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Dark Victory

Perhaps the ultimate "Woman's Weepie," Dark Victory (1939) has the dubious distinction of being the best movie about a woman with an incurable disease that shows no effects on the victim until they're about to die. Bette Davis stars as Judith Traherne, a hard-living socialite who's forced to see a doctor after she falls from her horse. The doctor, Fredrick Steele (George Brent), was about to take off for Vermont, but he sticks around because he's drawn to this woman. However, even though he operates on her brain, the damage has progressed too far, and Judith learns that she has approximately eight months to live — after that, she will die with little warning. Of course, both Fredrick and Judith discover they are attracted to each other, but the good doctor decides not to tell his patient that she is dying, only telling her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Nevertheless, Judith finds out and panics at first, but eventually she settles down and marries Steele, who desperately searches for a cure. Melodramatic as all get out, Dark Victory may prove hard for contemporary audiences to absorb, in part for the sheer camp value of its withering "only in the movies" fatal disease. But if such can be accepted, the movie is a modestly involving picture with as much depth as a glossy big-budget title can offer on the prospects of imminent death — though the melodrama may be forced, it's never played poorly, and Bette Davis gives the performance her all. Davis was a force of nature on screen, and she's in fine form here, dominating the story until she reaches her end and tries to find peace in death. The supporting cast is filled out nicely — Humphrey Bogart plays the stable Michael O'Leary with a light Irish brogue, and though his accent is awkward and Bogie is too commanding for such a small role, it's fun to see him before his star began to really shine. Also in the cast is Ronald Reagan as Judith's best male friend. Since the two have no sexual chemistry together, and it is never hinted at that they are lovers, his role can be seen an early appearance of the "Woman's Picture" cliché of the homosexual best friend. Warner presents Dark Victory in full frame (1.33:1 OAR) from a restored but not perfect print, and with DD 1.0 audio. Extras include a commentary by writers James Ursini and Paul Clinton, the featurette "1939: Tough competition for Dark Victory" (9 min.), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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