You know you're in trouble when such a classically tooled and sculpted weepie as 1939's Dark Victory - one that should require boxes of Kleenex and a couple hours of recuperation - doesn't even begin to wring out a tear until near the final act. What happens when a three-hankie picture just isn't that sad? You get Dark Victory.
The story is the sort of thing that could fuel a whole season or two of one of your better primetime soap operas: Idly wealthy Judith Traherne (Davis) is 23, single, and bereft of any cares besides what trainer to hire for her thoroughbred horses and exactly how many martinis to drink. Having complained of sight problems and headaches, Judith gets browbeaten into seeing Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), a renowned brain surgeon about two hours away from chucking his whole practice to go do medical research on his isolated Vermont farm. Steele takes about five minutes to figure out that Judith has a rare and extremely serious condition that needs to be operated on right away. After the operation, Steele tells Judith's friend Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald) that Judith will feel fine for a while, but in about ten months, her vision will start to go again and then she'll die, quite suddenly and painlessly. The two then do what any sensible people would: agree to keep the truth from Judith while arranging for her to marry Steele, whom she's fallen in love with.
It's quite grandly corny, and Davis charges right through it with aplomb. This is a film that tries to see just how far it can get simply on the power of Davis' hauteur, which turns out to be pretty far, even with the lamentably obvious comparisons made between the stormy, high-strung Judith and her similarly tempestuous horse. Faring much, much worse are the men, who circle around Judith, alternately trying to protect and possess her, and failing fairly miserably at it all. For reasons unknown save to studio boss Jack Warner - who fought against making the film, only to see it turn into a smash hit and take home three Oscar nominations - Humphrey Bogart is given the thankless role of ever-so pugnaciously Irish stablehand Michael O'Leary and told to play it straight, something that not even Bogey can pull off. The results aren't pretty. George Brent stiff-necks it through the picture, memorable more for his oily mustache and pinstriped suits than anything else. Making a better impression, oddly enough, is Ronald Reagan, playing against type as a playboy buddy of Judith's; nobody's idea of a comic actor (somewhere there are 10-year-olds who've never tasted alcohol who can do a better imitation of a drunk), he at least tries to nobly wring a few laughs out of the material.
What's left, then, as Dark Victory pushes dauntlessly on to the finish line, is Davis herself, raging against the blinding of her eyes. She's girlish and imperious at the same time, impressively winning sympathy for all her spoiled brat antics, reserving her most mawkish moments for the bitter end. And although Davis can't quite rescue it alone, the modern viewer does have to appreciate a film where a doctor can examine a patient while the two of them puff away on cigarettes.
The restored and remastered DVD presents quite a fine fullscreen picture transfer but only a slim batch of extras, including commentary by film historian James Ursini and critic Paul Clinton, a trailer and featurette.
Sorry about your girl, Jessica.