Saturday, July 15, 2017

Edmund Goulding | Dark Victory

directing details

by Douglas Messerli

Casey Robinson (screenplay, based on the stage play by by George Emerson Brewer, Jr. and Bertram Bloch), Edmund Goulding (director) Dark Victory / 1939
Every time I write a review of a film by Edmund Goulding I fear, given my own cinematic predilections and theatrical tastes that I will not do his works justice. For Goulding did superb melodramas long before, with the 1950s works of Nicolas Ray and Douglas Sirk, they would again become popular. And even when he wasn’t doing melodrama, Goulding’s plots and characters were often so over-dramatized that they seem as absolutely unbelievable as the kind of pop epic productions that appeal to younger film-going audiences today.

Yet, there is something so well-crafted about Goulding’s careful direction and his attentiveness to his stars that, as The New York Times critic Fred Nugent wrote of Goulding’s 1939 film, Dark Victory

            A completely cynical appraisal would dismiss it all 
            as emotional flim-flam, a heartless play upon 
            tender hearts by a playwright and company well versed 
            in the dramatic uses of going blind and improvising on 
            Camille. But it is impossible to be that cynical about it. 
            The mood is too poignant, the performances too honest, 
            the craftsmanship too expert.


     Of course, some of that craftsmanship is due to the fine acting of Bette Davis as the suffering socialite Judith Traherne, the aw-shucks humility of her gentle stable-hand, Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart), the gallant concerns of her doctor and soon-to-be lover, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), and her deep-friend secretary Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who was hired to do all the weeping for her employer’s incurable brain disease.

     The bisexual, multi-talented director-composer-writer-singer-performer Goulding was already known at the time of Dark Victory as a “woman’s director,” a kind of sexist dig that hinted that gay-oriented directors such as George Cukor, Mitchell Leisen, and others were better with women because they could spiritual sympathize with them. Cukor and Goulding were equally known for their house-based orgies (Cukor’s were boy-only affairs, while Goulding’s were sexually mixed).

     And by the time of Davis’ award-nominated performance, the director had already helped establish the careers of Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo (who both performed in his Grand Hotel), and had worked well also with Nancy Carroll, Fay Bainter, and Gloria Swanson. But, of course, that label—which seriously delimited Goulding’s career—ignored all of his wonderful male-centered characters, including in this work, Bogart, and in other films, Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and, later, Tyrone Powers and Robert Young.

      Ronald Reagan, a quite inept drunk in Dark Victory, hated him, as did most of the major studio directors who, between films, had to cover for sexual innuendos directed against him. Also an alcoholic, Goulding didn’t make it easy in the period of intense prurient attention to the film industry. Throughout the making of Dark Victory, moreover, Davis was having an affair with her leading man, Brent. The film was made in the same year, one must remember, when Clark Gable got Cukor fired from directing Gone with the Wind, some say because Cukor knew Gable’s former career as a gay hustler. 

      Much like her role in William Wyler’s Jezebel, Davis gets the opportunity in this work to play what she does best: a strong-headed, fool-hardy sensualist, who redeems herself in the end with noble deeds and an acceptance of her fate. But Goulding—far more interested in the details of character then in cinematography—often rewrote his scripts, in this case adding the sympathetic character played by Fitzgerald.

     Since I’ve never read the original play by George Emerson Brewer, Jr. and Bertram Bloch (a work that lasted for 51 performances with Tallulah Bankhead in 1934), I can’t truly know, for example, who actually wrote the lines, as the doctor tests Traherne for knee coordination taps, when the Judith replies that she always giggles during these tests, allowing Davis to let out a few bars of her always infectious laugh. Or, when he asks her to take off her coat, and she is forced to reply that it is actually her dress. After her brain operation, the same figure asks whether the doctor has found anything there that might suggest she could live a more sensible life. These small and almost meaningless details that add nothing to the story but help immensely to create a real figure behind its melodramatic events, and somehow they seem unlikely to have been spoken on stage.

      Many of the quips of the script, moreover, help catapult the Davis figure from a frightened horse-loving spoiled child into the kind of figure who she would later play in films like the wittily evil All About Eve:

               Judith: Confidentially, darling, this is more than a hangover.

And later as she drinks down glass after glass of her favorite aperitif:

               Judith: I think I'll have a large order of prognosis negative!

These minor character details and scripted witticisms all help to make Goulding’s Dark Victory a far deeper film than simply a story about a woman bravely standing up to her own immanent death. Davis plays Judith with a large palette of emotions: imperial dismissals, sardonicism, true black humor, and real pathos that demonstrate her acting chops and helps elevate this film from a simple melodrama to a truly moving study in the intellectual development of a young, vivacious woman, who is saved by the very thing that kills her.

      Despite the wonderful biography by Matthew Kennedy, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, it is time for more revaluations of this fascinating film director, who in retrospect made this film a masterpiece.

Los Angeles, July 15, 2017

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