, I'm far more hit or miss.  But as a big Jack Warner film with lovely sets and Davis front and center?  Sure.  I'm in.

Look, this movie *could* have won a lot of Oscars, but it went up against Gone With The Wind, and I'll leave it to you to imagine how that went.  Davis was certainly nominated, but... I mean, you're aware of Vivienne Leigh in GWTW, I assume.  So if you're gonna lose, at least know you put in a good fight against the biggest movie of all time, I guess.


Groboclown said...

After seeing parts of Marrage Story, I'm thinking that Scarlett Johansson might be able to have the chops to play lead.

The League said...

I was just asking Jamie the other day if people considered ScarJo to be not just a popular actor, but a *good* actor. I think she's really pretty terrific and brings a lot to even the super-hero-y type stuff I typically see her in. I think she's definitely in contention for doing something like this.