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144. DARK VICTORY, 1939

A phenomenal tearjerker starring Hollywood’s most commanding screen presence

Bette Davis and Geraldine Fitzgerald planting in the garden in the iconic scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Out of the thousands of movies made in Hollywood during the Studio Era, relatively few found the lasting power to become classics. And just what makes a classic? It could be many things, such as an unforgettable performance, an indelible moment or scene, the film hits a core truth about life or humanity, or has a big emotional impact. Or it might be like this week’s classic, “Dark Victory”, and have all these things. “Dark Victory” contains a remarkable tour de force performance by its star Bette Davis, has several iconic moments, an unforgettable final shot, it speaks to how we all must face death (either our own or someone we love), and is quite the tearjerker. It earned three Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), was a big moneymaker, became Davis’ most popular role at the time, and continues to resonate, landing on two of AFI’s (American Film Institute) Greatest Movies of All-Time lists (as the 32nd Greatest Love Story and the 72nd Most Inspiring). It’s also a stellar example of the sublime entertainment produced in Hollywood’s heyday.


George Brent and Geraldine Fitzgerald talk to Bette Davis before her brain operation in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
“Dark Victory”

“Dark Victory” gives its plot away pretty quickly, but if you’re one who likes to know nothing about a film before you see it, you should stop reading the rest of this post now and resume after you’ve watched the film, for there’s no way to talk about “Dark Victory” without revealing its ending. That said, the film actually discloses its ending approximately a half-hour into the story and it’s the journey that makes this film so compelling. In any case, I'll do my best not to spoil some of the film’s best moments.


Cora Witherspoon, Ronald Reagan, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Travers surround Bette Davis in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

At the center of “Dark Victory” is spoiled, wealthy Long Island socialite “Judith Trahern”, whose carefree life revolves around her horses, parties, and shopping. She’s surrounded by her two dogs and staff, including her trusted caretaker and housekeeper "Martha", her newly hired horse trainer “Michael”, and her secretary and best friend “Ann”. Plagued with headaches and vision problems (which she writes off as “hangovers”), “Judith” refuses to see a doctor until things quickly get serious. Her doctor, “Dr. Parsons”, recommends she see brain surgeon specialist “Dr. Frederick Steele”.


Henry Travers pleads with Bette Davis to meet brain surgeon George Brent in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Nervous, jittery, and impudent, the 23 year old “Judith” sharply tells “Frederick”, “I’m well, absolutely well. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me. And neither you nor ‘Dr. Parsons’ can make an invalid out of me”. It turns out “Judith” has glioma, an incurable brain tumor, and after operating, doctor’s give her about ten months to live symptom free before suddenly going blind and dying a few hours later. To complicate matters, “Judith” and “Frederick” find themselves madly in love.


George Brent examines Bette Davis in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

It may sound silly or trite, but “Dark Victory” is none of that. Masterfully put together in every way, including Davis’ amazing performance, it is believable, heart-wrenching melodrama. Even Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times said in his review, “It is impossible to be that cynical about it. The mood is too poignant, the performances too honest, the craftsmanship too expert” and called the film “one of the most sensitive and haunting pictures of the season”. The film earned a Best Picture Academy Award nomination, which says a lot, considering it was 1939, the year widely considered the greatest in Hollywood history (other films that year include “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “Stagecoach”, and “Wuthering Heights”, to name a few).


Virginia Brissac, Bette Davis, and Geraldine Fitzgerald in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

The film was based on the 1934 play “Dark Victory”, by George Brewer and Bertram Bloch, which starred Tallulah Bankhead. A critical success, it attracted the attention of David O. Selznick who bought the rights to make a film version starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March. When that fell through, the property sat idle for a few years until Bette Davis heard about it. With the force of an unstoppable train, Davis hounded Warner executives to make the film until producer David Lewis finally came onboard. They enlisted major film director Edmund Goulding (who previously directed Davis in 1937's "That Certain Woman") to direct, which was enough for Warners to buy the rights, though according to Davis’ autobiography “The Lonely Life”, Mr. Warner begrudgingly said “Who is going to want to see a picture about a girl who dies?”. Evidently, a lot of people. “Dark Victory” became Davis’ most successful film to date and one of Warners’ biggest moneymakers, reportedly earning enough profit for Warners to build three new soundstages.


Geraldine Fitzgerald and Bette Davis in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Credit must be given to the film’s director, Edmund Goulding, who had a clear sense that “Dark Victory” was a weepie and did everything he could to milk as much emotion from the audience as possible. One way was by enlarging the character of “Judith’s” secretary “Ann” and making her the one who grieves, which allowed “Judith” to never complain or have self-pity about her situation and remain nobly strong. He added additional plot details to make us teary (and they do), pulling out all the emotional stops, and because Goulding was such a skilled director, it all works tremendously.


Bette Davis from behind in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
“Dark Victory”

Goulding’s glorious technical work helps define the characters, relationships, and emotions to the hilt. A superb example is the exquisite scene in which “Frederick” first examines “Judith”. Not wanting to be examined, “Judith” is cutting and sarcastic while “Frederick” closely observes her and slowly gets her to cooperate. Goulding uses subtle camera moves towards and away from the pair, interspersed with revealing closeups accentuating their fantastic game of cat of mouse. He even includes an unusually marvelous shot behind Davis' head off to the side as we hear “Frederick” tell her what’s really going on as if reading her mind. It’s such a vulnerable angle that makes us feel "Judith's" sensitivity. He then cuts to a shot of them both with “Judith” slightly out of focus, making us sense “Judith’s” confusion and lost feeling. And by lingering on this scene for a lengthy time, we get a chance to become involved with “Judith’s” situation and her relationship with “Frederick”. It’s super fine directing.


George Brent comforts Bette Davis in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
“Dark Victory”

Portrait photo of British Hollywood movie director classic film Edmond Goulding young in white sweater
Edmund Goulding

London-born Edmund Goulding started singing in music halls at the age of nine and then began acting on stage. After serving and being twice wounded in World War I, he moved to New York in 1915, performed on stage, and began a very successful career writing scenarios (scripts) for silent films in 1916. Now one of the best writers in the business, Goulding was beckoned to Hollywood by Warner Brothers in 1923 and put under contract. He moved to MGM in 1925, where he also began directing, starting with 1925's "Sun-Up". He often produced, cowrote scripts, and even wrote music for films, often without credit (he wrote the song sung at the bar in "Dark Victory" – "Oh, Give Me Time for Tenderness"), wrote over 65 screenplays and scenarios, and directed 39 films. His direction led nine actors to Oscar nominations (with two wins), and three films to Best Picture nominations, including "Dark Victory" (with 1932's "Grand Hotel" winning the statue). Other films he directed include "Love", "Nightmare Alley", "The Razor's Edge", "The Dawn Patrol", and four films with Davis, the others being "That Certain Woman", "The Old Maid", and "The Great Lie". Goulding was gay, reportedly also slept with some women, and married his best friend Marjorie Moss when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, remaining with her until her death just over three years later. Edmund Goulding died in 1959 at the age of 68.


Bette Davis stars as a woman dying of a brain tumor in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Portrait photo of young Hollywood film actress, icon, movie star, legend, eyes, Bette Davis
Bette Davis

If you ever wondered what the big deal is about Bette Davis’ eyes (remember the hit 1981 Kim Carnes song about them?), one look at "Dark Victory" and you'll forever know. They can deliver monologues without Davis uttering a word, and one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the emotions they convey. The examination scene by "Frederick" is as fine an example as any in the movie, with Davis stubbornly and curtly entering “Frederick’s” office with biting sarcasm, condescension, and shades of fear before shifting to appreciation, warmth, and hope – all of which can be seen in her dazzling eyes. And there’s the nuanced moment when “Frederick’s” nurse interrupts and says "'Dr. Steele', if you don't leave immediately you'll miss that train” and Davis’ eyes fill with a fearful yearning, turning to relief and gratitude when he responds "cancel the tickets”. It’s honest, affecting acting at its most magnificent, and as such, “Dark Victory” is first and foremost a Bette Davis film. Her intense dramatic skills are at their sharpest. From the stubborn and frivolous attitude of “But I haven’t the time to be ill. It’s just some minor nonsense”, to finding out she’s going to die, Davis draws in the viewer and demands our attention and sympathy. And as angrily dramatic as she can get ordering dinner or being emotionally destroyed while singing a song, Davis is also at her most girlishly playful and gentle in “Dark Victory”, as in her scenes with “Ann” or in her house up in Vermont.


Bette Davis and George Brent are happy in the kitchen in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Though Davis fought tirelessly to get Warners to make “Dark Victory” just to play this part, she was going through a divorce at the time and once filming began, no longer thought she could do the role justice. She told producer Hal B. Wallis (Warners' head of production) that she wanted out of the film. According to Davis, Wallis had already seen the first week’s footage and told her “Stay upset”. It was the right call, for Davis gives a powerhouse of a performance and it’s because of her that the movie has such a walloping impact. Even her arch rival Joan Crawford was quoted in the book, “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud” as saying about the film, “I went through three hankies. I couldn’t stop crying for an hour after the movie ended”. Davis’ work in “Dark Victory” earned her a fourth Best Actress Academy Award nomination (losing to Vivien Leigh for “Gone with the Wind”). It hadn't come easily, but this was the beginning of the best years of Davis’ career.


Bette Davis stars and wears gowns by Orry-Kelly in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

photo of young move star Hollywood actress, legend, icon, diva, eyes, Bette Davis
Bette Davis

A year after making her film debut in 1931's "Bad Sister", Davis signed with Warner Brothers, and over twenty films later finally received acclaim with 1934's "Of Human Bondage" (earning her first Oscar nomination), a role she had to fight to get. She thought it would bring her more meaty roles but it didn't, even after winning a Best Actress Oscar the following year for "Dangerous". Thinking of the future of her career, fed up with being given subpar films and roles, being paid less than twenty percent of what other major Warner stars were earning, and wanting less restrictions and to have story approval over her films, Davis decided it was time to negotiate a new contract, and she and Warners became at odds. To show their power and punish her, they ordered her to appear in another inferior film, “God’s Country and the Woman”, as a female lumberjack, which she refused to do and was put on suspension.


Bette Davis in men's clothing horse riding suit in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

portrait photo of movie star, Hollywood actress, legend, diva, icon, eye, Bette Davis candid at home
Bette Davis

While on suspension, Davis was approached by European producer Ludovico Toeplitz to star in two European productions, the first of which was British. Though bound by contract to only work for Warners unless they loaned her out, she signed to do it and headed to Europe for a “vacation”. Warners filed a legal injunction in England to stop her from working and they ended up in English court in a highly publicized trial that the industry was closely following. Davis argued that her longterm contract was unfair and that actors should be allowed to have more control over their careers. She lost the case. Though it was a humiliating defeat, upon her return to the studio, Warners waived her order to pay the studio’s legal fees, paid half the retainer for her lawyer, and she was now given better scripts. She explained in her autobiography, “It was now evident to them that I never would have sacrificed so much time, energy and money unless I was indeed earnest about my career… In a way, my defeat was a victory. At last we were seeing eye to eye on my career”.


Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Better parts began with 1937’s "Marked Woman” and included 1938’s “Jezebel”, which was really the turning point in Davis' career. Another effect of the very public court case was that Davis also earned the respect of the public for standing up to the studio. It was their first look at the real Bette Davis and not the movie star manufactured by Warners' publicity department. They saw a volatile, headstrong, fighting workhorse who would stand up for herself at any cost, and the studio used this to their advantage, tailoring scripts to these strengths. Her starring role as the strong willed Southern belle in "Jezebel" earned her a second Best Actress Academy Award and the cover of Life magazine. Two films later came “Dark Victory”, followed by two more giant hits also in 1939 (“The Old Maid” and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”), making Davis Warner’s biggest box-office star and the number one female star in the US. This began the most fruitful period her career, with films such as "The Letter", "The Great Lie", "The Little Foxes", "Now, Voyager", "Watch on the Rhine”, and "Mr. Skeffington", among others.


Bette Davis sings at the bar in her fur hat and coat in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

portrait photo of glamorous movie star, Hollywood film actress, icon, legend, diva, eyes, Bette Davis
Bette Davis

Thought by many to be the greatest actress of her time, and certainly one of the top actresses and movie stars in cinema history, Davis expressed genuine emotion, unbridled energy, an indescribable bewitching magic, and an unpredictable quality that keeps you on the edge of your seat waiting to see what she’ll do next. It’s uncanny. She believed acting should always look a bit like you’re acting and not just imitate real life, and was a master at using her body, clipped speech, decisive walk, fidgeting hands, and those expressive eyes to punctuate real emotions she conjured from within. Her gift at blending the theatrical with the genuine remains unmatched, and AFI named her the 2nd Greatest Female American Screen Legend of all-time. You can read more about the life and career of the great Bette Davis in my previous posts on "All About Eve", "Now, Voyager", and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?". Just click on the film titles to open those posts.


George Brent plays a brain surgeon in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Giving a splendidly solid performance in “Dark Victory” is George Brent as “Dr. Frederick Steele”, the brain surgeon who operates and falls in love with “Judith”. Brent more than holds his own opposite Davis (not an easy feat), bringing equal parts professional doctor, deep compassion, and unwavering strength to the role. The way “Frederick” studies “Judith” during his examination with kid gloves while ignoring her cutting remarks is incredibly doctorly and has so much understanding that it makes sense “Judith” would lower her guard and fall for the guy. And Brent shows the same even-keeled compassion while being confused or even panicked at the restaurant. He delicately underplays to perfection and creates what I feel is the best performance of his career.


George Brent and Bette Davis are in love in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

portrait photo of Hollywood film actor leading man movie star George Brent younger
George Brent

Irish-born George Brent had been an established leading man in films since signing with Warners in 1931 and appearing opposite Ruth Chatterton (whom he married) in 1932's "The Rich Are Always with Us”. Though he acted in different types of films, his tall good looks and unimposing presence made him ideal to play opposite the female stars in women's pictures and he spent much of the prime of his career doing so, most notably opposite Kay Francis in six films, and Davis in eleven (others of which include “Jezebel”, “The Old Maid”, and their final, “In This Our Life”). “Dark Victory” was their eighth film together, and Davis always said Brent was her favorite leading man and had an “infectious giggle” and “an excitement he rarely was in the mood to transfer to the screen”. Now both divorced, while making “Dark Victory” they began an affair. Davis said, “It was inevitable from our first meeting through the seven films we had made together, that we would one day have a romance… plus... George will always be one of the truly attractive men I have ever known”. You can read more about the life and career of George Brent in my post on “42nd Street”. Be sure to check it out.


Humphrey Bogart plays an Irish horse trainer stable boy in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Humphrey Bogart plays “Michael O’Leary”, “Judith’s” impertinent, newly hired horse trainer. Many have criticized Bogart’s performance in “Dark Victory”, commonly calling him “miscast” due to his slight Irish brogue and the fact he’s not the tough-guy we’re used to seeing him play. But looking at his performance on its own merit, he creates quite a believable character with a distinct personality. It’s not a large part and Bogart makes the most of it, letting us see a man who feels out of place in the world, is aware of his class yet not afraid to step out of it, and is quietly in love with “Judith”. Bogart’s a great actor and listener, and one feels him reacting internally to those around him. He has a particularly beautiful moment in the barn with “Judith” when he decides to end his frustration and express his love, telling her “I wouldn’t want to die while you’re alive ‘Miss Judith’”. It’s a finely nuanced performance with personality and honesty.


Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis in the barn in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Young portrait photo of Hollywood movie star, film actor, tough guy, legend, icon, antiher Humphrey Bogart young in chair
Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart’s big break would come the following year (eight films later), with "High Sierra", and two films after that came stardom with 1941's "The Matese Falcon”, where his legendary tough yet tender antihero image crystalized. At the time of "Dark Victory", Bogart was still a Warners contract player, not yet being groomed for stardom, and appeared in whatever films and roles the studio assigned him. This was his sixth film with Davis (others include “The Bad Sister”, “The Petrified Forest” and “Marked Woman”), and they would appear together in two more, 1942’s “In This Our Life”, and as themselves separately in 1943’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars”. In the 1940s, Bogart quickly rose to become one of cinema’s biggest stars, and AFI named him the #1 Greatest Male American Screen Legend of all-time. You can read more about the life and career of Humphrey Bogart in three previous posts, “Casablanca”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and "The African Queen". Please check them out.


Geraldine Fitzgerald in her Hollywood debut as secretary Ann in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Making her Hollywood film debut is Geraldine Fitzgerald as “Ann King”, “Judith’s” trusted secretary and best friend. Fitzgerald clearly shows "Ann's" struggle as a caring and trusted friend to "Judith" while keeping secrets from her. And Fitzgerald drops some minor indications that "Ann" might like "Frederick" as well, such as her expressions during the scene when she asks "Judith" if she loves him. It's a terrific and interesting performance, and her interplay with Davis is exceptional, as they laugh together, and as “Ann” keeps looking out for “Judith”, particularly in the garden scene brilliantly played by them both. Fitzgerald and Davis became friends during filming and remained so, and appeared together again in 1943's "Watch on the Rhine”.


Best Friends Bette Davis and Geraldine Fitzgerald in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
“Dark Victory”

Young portrait photo of British and Hollywood movie star, film and stage actress Geraldine Fitzgerald
Geraldine Fitzgerald

Ireland-born Geraldine Fitzgerald was introduced to the theater by her aunt, actress Shelagh Richards, and began appearing on stage at the age of twenty. After two years in Dublin, she moved to London and began appearing in British films beginning with 1934's "Blind Justice”. Half a dozen films later she was a leading film actress with her name above the title in films like 1936's "The Mill on the Floss". She moved to New York and made her Broadway debut in Orson Welles' Mercury Theater production of "Heartbreak House", which led her to a contract with Warners. Her first Hollywood film assignment was "Dark Victory", followed almost immediately by what became another classic, "Wuthering Heights", which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only) and is arguably her best remembered role. She continued playing second leads and starring roles through 1946 in films that include "'Til We Meet Again", "Wilson", "Nobody Lives Forever", "The Strange Affair of Uncle Henry", and "Three Strangers", but her fighting spirit created disagreements with Warners execs about the films and roles she was given, and she left Hollywood in 1946 for New York.


Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent find out he's going to New York in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

glamor portrait of British and Hollywood movie star, Irish film actress Geraldine Fitzgerald in polkadot outfit
Geraldine Fitzgerald

After appearing in a couple of films in the UK, Fitzgerald worked extensively on television, in several Broadway shows (including her acclaimed performance in the 1971 revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night"), and about a dozen and a half more films, including "The Pawnbroker", "Rachel, Rachel", "Harry and Tonto", "Poltergeist II", "Arthur", and her final, 1988's "Arthur 2: On the Rocks". Her TV work includes an Emmy Award win for her appearance on a 1978 episode of "NBC Special Treat", and an Emmy nominated appearance in a 1988 episode of "The Golden Girls". In 1981, Fitzgerald directed the Broadway play "Mass Appeal", which earned her a Best Director Tony Award nomination. She married twice and had two children, including her son – film, TV, and Broadway director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Geraldine Fitzgerald died in 2005 at the age of 91.


Ronald Reagan drunk at the bar in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Ronald Reagan plays “Alec Hamm”, one of “Judith’s” idle rich friends who always appears drunk and says he loves “Judith”. Like Bogart, Reagan is often criticized for his performance, and while he has little screen time, I can’t help but feel Reagan is uneasy in the part, which makes sense when you learn that Goulding told him the character was gay and Reagan was uncomfortable with that. I guess Reagan’s take was to make “Alex” drunk, though he still manages to bring a boyish charm to the role. It would be fascinating to see what an actor's actor like Peter Lorre or John Carradine would have done with the part.


Ronald Reagan offers to make breakfast for George Brent and Bette Davis in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Early portrait photo of Hollywood actor movie star young Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan

Illinois-born Ronald Reagan began his career as a hugely successful sports announcer who filled his broadcasts with personality, sometimes even embellishing things for dramatic effect. When he visited Los Angeles on a sports related trip, he was given a screen-test at Warners which landed him a contract. He was immediately cast in his first film, the lead in 1937's "Love Is on the Air". The tall, charismatic actor continued working steadily, mostly in supporting roles in B movies, and appeared in about three dozen films before leaving to serve in the military in 1942. While working opposite Jane Wyman in 1938's "Brother Rat", they fell in love and married in 1940. A serious actress, Wyman had him take his career more seriously, and he fought for the role of "George Gipp" in 1940's "Knute Rockne—All American", which was a success (both the film and his performance) and helped boost his career, getting him better films and parts. Another important film for him during this period was 1941's "King's Row", in which he gave what is universally considered the best performance of his career. Called to active duty while filming "King's Row", he left immediately after filming.


Cora Witherspoon, Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis drink a toast at the bar in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Portrait photo of young Hollywood film actor movie star Ronald Reagan young
Ronald Reagan

Because of extreme nearsightedness, Reagan was forbidden from spending his military service overseas, so he served in California and briefly in New York. His positions included Army Air Forces Public Relations and Captain of the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California, and he produced over 400 training films while serving, and was given time off to appear in movies at Warners. After returning to civilian life, his marriage with Wyman came to an end (in 1948) and his career lost its momentum. He appeared mostly in minor films or minor roles and began working more on television in 1953. In his acting career, he appeared in over 15 TV shows and just over 50 films, others of which include "Storm Warning", "Bedtime for Bonzo", "Santa Fe Trail", "Hellcats of the Navy”, "This Is the Army”, and his final film, 1964's "The Killers”. From 1954 to 1962, he was the host on TV’s "General Electric Theater". He then turned to politics. In 1952, he married his second wife, actress Nancy Davis, who was a major influence in turning Reagan from Democrat to Republican, and in 1966, he became governor of California. In January of 1981, Reagan became the 40th President of the United States, serving two terms until January of 1989. He and Nancy remained married until his death. Ronald Reagan died in 2004 at the age of 93.


Geraldine Fitzgerald and Henry Travers in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

portrait photo of Hollywood character actor movie star Henry Travers
Henry Travers

A face certain to be familiar in “Dark Victory” to classic movie watchers is that of Henry Travers who plays “Dr. Parsons”, “Judith’s” family doctor. The compassionate “Parsons” truly cares about “Judith”, constantly reminding people “I brought this little girl into the world” with bewilderment and sadness at her situation. It's a sweet and poignant way to show us how much “Parsons” loves her, and is the type of role and complex emotional state which Travers excels at portraying. He appeared in just over fifty films in his sixteen years making movies, including his Oscar nominated performance in “Mrs. Miniver”, and a role movie goers will certainly know him from, as the guardian angel “Clarence” in the 1946 classic “It's a Wonderful Life”. I’ve written previous posts about both of those films, and each contain more information about the life and career of Henry Travers. Just click on the film titles to open them.


Bette Davis and Cora Witherspoon in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

I’ll point out one last actor, Cora Witherspoon who plays “Carrie Spottswood”, “Judith’s” rich and snooty friend. “Carrie” very briefly appears in several scenes, (watching “Judith” ride her horse, at “Judith’s” post operation party, at the restaurant, and at a bar), and each time, we are given the sense that the rich and uppity “Carrie” is actually more of a phony friend than a real one. A very accomplished character actress, Witherspoon brings the character to life even with fleeting time on screen. She’s been in many classics, often playing unsympathetic socialites, and is another face classic movie watchers are sure to recognize.


Bette Davis and Cora Witehrspoon in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Broadway and Hollywood film character actress movie portrait photo of Cora Witherspoon in fur
Cora Witherspoon

Orphaned by the age of ten and raised by her older sister, New Orleans-born Cora Witherspoon began her very successful stage career at the age of 15, hitting Broadway by the age of 20 with 1910's "The Concert", and continued on Broadway in nearly three dozen shows for the next 36 years. Witherspoon began appearing in films with an uncredited role in 1931's "Tarnished Lady", which started her career as a Hollywood character actress, and she appeared in 55 films through 1954, including many classics such as "Libeled Lady", "Madame X", "Marie Antoinette", "Dodge City", as W.C. Fields' wife in "The Bank Dick" (arguably her most famous role), and as "Mrs. Van Adams" in a film already on this blog, "The Women". Her final film was an uncredited role in 1954's "It Should Happen to You", followed by four TV appearances that same year. According to Tennessee Williams' autobiography “Memoirs”, Witherspoon had a morphine addiction. She never married. Cora Witherspoon died in 1957 at the age of 67.


Bette Davis places a large order of prognosis negative at a restaurant in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

A recognizable name in the credits to readers of this blog should be that of Orry-Kelly, who designed the gowns in the film. A frequent collaborator with Davis, he had her looking her best while helping define “Judith’s” character, such as in her riding costume, her fur ensemble at the restaurant, or her slacks and plaid jacket in Vermont. They're all beautiful and very memorable. You can read more about Orry-Kelly in my previous posts on "Some Like It Hot", "Now, Voyager", "Arsenic and Old Lace", and "An American in Paris”.


Bette Davis surround by doctors including George Brent in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

In addition to Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress, “Dark Victory” also earned a Best Original Score Academy Award nomination for composer Max Steiner. His subtle soundtrack adds emotion in just the right places, no doubt helping handkerchiefs fly out of pockets and mascara run down faces all over the world. I believe this is the twelfth classic film he scored on this blog so far, and you can read more about the life and career of the brilliant Max Steiner (known as the "Father of Film Music”) in my posts on "King Kong" and "Mildred Pierce".


Geraldine Fitzgerald and Bette Davis plant bulbs in the garden in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
“Dark Victory”

“Dark Victory” was so popular, it was remade in 1963 as “Stolen Hours” starring Susan Hayward, and as a 1976 TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery.


George Brent embraces Bette Davis by the window in a scene from the classic movie 1939 Hollywood tearjerker film "Dark Victory"
"Dark Victory"

Along with being incredibly moving, this week’s cinematic jewel is an example of Studio Era entertainment at its finest, with exceptional work by one of Hollywood’s immortal stars, Bette Davis. Get out your box of tissues and enjoy the outstanding “Dark Victory”!


This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform through watching a recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and more. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications of every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!



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4 Comments


Karen Hannsberry
Karen Hannsberry
Jan 23

Really enjoyed this first-rate post, Jay! Bette Davis is my favorite actress, and I greatly appreciated learning some things about her that I didn't know. I also enjoyed your insights about the film and information on performers like Cora Witherspoon (who I loved in The Bank Dick), Ronald Reagan, and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Interesting stuff!


-- Karen

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Jay Jacobson
Jay Jacobson
Jan 23
Replying to

I'm so happy you are finding the blog interesting and informative. That makes me beyond happy! Thanks for letting me know. I so appreciate it!


And I also LOVE Ms. Davis! (how can you not?)


Thanks so much Karen! Jay


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Maggie Snuggs
Maggie Snuggs
Jan 23

Bette Davis is one of my all time favourites, I have this movie in my library, just loved the story and Bette's performance. I cried when I first saw it, who wouldn't. She was a great artist, nobody like her, never will be. Interesting to read all about these actors, the movie etc. You do your homework well.

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Jay Jacobson
Jay Jacobson
Jan 23
Replying to

Bette was one-of-a-kind incredible. And I too love this film and her

Thanks so much for your support in reading and leaving comments. You totally made my day!

Thanks Maggie!

Jay

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