Light in the Darkness: Theatrical Allusions and Bookends in DARK VICTORY
7 April 2013
1939 is unquestionably a remarkable year for American film. Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are only a few of the most popular films released in the Golden Age of Hollywood. There is a considerable amount of theory as to why 1939 became such an iconic year for cinema, and one thought to ponder may simply be that 1939 is a marker of when filmmakers, actors, and all industry workers firmly grasped and harnessed the power of narrative storytelling through a camera’s lens (and editing room, of course).
Although several brilliant and well-crafted American films were made prior to 1939, films of the late 1930s and beyond have a stronger structure than the films of Hollywood’s early years. As a whole, films from the late 1930 on have a thorough narrative composition, more innovative and resonant camerawork and cinematic effect, and an overall better sense on satisfying a visual audience’s expectations. This is the case with Dark Victory, released in 1939.
Briefly, Dark Victory tells the story of Judith Traherne (Bette Davis), a fiery aristocrat and equestrian from Long Island, who, when the film begins, is stricken with severe headaches and impairments to her vision. Although her stubborn nature initially prevents her from seeking help, she eventually sees Dr. Fredrick Steele (George Brent), who diagnoses her with brain tumor. He performs brain surgery on Judith, but realizes the tumor will return and kill his patient, likely in less than one year’s time. Dr. Steele, who has fallen in love with the outspoken, charismatic Judith, decides not to tell her of this inevitable relapse, instead allowing her to believe she has made a full recovery. Dr. Steele and Judith plan to marry, but, as Fate would have it, Judith discovers her case file in Dr. Steele’s office. She reads it and discovers the true nature of her condition. Believing her fiancé is marrying her out of pity, Judith breaks off the engagement and embarks on a reckless and self-pitying spiral. With the help of her stable-hand, Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart), Judith hits bottom, but realizes she much fill what time she has left in life with happiness and love. She returns to Steele; the two marry and move to a farm in Vermont, living out their lives as though Judith is not ill. One afternoon, while gardening, Judith’s vision begins to dim, signaling that, although she may have tried forgetting Fate, Fate has not forgotten her.
Director Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory is an adaptation of a 1934 play by George Brewer and Bertram Bloch. The play opened at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre in the late fall of ‘34, but, with poor reviews and minimal interest, Dark Victory closed after a brief run. Cinema almost immediately looked to Dark Victory as adaptable, but initial ideas about a possible film were put aside. In the late 1930s, Bette Davis requested Warner Brothers buy the rights and adapt the play for her. Jack Warner refused her request at first; however, after a relentless effort on Davis’ part, Warner Brothers did secure the rights for a Davis-led cinematic take on Dark Victory, adapted by Casey Robinson.
Remembering Dark Victory was made during a year cinema boomed and filmmaking was rapidly evolving, there is subtle sophistication to the film’s narrative that enhances the Dark Victory’s quality. One clearly conscious and intellectually motivated decision in Goulding’s Dark Victory is the use of theatrical allusion, evident in the film’s set design and framing. For example, in Traherne’s Long Island estate, as well as the Vermont home she shares with Steele in the end, there are large windows framed in lavish drapes. The windows and accompanying drapes allude to a theatre, with the windows as stage and the drapes as a theatre’s curtains. Often times the camera captures Judith staring out the window or sitting with a drape-framed window behind her. This positioning builds the allusion to a theatre, Dark Victory’s original home.
Moreover, in the film’s dramatic conclusion, Judith returns to her bedroom and gets in bed; Martha, the housekeeper, walks over to the window and draws the shade. This is, perhaps, the strongest of the film’s theatrical allusions. Metaphorically, the closing shade represents a closing curtain, signaling the end of the performance. Cinema, contributing what is can with its camera, actually ends the film a moment later with a blurred shot of the dying Judith Traherne, but, symbolically, the film ends when Martha draws the shade and, therefore, closes the theatre’s curtain on this performance of Dark Victory.
Beyond the theatrical allusions, Dark Victory’s narrative is further strengthened by the film’s bookends. The first time the audience meets Judith Traherne it is very early in the morning, as she is just waking up in her bed. The room is luminous, the bedding is a light color, and Judith’s own pajamas are a bright white. Conversely, the film concludes with Judith returning to her bed in darkness. In the final scene, Judith loses her vision entirely, putting her in totally darkness. She returns to her bed and the camera captures Judith at the same angle it did in the film’s opening. Instead of waking up, Judith is fading away, bookending the film with Judith opening her eyes to life and closing her eye to life.
The use of bookends is significant to Dark Victory because it provides closure to an emotional impacting and difficult story. Dark Victory does not end happily; the story is tragic and the audience unavoidably saddened. However, bookending the film stabilizes its structure; what began must conclude, and using mirrored shots of Judith in bed in both the beginning and end stabilizes that, although the narrative’s conclusion is tragic, the ending is appropriate.
While the theatrical allusions and bookends are only two small and subtle elements to Dark Victory, both highlight a conscious, intelligent, and structured approach to filmmaking during the late 1930s. Dark Victory’s value lies in its narrative composition, stemming originally from a play, but thoughtfully adapted for the camera’s lens. The subtle way the camera captures the narrative’s strength, most remarkably in the bookmarking, enhances the film’s quality, perhaps suggesting Dark Victory and it contemporaries are markers for a more sophisticated, stylized, developed, and intelligent era of American cinema that began in the late 1930s.