Dark Victory (1939): Superlative, Oscar-Nominated Bette Davis Melodrama

For many viewers and scholars, “Dark Victory” is the most representative and the most enjoyable of Warner’s women’s melodramas, a genre (or type of films) known as weepers or weepies. It’s truly one og the studio’s most skillfully executed and emotionally effective features.

In one of her best-known roles and personal favorite, Bette Davis plays Judy Traherne, the strong but doomed young heiress, who is dying of Glioma, a form of brain cancer.  Both defiant and fearful in her early scenes, Judy says: “I’m well and strong and nothing can touch me. However, gradually, she’s forced to realize that death is imminent, and decided to face it with calm and courage. In the end, blind and alone, she lies down on her bed, staring blankly into spaces, though not before asking her good husband-doctor (played by the pro George Brent), “Darling, have I been a good wife to you.”

As was the norm in 1930s melodrama, the Big City is depicted in a negative way, not a place for the terminally ill. Morally uplifted and prepared for a “beautiful and fine’ death by leaving behind the City and her frivolous lifestyle there, Judy and her husband move to a rustic home in the country.
This first-rate soap opera is directed by Edmund Goulding (an underrated specialist of the genre), from a script is by Casey Robinson, based on a 1934 play (by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch) starring Tallulah Bankhead, which was a commercial failure. (Did Broadway audiences refuse to accept the strong-willed Bankhead as a dying protagonist)

Spectators who saw the picture in 1939 were all weeping, when Davis climbs up the stairs for the last time, accompanied by Max Steiner’s sweeping score.

Some of Davis’ most interesting screen roles were first played on stage by Tallulah Bankhead, who never became a legit movie star; though she played some impressive leads, as in Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat.”.  Bankhead originated the role of Judith Taherne on Broadway, as well as that of Regina in “The Little Foxes.”

Please read our review of Bette Davis’ best film and best screen role, All About Eve.

All About Eve (1950): Starring Bette Davis in her Best (but Snubbed) Performance

In the supporting cast, you can spot Bogart before he became a lead man and a star, Ronald Reagan, and perhaps best of all the young Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays Davis’ best friend, Ann King.  (In the same year, Fitzgerald was nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar in “Wuthering Heights”).

The story was remade in 1963 as “Stolen Hours.”


Oscar Nominations
Picture, produced by David Lewis
Actress: Bette Davis
Original Score: Max Steiner

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Bette Davis lost the Best Actress Oscar to the popular favorite Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind,” which swept most of the Oscars in 1939, including Best Picture.

Max Steiner, one of Hollywood’s best and most prolific composers, lost the Scoring Oscar to Herbert Stothart for the Judy Garland musical fable, “The Wizard of Oz.”