When Edmund Goulding’s film, “Dark Victory” came out in 1939, it wasn’t clear how it would be received. Many had trepidations, including studio head, Jack Warner. After all, who would want to see a movie about a young socialite’s struggle with brain cancer, or watch her slow descent toward death? Surprisingly, the film did well, mostly because of Goulding’s choice to turn the film into heavy melodrama and a tearjerker, and because of Bette Davis’ performance as Judy Traherne, the wealthy socialite diagnosed with malignant glioma.
Judy is painfully aware of her constant headaches as well as her blurry and double vision. Her best friend, Ann, knows something is awfully wrong, yet Judy continues to deny reality. She makes light of the alleged illness and would rather continue partying with Ann and her other friends, including Alec Hamm (Ronald Reagan). There is an implied romance between Judy and Alec, but their superficial life prevents them from making a proper commitment to each other. Alec appears to be one of those men interested only in hedonism, no matter what form it takes, and no matter who’s included.
Life changes drastically when Judy sees Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), who informs her the situation is dire. She has no choice but to listen, and he performs surgery on Judy. The surgery is a success but only Steele (and later, Ann and Alec) knows that the glioma will return. Judy will have a good life for a little while until one day, darkness will fall over her, she will begin to lose her eyesight, and then die.
Judy is mostly blissfully unaware of this fact and decides to marry Steele, move to Vermont, and live happily ever after. She may be completely happy but she’s certainly not stupid. Eventually, the knowledge of the disease and the disease itself catch up with her once again. She tries to give one last slice of happiness and love to Steele, and dies alone.
“Dark Victory” was a major motion picture from a major studio, and it carried with it certain caché. At this point, young Ronald Reagan had been in the movie business for two years (his first film being 1937’s “Love is On the Air”), and this was a major opportunity for him. By all indications, making “Dark Victory” should have been a great triumph for Reagan. Jack Warner was very supportive of Reagan and his talent. Yet, just like with any other actor, talent can only be made visible if it isn’t suppressed by a bad script or a director unwilling to bring it out. Unfortunately, Edmund Goulding’s intentions for Reagan’s character did not serve Reagan well at all.
There is no doubt that Reagan had a strong presence on the silver screen. This was true in even minor roles. Yet in “Dark Victory,” Reagan appears uncomfortable in his own skin and out of sync in some way. Even his voice lacks that usual intensity one expects from a Reagan performance, and so it seems incongruous with his other roles. In this film he was starring alongside several talented and A-list actors, including Humphrey Bogart. Yet even Bogey exudes something other than what fans recognize as his essence, and is cut short in his performance. It is as if both Reagan and Bogart were struggling on screen to escape the directing tyranny of Edmund Goulding.
Reagan reflects on the making of “Dark Victory” in his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, and is disappointed that the experience was not better. “Most top directors let an actor interpret his role,” writes Reagan, “and they go along on the course he has set, pulling a little more out of him and adding a touch here and there.” Goulding did not do that. Instead, he “had staked a claim on [Reagan’s] role.”
Reagan suspected that Goulding simply wanted Reagan to play the director’s younger self, and that he should be playing “the kind of young man who could dearly love Bette but at the same time the kind of fellow who could sit in the girl’s dressing room dishing the dirt while they went on dressing in front of me [Reagan].”
Reagan’s strength and will as a man definitely comes through toward the end of the film, when he brings together Judy and Steele. Reagan’s Alec may have been the picture of an effeminate and hedonistic man throughout the film, but Reagan’s will and determination somehow took over in his final scene. He wanted to play the scene intensely and “sincerely” but Goulding wouldn’t hear of that. “Do you think you are playing the leading man?” asked Goulding of Reagan.
According to Reagan’s own self-judgment, his final scene and line were badly delivered but this is unnecessarily harsh. There is a sense of resolve as his character Alec brings Judy and Steele together, and even Reagan’s clear, sharp, and self-assured voice comes back—if just for a moment. Reagan is clearly uncomfortable in the role of a cad and he can’t help but want his character to redeem himself a bit. This performance makes it clear that that’s the point. A man should be uncomfortable as a cad, even if his director isn’t. The camera loved Reagan, but Goulding clearly didn’t.
Even a minor role can carry great weight, and it’s clear that Reagan understood that. He took all of his work very seriously and, like any self-respecting person, he didn’t take kindly to being put down or rendered useless and non-existent. Obviously, he was unwilling to submit his will and personhood to Goulding. Despite the fact that Goulding rendered Reagan’s performance weak (as he did with Humphrey Bogart as well), Reagan’s determination seeps through the static role of an effeminate playboy he was given. If anything, the film shows Goulding’s weakness as a director, and Reagan’s strength both as an actor and a man.