52 Code Films – Week #46: “Dark Victory” from 1939; “From a Character to a Star” for The 8th Annual What a Character Blogathon

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Today is Sunday, so it’s time for another 52 Code Films article. This is the forty-sixth week in the series. We are nearing the end, but there are still enough weeks left to discover several more new Code movies! At the end of every week, I review the new movie I watched that week from the American Breen Era (1934-1954). It is a great way for me to expand my knowledge of Code films and lead me readers on the journey with me!

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Today’s topic is Dark Victory from 1939. This is the fourth movie on the Bette Davis DVD collection that my family got a few months ago at Barnes and Noble. It was a great price for a collection of four of her most acclaimed films, JezebelAll This and Heaven TooOld Acquaintance, and Dark Victory. All but the first of these films were new Code films to me. This weekend, I heard that the 8th Annual What a Character Blogathon was being hosted. I decided to write an article about the character part which Humphrey Bogart plays in this film. I watched this movie on Thursday. I was glad to finally have an excuse to watch this movie.



A young socialite spends her days in useless fun, such as riding, throwing wild parties, and any other sort of amusement which she and her idle rich friends can concoct at her Long Island estate. She has a new stable keeper, an impertinent Irishman who is secretly in love with her. They argue about whether or not her young horse will be a champion. To prove the animal’s abilities, this impulsive young woman jumps hurdles with the horse. They are going very well until her vision blurs, causing her to accidentally guide her horse right into the fence instead of clearing it. After the accident, she confides in her best friend and secretary that she got dizzy, and that this is something which has happened before. Fearing that it could be related to the headaches she has been getting and could have serious implications, her friend insists that she see the family doctor. She acts like she is fine and is very reluctant to have medical treatment, but a fall down the stairs convinces everyone that she is not well. The family physician visits a young brain surgeon who is going to move to Connecticut that very day. After too many of his patients have died, he has decided to return to his home state and dedicate himself to studying mysterious illnesses rather than treating individual patients through his lucrative practice. Afraid he will miss his train, he is reluctant to see another patient, but he consents to at least look at her. Although she denies that anything is wrong with her, he realizes how ill she really is when she can’t even light her own cigarette. He cancels his trip to investigate her case. Three other specialists confirm his initial fears: she has a brain tumor which requires an immediate operation. The young lady is very reluctant to consent to the surgery, but she has grown to trust the doctor, so she agrees. The surgery is a success. However, before she even wakes up, the surgeon and his colleagues realize that the tumor is certain to return, this time incurably. She will live peacefully and healthily for several months, but then her sight will leave her one day, and death will immediately follow. He is devastated by this discovery, since he has come to love his patient very much. He decides not to tell her, but her friend knows that he is hiding something. At a party celebrating her recovery, the surgeon confesses to her friend that she will die. They agree to keep the dreadful news a secret from her so that she can enjoy her last days. Eventually, they become engaged, since the surgeon doesn’t care if her time is short. They plan to move to Connecticut after their marriage. Everything is wonderful until the future bride finds her case file in his office and realizes that she is dying. She thinks that her friend begged the surgeon to marry her out of pity, and she is furious. She flings herself into a life of utter frivolity. After she wins a jumping competition with her horse, the surgeon confronts her and tries to tell her he loves her, but she doesn’t want to listen. She goes to the stables, where she meets her impetuous stable keeper. He confesses his love for her and kisses her. This finally makes her realize that she loves the surgeon. She goes back to him, and they reschedule their marriage. Their time may be short, but they decide to enjoy their life together as long as they can.

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The young socialite is Judith Traherne, played by Bette Davis. The brain surgeon who falls in love with her is Dr. Frederick Steele, played by George Brent. Her secretary and best friend is Ann King, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald. The stable keeper who is secretly infatuated with Judith is Michael O’Leary, played by Humphrey Bogart. The family doctor who first examines Judith is Dr. Parsons, played by Henry Travers. Judith’s drunken socialite friend is Alec, played by Ronald Reagan.

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Production Notes

This film was directed by Edmund Goulding. It was produced by executive producer Hal B. Wallis, with associate producer David Lewis. The production company was Warner Bros. The screenplay was written by Casey Robinson, based on the play by George Emerson Brewer, Jr. and Bertram Bloch. This movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Bette Davis, and Best Original Score for Max Steiner. Bette Davis was also nominated for Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, at which she was tied with Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. 

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Code Compliance

This is a perfect Code film. It is another example of a great Warner Bros. drama which is stirring, emotional, serious, and touching, all while being free from Code violations. While very lighthearted and fun movies are wonderful, it is films like this one which I praise the most as an example of the Code’s greatness. Imagine a movie like this made in the 21st century. The filmmakers would consider this is a heavy or mature subject. Thus, they would gear the film toward older audiences. The film industry has a very unfortunate notion that adults won’t take a film seriously unless it is rated PG-13, if not R. Thus, they would add foul language, inappropriate content, and maybe even nudity to make the film worthy of such a severe rating. During the Breen Era, this movie was held to the high standards of the Code, so there was no unacceptable language, no indecent costumes, no suggestive content, and nothing else which could be deemed unsuitable. Perhaps the modern rating system would classify this film as PG for potentially disturbing content and mature subjects, but I disagree. Yes, this film is very serious and quite mature, but it is handled the right way. Children can’t and shouldn’t be shielded from the truth of illness and the frailty of life. This movie teaches the valuable lesson that we should treasure every moment of our lives, since no one knows how long he has to live.

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My Opinion

This is a wonderful movie. The acting is fantastic. Bette Davis certainly deserved her Best Actress nomination. I think she deserved to win. Her depiction of the ill young woman is very real and highly emotional. George Brent is wonderful as Dr. Steele. This is now one of my favorite roles of his. He has a very unique acting style, and it is very believable. Geraldine Fitzgerald is lovely as her secretary and best friend. I have never seen this actress before, but this performance endeared her to me. I thought that Humphrey Bogart was excellent in his small but important role. He was more youthful in appearance and manner than in his later starring films which I have seen. His interaction with Bette Davis was great. Henry Travers, everyone’s favorite wingless angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, was lovable and touching as the family doctor who bemoans the harsh fate of the girl whom he brought into the world. Even Ronald Reagan adds something to the movie in his small and comical role. The score is wonderful. The cinematography is great. What more can I say? This is an exceptional film.

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I highly recommend this film. If you like Bette Davis, you should definitely see this film, since it is one of her finest performances. Even if you aren’t a devoted fan of Miss Davis, I think this movie will make you appreciate her talent. All classic film lovers should add this to their film collection. I venture to say that even people who don’t really like classic films, or at least haven’t seen many of them, would like this movie. Someone who appreciates good acting and filmmaking from later eras could appreciate those same qualities in this black and white masterpiece. You might want to consider this as a film to show your friend who is a modern film devotee. This film might just win him over!


For the Blogathon

This weekend, The 8th Annual What a Character Blogathon is being hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, and Kellee Pratt of Outspoken and Freckled. I decided to write about Humphrey Bogart’s character part in this film for the blogathon. When people think of Humphrey Bogart, they usually think about the famous films in which he was the leading man, such as The Maltese FalconCasablanca, and The African Queen. He is also famous for his marriage and film partnership with Lauren Bacall, with whom he made four iconic films. What a lot of people don’t know is that he was a Warner Bros. character actor for years before he became identified as a leading man. He made his film debut with Spencer Tracy in Up the River (1930). Although he was a romantic leading man in this movie, he quickly was relegated to playing side characters. In 1936, he appeared in a Warner Bros. A-picture, The Petrified Forest with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. His part in this film received great reviews, but the fact that he played a gangster in it quickly type-cast him as a criminal. After that, Warner Bros. used him as a supporting actor, often a heavy. Mr. Bogart hypothesized that there was something about his face which people initially disliked, leading to his convincing portrayal of criminals. Some have said that his resemblance to outlaw John Dillinger fueled his popularity as a gangster. While James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson gained stardom and glamour as Warner gangsters, Humphrey Bogart seemed destined to be a character actor gangster. As a character actor, the working schedule was rough. He made an average of one film every two months, and he sometimes worked on two films at once. He said that, in his first thirty-four films for the studio, “I was shot in 12, electrocuted or hanged in 8, and was a jailbird in 9.” It wasn’t until 1941, eleven years after his film debut, that Humphrey Bogart rose above character actor status to be a star. His last gangster film, High Sierra, and The Maltese Falcon brought him into the limelight. He received great acclaim and became a real star at age forty-two. However, I really enjoyed him in this pre-stardom role as a character actor. I hope to see more of his early Code Warner Bros. films, such as Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. I’m sure that in those film, as in this one, he does more than just support the leads. A great character actor adds a lot to a movie by giving it character!

Click the above image to buy this movie on DVD at Amazon and support PEPS through the Amazon Affiliate program!

This week, I watched one extra new Code film, Holiday in Mexico from 1946, which I will review some other time.

Click the above image to buy this movie on DVD at Amazon and support PEPS through the Amazon Affiliate program!

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This year, PEPS is celebrating the holidays with a blogathon! It is called The Happy Holidays Blogathon, and it will run December 6-8. It is all about films which feature the winter holidays. Eligible holidays include Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, News Years, The Twelve Days of Christmas, The Epiphany, Russian Christmas, and Russian New Years! Whether it is just one scene or the whole film, this is your chance to write about your favorite holiday movies!

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One thought on “52 Code Films – Week #46: “Dark Victory” from 1939; “From a Character to a Star” for The 8th Annual What a Character Blogathon

  1. Pingback: 52 Code Films | pure entertainment preservation society

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