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Bette Davis created a tearjerker trope in Dark Victory

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The recent teen weepie Me And Earl And The Dying Girl—as well as the emotional new Pixar movie, Inside Out—has us tearfully recalling movies designed to make you cry.

Dark Victory (1939)

You know the trope of the beautiful young heiress who gets struck down in the prime of life by a brain tumor and falls in love with her dashing doctor? Well, all tropes come from somewhere, and this one comes to us courtesy of black-and-white movie queen Bette Davis. In 1939, Davis was coming off her Oscar win as the bad-girl-with-a-good-heart Jezebel. She balanced that role out with Dark Victory, in which she played another young woman with spirit, but in a much more sympathetic circumstance.


Davis’ Judith is young, rich, and cares for little else besides “horses and hats and food.” She also is plagued by headaches that, unfortunately for her, turn out to indicate a life-threatening brain tumor. Davis’ favorite and frequent co-star, George Brent, plays the dashing doctor; they had a years-long affair that began on this set of this movie. But she actually has better chemistry with her Petrified Forest co-star Humphrey Bogart and his faltering Irish accent as Michael, a horse trainer.

Judith’s situation seems cliché to us now, decades later, but only because we’ve seen it so many times since, usually in a variety of daytime soap operas. Although Judith’s doctor and best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) try to hide her probable fate from her, of course she finds out in dramatic fashion. This in turn leads to her going off the rails a bit, drinking and partying and stealing other people’s boyfriends. It’s Michael the horse trainer who points out that it’s a waste to blow whatever’s left of her life in this manner, so she comes to the decision to face her apparent death “beautifully and finely.” So many elements in this film stick out from a 2015 perspective. Judith smokes in her hospital bed right before the operation. Married to the doctor in Vermont, she muses about how “here we have nothing, and we’re happy,” although they still have two servants. Future leader of the free world Ronald Reagan gets fourth-billing as Judith’s frequently soused friend Alec.

But Davis mesmerizes throughout, in this age or any other, as Judith uses her singular strength and spirit to tackle her undesirable fate. At the beginning of the film, on the horse track, Judith notes, “When any of us hit that last hurdle, that’s all that counts.” She eventually faces her final hurdle with as beautiful and fine a manner as any of us could hope for, making Dark Victory a tearjerker standard.

Availability: Dark Victory is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.

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