Even by the standards of a typical Bette Davis melodrama Dark Victory is an embarrassment of riches, a film that opens with Humphrey Bogart (as a smitten proletarian stablehand) effecting a most ridiculous Irish brogue and closes with an extended sequence of Davis’s spoiled Long Island socialite Judith Traherne (blinded by a debilitating brain disease) enacting an emotionally devastating “signs of the cross” deathbed march. As directed by Edmund Goulding, a filmmaker sadly more remembered for his orgies than for his creative output, Dark Victory is an extension and refinement of themes from his great Gloria Swanson vehicle The Trespasser from 1929. Swanson’s first talkie (also shot in a simultaneous silent version) is as over-the-top as one would expect of the Sunset Boulevard diva and it shares with Dark Victory a perverse yet earnest taste for Christian iconography. Where in The Trespasser, Swanson is a not-so-virginal, Depression-era Mother Mary, deliriously maintaining a bug-eyed martyr’s composure even when giving up her young daughter to a wealthy beau, Davis in Dark Victory is a saucer-eyed female Christ, resolved by movie’s end to face death with the utmost sense of peace (while being photographed through the most gauzy and flattering of filters). Getting there is half the fun, of course, and it’s a blast accompanying Davis for the ride as she plays up her character’s spoiled rich-girl tics, falls for stiff-backed brain doctor Frederick Steele (George Brent), shares drinks and witticisms with a young, fey Ronald Reagan, and viciously wields that immortal saber of a line, “I think I’ll have a large order of…prognosis negative!”
Dark Victory is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It’s an overall beautiful transfer with shimmering black-and-white photography that is only occasionally marred by single-frame speckles or other minute debris. These instances are few and far between, and it’s certainly an improvement on the film’s first, hazy DVD incarnation. The only sound option is a Dolby Digital English mono track, which has also been significantly cleaned up from the original DVD release.
Film historian James Ursini and CNN film critic Paul Clinton offer commentary over the entirety of Dark Victory. It’s an overall good session plagued by many pauses, though these seem to result from how smitten the duo are with Davis’s look and performance (one of her best), so the downtime is understandable. A short featurette ("1939: Tough Competition for Dark Victory") delves into the history of Goulding’s film and the effects of its release around the time of both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Dark Victory’s theatrical trailer is also included.
Dark Victory DVD: Prognosis Positive.