The shamelessly tragic Bette Davis vehicle Dark Victory is a perfect example of everything that the Hollywood system at its height could achieve when everybody involved was working at the top of their game. The result may be naught but a torrid melodrama, but oh! what a humdinger of a melodrama it is! It's films like this that give trash a good name.
Davis plays Judith Traherne, a young Long Island socialite of seemingly inexhaustible wealth and lustful appetite; her chief love above all things, though, is for her family's collection of thoroughbreds (no, not in that way). It is while racing one of the finest horses in the stable, as much to impressive her friends and other assorted onlookers, that her vision blurs and she runs straight into a jump. Her best friend and secretary, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) forces her to submit to an examination by the local doctor (Henry Travers), who refers her to a brain specialist: Frederick Steele (George Brent, Davis's frequent co-star and - for this shoot, at least - her lover). Steele manages to wring the truth from Judith: she's been suffering from headaches and poor vision for months, and it only takes a handful of tests for him to conclude that she has a brain tumor.
Her surgery to remove the tumor is largely a success, except for one kind of big thing: tests reveal that the tumor is indeed malignant, and it's going to return, and this time, there will be no cutting it out. Judith has around ten months to live. Steele, in a mixture of compassion, infatuation, and blind idiocy, convinces Ann to help him keep this fact secret from Judith, and she proceeds to engage in a constant celebration of life. But secrets have a will of their own, and only a few months later, Judith has learned the truth - just about the same time that she and Steele announce their engagement to be married. This sets her right back on the old path of debauchery, as she flails about trying to figure out what the hell the point of anything is, with a death sentence hanging over her head. From there on, Judith is torn between twin desires: to spend her final days in dignity, enjoying the love of a good man, or devouring life in one last wanton explosion of hedonism.
There are so many things to love about this hopelessly tawdry tearjerker, but it's a certainty that the biggest thing of all is Bette Davis, one of the most overpowering personalities to ever splash herself across the silver screen. She was at the very height of her powers in the late 1930s (in fact, she had just won an Oscar the year before, for Jezebel, received a nomination for Dark Victory, and would continue to be nominated for the three years following), and according to rumor, regarded her turn as Judith to be the finest performance of her legendary career. That's debatable, to say the least (I still haven't seen many of her best-loved performances, but I strongly doubt any of them surpass her blowing-the-doors-off work in 1950's All About Eve), but by the same token, there's just no denying: she is fucking magnificent in this movie, which is at any rate one of the great starring roles I have ever seen in a 1930s motion picture.
When Bette Davis lusts, the sex oozes off the screen (she was perhaps the most sexual dramatic actress of her generation). When she is fearful, her already wide eyes open like two moons. When she is sad, she drives her sorrow into the viewer's breast like a javelin. And in Dark Victory she gets to combine all of those specialties in one bravura performance that is, obviously, overwrought and gaudy - but unnervingly, ineffably True despite that. This is the mystery of great melodrama: it is, objectively, unlike anything we might be tempted to call "human reality", but the oversized emotions on display, caricatures or no, is still piercing and manages to feel real by dint of its intensity, even if it's unbelievable.
Oh, how I could talk of Ms. Davis for ever, but let us push on, for the delights of Dark Victory are not limited to her exemplary work. Though director Edmund Goulding was never counted among the great studio system filmmakers (I've seen but one of his other films, the equally outrageous tragicomedy Grand Hotel), he is certainly a strong craftsperson - his only real sin is lacking the same definite personality that made a figure like Howard Hawks so beloved of the theorists. It helps, undoubtedly, that he was here working with a tremendously gifted cinematographer, in the form of Ernest Haller (who among many other well-known and not-as-well-known films shot the visual masterpiece Mildred Pierce), and together the two men created some absolutely sublime visuals, such as the repeated shot of the staircase outside Judith's room, that without apparent effort calls to mind the psychotic instability of a German horror movie. But there is more to Dark Victory than just great cinematography: the film is in all technical aspects a wonderfully tight and controlled piece of classical Hollywood cinema. Of particular note, I'd point out the score, credited (as always) to the Warner Bros. head of music, Max Steiner, though who knows who really put it all together? (IMDb suggests Howard Jackson, but I tend to suspect pat answers to these kinds of questions). It's an exceptionally subtle work for a late-'30s Warner melodrama, with rumbling undertones and plaintive minor keys that are far more experimental - and completely effective - than most Hollywood scores of the same period.
Outside of Davis, the cast is quite effective, in the main (Brent is a bit bland as the romantic lead): Fitzgerald is an absolute marvel, sardonic and rueful, and it seems unforgivable that the actress starred in so few well-remembered films. There are also supporting turns by Humphrey Bogart (as the Trahernes' stablehand, who has long loved Judith from afar), in an unusual turn in a non-heavy role (Casablanca and his career as a leading man were still almost four years away), and making the most of it; and Ronald Reagan as Alec, a particularly present member of Judith's coterie, who manages to be far less blandly Reagan-ey than he is in nearly any other movies I can think of. Or, for that matter, in his presidency.
Basically, Dark Victory is a nearly perfect weepie entertainment. I cannot in good faith argue that it's an especially robust work, and its themes are always subsumed by its soap opera excess (these being, of course, about the proper way to live life and face death; I also daresay I detect of Depression-era musing about how even the rich, with all their money and power and excess, can't stave off an untimely end). It is, however, a grand movie, the kind that is thrilling and entertaining even as it dares you not to cry at the inevitable tragedy rolling out in front of you. Sometimes, it's enough for studio product just to be the very best product it can be; if nothing else Dark Victory is a marvelous example of the kind of thing that they're not making like, anymore.