Thursday, September 3, 2009

1939 - Dark Victory

Since I have an international audience (if I have an audience ... are you out there?), let me briefly ponder the differences in spelling between Australian English and American English. As an Australian, I correspondingly spell words using Australian English, which, presumably, is directly derivative of English English, so no further explanation needed. But now that I live in the United States, I am introduced to what is almost an entirely different language. Having been exposed to so much American culture as a child, I have been fully aware of most differences in spelling for quite some time, but I still wonder how things got changed in the first place. I mean, who on earth decided that Americans didn't require the use of the letter 'U' in certain words? And who first did the presto chango of the 'R' and the 'E' at the ends of other words? And why, oh why, does 'aluminium' lose an entire syllable? Was it all a result of the first Americans' hostility towards all things British that they felt compelled to massacre their language? Or did they just want to make things easier to spell? (Is 'jewellery' really that difficult?)

On that note, let me analyse the next in 1939's line of nominees...

Dark Victory
Edmund Goulding
Casey Robinson
(based on the play by George Brewer and Bertram Bloch)
Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Long Island socialite Judith Traherne is a party girl. She drives fast, drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney. But when she begins to experience headaches and double vision, she is persuaded to see a doctor, who subsquently refers her to a brain specialist, the handsome and charming Dr. Steele. After a brief consultation, the good doctor insists that Judy have more tests, and despite her dismissiveness of her symptoms, she reluctantly agrees. The news is bad, of course. She has a nasty old brain tumour, on which Dr. Steele attempts to operate. Unfortunately, the prognosis after the operation is even worse. She'll be dead within a year, but for some inexplicable reason, he managed to cure her of her symptoms and is confident her demise will be relatively painless, aside from the blindness she will experience just before she expires. But in a move with which the AMA would most certainly disapprove, he decides the best course of action is to not inform his patient of her fatal condition. Instead, he asserts that the operation was a success. It all becomes more complicated, of course, when the doctor and patient fall in love and plan to wed. The AMA would have a field day with this guy.

Dark Victory sometimes feels a tad manipulative in its emotional content, but as I have hinted at in the past, that was more or less standard fare for this time period. Sure, a modern version might be more subtle and less sentimental, but the story is still a moving one, especially in its final scenes. And I got a real sense of the glamour and excitement that must have pervaded the making of films in the golden era of Hollywood. I mean, movie-making has always seemed like magic to me, but back then... well, maybe it's just the nostalgia that exudes from those films. Bette Davis photographed through a soft-focus lens, parading around in spectacular gowns, sincerely declaring her undying love. Pure classic Hollywood. And where else do you hear men describe a fist fight by saying he "socked" him? Makes me wish I was born in a different time.

Bette Davis, and her Bette Davis eyes (pictured), are the backbone of Dark Victory. She carries the film with her versatility, moving from snobbishly care-free to heartbreakingly brave. Emerging from her second Best Actress win the previous year, she was nominated again for this film, this time losing out to Vivien Leigh. Davis is joined on screen by George Brent as the doctor. Humphrey Bogart, just before he made the switch to leading man, gives a valiant attempt at an Irish brogue in his role as the lovesick stableboy. Future leader of the free world, Ronald Reagan, is very charismatic as one of Judy's fellow party animals. And Geraldine Fitzgerald, who I enjoyed just yesterday in Wuthering Heights, is again delightful as Judy's best friend Ann.

I was a little concerned, though, with the lack of medical professionalism in the film. I'd like to think real doctors in the 1930s didn't allow smoking in hospitals and indeed told their patients when they were going to die. The medical explanations in Dark Victory definitely seemed implausible. Would a person with a brain tumour really just go blind and then suffer an otherwise painless death in a matter of minutes? Then again, I'm not a doctor, and I'm probably just comparing it to medical explanations in more modern movies. Which are clearly more sound. I mean, obviously it's much more believable that you can cure people with laughter.

So, that's only the second of 1939's Best Picture nominees that I've watched and it's already shaping up to be another tough decision... Only eight more to go.


  1. As Emperor Joseph said to Mozart in "Amadeus": "There are simply too many notes," American lexicographers must have decided that some English words had too many letters. So aluminium became aluminum, and with it the accent was placed on the second syllable. Why we dropped the 'u' I don't know - bad behavior on our part. At least we kept it in glamour, which just looks classier I think.

    Dark Victory was part of TCM's schedule (I'll pronounce it shedule :) last month during its 1939 tribute. I only caught about an hour, but had seen it before. One of those classic weepers, with Davis at her peak (she and Greer Garson being the only performers to earn 5 consecutive Best Actress nominations.) George Brent, her frequent co-star was a dependable, albeit bland leading man. An odd role for Bogart - he was two years from coming into his own iconography. As for the medical incongruities, thank goodness Magnificent Obsession wasn't nominated for Best Picture in 1954. Rock Hudson's Doctor is a wonder to behold.

  2. There are a lot more examples of differences in the Australian English and US English. For example, the dropping of doubling the consonant at the end of a word when using past tense or present participle (I think that the correct word for -ing) such as, travel, travelled, travelling (Oz English) whereas the US English version is traveled and traveling. Perhaps it's just laziness or a reason to save ink ;-)

  3. I'm not sure why the poster says Academy Award winner.