Dark Victory

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


MGM, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: English, French, Spanish, single side-single layer, 32 chapters, theatrical trailer, rated NR, 106 min., $24.98, street date 9/30/98.

Studio Line

Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress-Bette Davis, Best Original Score, 1940.

Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan.

Judith Traherne is at the height of young society when Dr. Frederick Steele diagnoses a brain tumor. After surgery she falls in love with Steele. The doctor tells her secretary that the tumor will come back and eventually kill her. Learning this, Judith becomes manic and depressive. Her horse trainer Michael, who loves her, tells her to get as much out of life as she can. She marries Steele who intends to find a cure for her illness. As he goes off to a conference in Washington failing eyesight indicates to Judith that she is dying.

Picture/Sound/Extras (D+/C+/D-)

As I slog through my quest to see as many of the Best Picture nominees from 1939, I've largely encountered films about which I already know something, whether they be movies I've seen in the past (Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) or at least ones with which I possessed some familiarity (Wuthering Heights, Love Affair).

Dark Victory, however, was a fish of a completely different color. I ordered this title simply because of its Oscar connection, and I did so with absolutely no foreknowledge of its story, its cast - nothing!

As it turns out, DV boasts a pretty decent group of actors, with supporting turns from Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald (who also appears in 1939's Wuthering Heights), George Brent, Henry Travers (who is probably best known as CLarence the wingless angel in It's a WOnderful Life) and a young actor you might have heard of called ROnald Reagan.

It's a hoot to watch Reagan in his role as a drunken playboy, but not because of his cartoony performance; the guy really wasn't much of an actor. No, it's just his future political significance that makes him entertaining. (Not to mention the serendipitous pairing of Reagan and Bogart; as the legendary story goes, the producers of Casablanca originally wanted Reagan for the role!) Bogart is mildly interesting, though he has a lot of trouble pulling off an Irish accent; he sometimes hits it in a "Lucky Charms" manner, but usually misses the mark.

While the supporting cast is good, it's star Bette Davis who really makes this movie watchable. I often have difficulty accepting the acting in older films because it tends to be les naturalistic and more theatrical than what we find in newer offerings. As such, Davis' frighteningly manic performance initially put me off intensely. She attacks this part with gusto; I've seen hummingbirds with less energy than Davis shows here. She reads lines at a rate aproaching that of the guys who provide the "fine print" details on radio ads.

Somehow, all of it ultimately works. Even when I found her to be obnoxious, I recogized that I couldn't take my eyes off of her; she made for an incredibly compelling screen presence. Davis gets to play the gamut of emotions here, from spoiled child to happy woman in love to bitter fatalist. She pulls off the "bitch goddess" scenes much more effectively than the ones in which she's supposed to be chipper and bright; somehow, that attitude just doesn't suit her, and her "I'm going to make the most of every day!!!" scenes seem less than convincing, though still provocative because of her wildly manic zest. She puts incredible bite into lines when she's more her nasty self, though, that make all the rest of it worth watching. It's an unusual performance by today's standards, but it's a killer nonetheless.

Davis remains the only thing that distinguishes Dark Victory. The storyline tells a fairly saccharine and melodramatic tale of a woman with a terminal illness and her courageous battle. I suppose it's possible that plot wasn't tired in 1939, but I doubt it. Nothing about the execution of the film stands out in any way; Davis' performance is the lone aspect of this movie that makes it memorable.

Dark Victory appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not unwatchable, the film clearly shows its age through a variety of flaws.

Sharpness generally seems acceptable, but as with many aspects of this DVD, it's erratic. While many scenes appear fairly crisp and defined, many others can seem quite tentative and soft. I detected no moire effects or jagged edges. Black levels are often decent but generally seem too dark, and contrast appears weak; the image seems too shadowy and skin tones appear too deep. Shadow detail works on about the same level; it's not bad, but it's iffy nonetheless.

Random batches of print flaws appear during the movie. Grain seems fairly consistent; while it's rarely heavy, it still makes its way through much of the movie. More intermittent are the print's physical flaws; I noted many examples of scratches, speckles, marks and thin vertical lines. These were not consistent and large parts of the movie seem free from them. However, other sections are lousy with problems; it looks quite hit or miss. None of this ruined the movie for me, but the image certainly seems less than mediocre.

A bit better is the monaural audio of Dark Victory. For the most part, it seemed pretty good for its age. Dialogue appeared relatively natural and smooth, though it could sound a bit edgy and slightly distorted at times. The music appeared fairly clean and clear, although it also presented some harshness on occasion and it seemed to strain a bit. I discerned little dynamic range from the music; highs seemed acceptable but bass was nonexistent. Sound effects aren't much of a factor here, but what we hear sounded fine. I noted some slight background popping and noise, but overall the track seemed pretty clean. For a more than 60 year old monaural track, Dark Victory seems perfectly acceptable and offers slightly above-average sound for its era.

Less exciting is the DVD's complement of supplements. We get the film's theatrical trailer, and that's it. Actually, that's probably not true. This DVD comes from MGM, and they usually include booklets with producton notes. MGM's booklets are the best in the business, so if one appears, I'd speculate it's good. Unfortunately, since I rented DV from Netflix and they don't forward packaging materials, I can't state for certain what - if anything - appears in the booklet, or if there even is one.

Dark Victory isn't a great movie, and due to below average picture and extras, it makes for an unspectacular DVD. The only thing it has going for it is a stunning performance from Bette Davis. As such, while I can't really urge you to add the DVD to your collection, it's definitely worth a rental.

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