“I want you to have a party and be gay. Very, very gay!”
The concept of Oscar Bait is something I would have thought is only a couple of decades old at the most. Period movies where people get to wear lavish costumes and speak with toffy English accents. Movies about death at the hands of Nazis or cancer. Biopics about tragic and famous real life people. That sort of thing often gets accused of being cynical Oscar Bait, then those sorts of movies often win Oscars and the cycle is perpetuated. But like I said, I thought it was kind of a modern idea. So bugger me if I didn’t stumble across some real in your face Academy Award pandering in a movie almost as old as the Academy Awards themselves, Dark Victory.
The only daughter of a dead millionaire and sports enthusiast, Judith (Bette Davis) is whatever you call a female version of a playboy (playgirl doesn’t sound right). Her days are filled dealing with her horse trainer (Humphrey Bogart) and fussing over her stable of expensive steeple chasers. While her nights are occupied hosting lavish parties.
One day, riding one of her prized horses, Judith experiences double vision and falls from the saddle. Trying to pass it off as nothing to worry about, her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ann) is almost convinced, until Judith stacks it down a staircase. Calling in a specialist, Dr Frederick Steele (George Brent), Judith learns she has a brain tumor that could take her eyesight, or even her life.
In the opening scenes, I was really surprised with just how progressive Dark Victory was. A confident, totally independent woman who lives her own life her way, with no regard for what others think, isn’t the kind of character you expect to see at the centre of a movie made in 1939. Unfortunately, it’s not long until Dark Victory lets you know that there isn’t one at its centre either. Once Judith receives her diagnosis, it’s not long before the story makes it clear that what this little lady needs is the love of a strong, brilliant man.
And it’s that love story side of Dark Victory that sends it down a wrong path that it’s never able to recover from. Judith gets immediately less interesting and the character of Dr Steele never really justifies his place in the plot with any interest. Even the always watchable Bogart is a secondary character, disappearing for long stretches.
Bette Davis is great, and even as her character is reduced to the helpless little lady in need of a hero, she still manages to inject a certain amount of life into the quickly deteriorating plot. But even Bette Davis isn’t enough to save Dark Victory once the real Oscar baiting kicks in and piles on top of the paper thin story, populated by paper thin characters.