Bette Davis plays Judith, a young, carefree socialite who’s life revolves around partying, raising dogs and training horses. Lately she has been suffering from strange headaches, and perhaps the reason she sleeps all day is because the light bothers her, but she just ignores these ailments. After all, she’s young and strong and nothing can touch her, right? When she has a horse riding accident, due to a sudden change in vision, her symptoms prompt a young brain surgeon to take notice.
Doctor Fredrick Steele (George Brent) is wanting to get out of the prestigious field of brain surgery, the mortality rate is just too depressing. He’s got a train ticket in hand when he hears of Judith’s case, but as he examines her, he decides to stay. Though she tries hard not to show it, we and Steele sense how frightened she is. He suggests she go into surgery, so he can find out exactly what is causing her problems. Even prepping to go under the knife, the only person who can tame and reach stubborn Judith is Steele. The scene where he coaxes her to take her anesthetic is wonderfully sweet, more doctors need to be that supportive of their more troublesome patients.
What Steele finds sets the film up for tragedy. It seems that Judith has an inoperable tumor, and it will kill her within the year. Hearing one doctor say, “maybe 10 months” like he was just shooting the breeze about the weather is terribly sad, but thankfully Steele is honestly torn up about poor Judith’s fatal condition. Perhaps he has grown attached to the girl.
After Judith has recovered from the operation, Steele decides not to tell her of her upcoming demise. He doesn’t think it will not do any good to tell a young woman so full of life that it will be cut so sort. However, he cannot hide his sorrow over the ordeal. When he visits Judith as she is resuming her party lifestyle, her friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) notices the gloomy demeanor and asks Steele if Judith really is alright. He comes clean to Ann, but they both decide it’s better to let Judith live the last of her life in blissful ignorance. But when romance rises between Judith and Steele, like a reverse Florence Nightingale syndrome, Judith discovers the bitter truth and starts to come to terms with her frivolous lifestyle and tries to meet her early end with dignity and bravery.
The film does a great job of building up the drama and really tries to reel us in to a grand tear-jerker ending. Even me, the cynical critic who’s seen it all, was getting a little choked up towards the end. Maybe because the film wasn’t focusing on a young kid who just wanted to live to party, but a new love still in full bloom. However, through the lump this film put in my throat, I was also rolling my eyes. We know what’s going to happen, and as long as Davis doesn’t let Judith blubber like a baby and down a bottle of booze, we’re supposed to be proud of her but feel sorry for her and Steele as well. Frankly, that ending was perfect for 1939, but today it feels way to drawn out and predictable. It’s a wonderful mix of classic and cliche. If you’re put off by what I just said, the fact that Humphrey Bogart has a wonderful small role as Michael the horse trainer can tip any film fan into checking Dark Victory out.
“When you get inside my head, see if you can find any sense in it.”