Bette Davis may have had several roles that the public identify with her more than Judith Traherne. But Judith's plight is actually the most tragic of all of them. Judith is young, attractive, lively, and rich. But she's suffering from a brain tumor.
A line of dialog at the start of the film made me wonder how really up-to-date the screenplay was. Dr. Frederick Steel (George Brent) is a society surgeon with a great practice, but he is about to leave New York City for his farm/laboratory in Vermont to do research into cells (particularly those that turn deadly as in cancer cells and tumors). He is telling a visitor about a recent patient of his - a promising composer who had started working on a new composition just before Steel performed brain surgery. As he says very sadly the operation was a success but the patient died. In 1939 Americans would have picked up on that particular line. A year earlier America's leading popular composer, George Gershwin, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had a well reported operation in Los Angeles, California. He survived about a week.
Dr. Steel is approached by a colleague Dr. Parsons (Harry Travers) regarding Ms Traherne. Besides being a family friend and the doctor who brought her into the world, Parsons was one of a dozen witnesses the previous week when Judith took a spill on one of her champion horses. She has been complaining (but dismissing) a series of headaches. Steel agrees to see Traherne (who is sitting outside with her friend and secretary Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Traherne is friendly but again dismissive of the problem of the headaches. Steel is keen eyed enough to see that Judith is having problems focusing her eyes, and reacts badly to sunlight (she's squinting too much), and she is burning her fingers (due to accidents while lighting her cigarettes). Steel drops his plans to go to Vermont in order to take care of Judith.
There is an operation, and it is an apparent success. In the meantime Judith and Frederick begin finding each other rather pleasant company and a romance begins. Judith resumes her social activities with her equestrian shows (involving her horse trainer Michael O'Leary (Humphrey Bogart)), and her social set involving her male pal Alec Hamm (Ronald Reagan). But she is soon aware of Frederick and Ann spending too much time together, and while first thinking the obvious she soon comes across a medical report from some expert that Frederick uses on his serious cases. She confronts them at a restaurant with the knowledge that she is fully aware that while the operation was a temporary success the tumor cells are reemerging.
After a period where Judith tries to forget the coming disaster with Alec and her chums, she finds little solace there. Her best adviser at this point is Michael, who tells her she should try to find as much happiness for her remaining days as she can. The irony (for Michael, of course) is that he always has loved Judith but he can't compete with Frederick. Nor can Alec, who later confesses as much to Frederick*
(*Ronald Reagan later explained that Edmund Goulding told him to play Alec as an alcoholic homosexual. This was a bit beyond what Reagan liked to be seen as, so he did not go as far out as Goulding wanted him to do. Yet to be fair, Alec's behavior as Judith's closest male confidante comes close to what Goulding suggested. Besides, one can make a similarly negative comment about Bogart's use of an Irish accent, but for the purposes of the film it's fine.)
SPOILER COMING UP:
Frederick and Judith get married, and we see her doing everything in her power to be as loving and close a wife as she can, while Frederick is trying to live for her each day without thinking of the inevitable. They do leave the New York City and Long Island Social Set for Vermont, and she does help him set up his lab and (with Ann along as secretary) sets up his professional lecture and conference appointments. It seems to be working, but then comes the last fifteen minutes of the film.
Frederick has a conference out of state, and has to catch a train. Judith has been helping him pack, but while out in her garden with Ann she is aware that she is seeing less and less. Ann becomes aware of this too, but Judith tells her not to say a word - they both know that it is the sign of the last minutes of her life. They go through a careful pantomime where Judith acts as though nothing is amiss, and Frederick is unaware that the end is approaching as he leaves. With the help of Ann and her servant Carrie (Cora Witherspoon) Judith gets up stairs to lie down on her bed and die with dignity.
I can only add that my description of the last twenty minutes does not do close to full justice to how Davis and Fitzgerald handle that last portion of the film. DARK VICTORY happens to be one of those "women's pictures" that really work. The subject, for a change, is dramatic but realistic. While sex triangles and unhappy marriages and alcoholism are parts of life, most of us relate to the fragility of life and how it can all come crashing down due to our physical construction. It's bad enough for the bulk of us, but when (like Traherne) you have one of the best of life styles it is agonizing. Unlike so many of these so-called "women's pictures", DARK VICTORY is one that men find as fascinating to watch as women.