Sunday, November 23, 2008

I think I'll have a large order of Prognosis Negative...

The first glimpse I got of Dark Victory was in the documentary Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, which I caught bits and pieces of when it aired on TCM on what would have been Bette Davis' 100th birthday last spring. They showed the clip that begins at about 6:10 in the above video, and I was so intrigued that I stayed up until 4 in the morning to watch the actual film. I managed to catch it a second time recently at a much more decent hour, and am happy to report that it wasn't just sleep deprivation that made me enjoy it so much the first time.

"Miss Judith Traherne of the Sleeping Trahernes" starts out as a spoiled society girl, only concerned with her parties and her horses. Bette Davis does a wonderful job adding layers to what seems at first like a very superficial character, especially when Judith is questioned about her health. She only reveals the extent of her headaches to Ann because she doesn't want her horse to be blamed for her mistake, a detail that suggests early on that there is more to Judy than the simple party girl she appears to be.

A basic premise of the movie -- the doctor and Ann conspiring to keep Judith's true prognosis from her -- may seem absolutely inconceivable to modern audiences. Although both Dr. Steele and Ann's motivations are pure, the good doctor would be breaking almost every medical law on the books if the story were set today. Even knowing that the film was set at a time when patients were routinely lied to "for their own good," it was still kind of hard for me to look past the idea that a dying young woman, especially one so vibrantly and intelligently portrayed, could not handle her own diagnosis.

Of course, she does eventually find out anyway. The scene in which she confronts Ann and Dr. Steele involves everything I love about Bette Davis' performances -- the barely contained anger, the feigned ignorance, and then the dramatic reveal, complete of course with a well-placed glare from those immortal eyes.

A darker side to Judy's character emerges here, as she throws herself into drinking and partying as a response to learning that she's going to die. It takes both the reappearance of Dr. Steele and a well-timed proposition from Humphrey Bogart's stablehand Michael O'Leary for Judith to realize that she needs to make the most of the time she has left.

Judith's reconciliation with Dr. Steele provides her with her "happily ever after," and it almost seems as though the film should end there. Of course, there's still the small matter of Judy's terminal illness to disrupt the idyllic New England home. The final symptom, and the only sign that death is imminent, is the sudden loss of vision. As you can see in the clip above, Judy initially mistakes her dimming vision for a change in the weather. Once she realizes that she is going blind, her focus almost immediately shifts to comforting her friend. It's this show of extraordinary compassion that first drew me to the film, and it's this scene that left a lasting impression on me long after I first saw it.

The final scenes of the movie concern Judith's attempt at hiding her sudden downturn from her husband. One thing that bothered me about this was that neither Ann nor Judith acknowledged that what she was doing -- concealing life-or-death information from Steele for the sake of sparing his feelings -- is exactly what Judith had had done to her earlier in the film. I would have liked to see Ann try harder to talk her into telling Steele, or for Judith to come to a realization about just why Steele and Ann had initially felt the need to "protect" her as they did. Nonetheless, the scenes of Judith groping around blindly to spare her husband the pain of her impending death are extremely poignant.

According to the movie's Trivia page on IMDb, it was originally supposed to end with Judith's much-maligned horse, Challenger, winning the National. I do think the movie is better off ending with Judith's death, but I also found this interesting, particularly because it brings back an element from the very beginning of the movie. It wasn't until the second viewing that I made the connection between Judith's insistance that her horse had courage, and her later insistance that she herself had to have the courage to die alone.

The next airdate for Dark Victory on TCM is listed as February 25th. If you don't want to wait that long, it's up in its entirety on YouTube, split into 11 parts. Either way, it's definitely something I would recommend watching.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called in-breeding: from this comes idiot children and other lawyers...

After months of wanting to see this movie, TCM finally aired it at a timeslot when I wasn't in class or asleep. Yes, last night I finally caught Adam's Rib, and it definitely did not disappoint.

It was included as part of TCM's Leading Couples series, and I could easily see why. It was my first time really seeing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy together (well, I have seen Pat and Mike but to be honest, I hadn't really been paying attention). The legendary Hepburn-Tracy chemistry is evident throughout the movie, particularly in the massage scene when the mood changes from a light intamacy between husband and wife to a heated argument in an instant. Adam's expression as Amanda begs him to try to understand her point of view is very poignant and reveals a deeper level of their marriage than the audience had seen up to that point. Of course, his gentle and somewhat patronizing attempt to simply start over as if nothing had happened proved that he completely ignored that request, but what would a battle-of-the-sexes plot be without basic misunderstandings on both sides?

One of the things that I enjoyed most about this movie was that I could sympathize with both the man and the woman. On the one hand, Amanda did prove that the court was prejudicial against her client's gender. However, Adam was also right in that no one of any gender has the right to use violence against another person. I almost feel as though Amanda's point would have been strengthened if it had been a man on trial about to get off leniently and she'd had to prove that a woman would have had the proverbial book thrown at her, but in that case the feminist message of the film might have been harder to pull off.

This is definitely a movie I'd watch again. It was an entertaining look at gender roles, both in the legal system and in Adam and Amanda's own marriage. In the case of the latter, I really liked Amanda's ruminations about marriage to Kip, and Adam's willingness to subvert the traditional "macho-man" gender role after all to help him get his own way, just like a stereotypical woman. To quote Adam quoting the French, "Vive la différence!"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience, there's theater...

I've seen this Alphabet Meme from Blog Cabins (who is, by the way, the King of Google -- I've checked) all over the place, most recently in She Blogged By Night, and I want to play too. It definitely doesn't look easy -- especially since I've only recently developed a real interest in movies, and haven't seen even a small fraction of the films generally considered to be classics. Getting one for every letter of the alphabet might take some time, but luckily I've got an English paper to procrastinate; I could sit here all night, and quite probably will. According to the official rules I'm supposed to tag five people, but since I don't think there are five people reading this I'll just skip that step.

All About Eve
Le Ballon Rouge
Citizen Kane (admitting how much I like that movie always makes me feel like a pretentious poser)
Dark Victory
Empire Records
Fried Green Tomatoes
Girls Just Want To Have Fun
It Happened One Night
Joyeux Noël
Kill Bill, vol. 1
Only Angels Have Wings
Penny Serenade
Quo Vadis
Requiem for a Dream
Some Like It Hot
Trois Couleurs: Bleu
Un Chien Andalou (cheating here, as "a" and "the" aren't supposed to count, but... come on, what starts with U?)
Wet Hot American Summer
The X-Files: I Want To Believe
Yours, Mine, and Ours (the original; haven't seen the remake and honestly have no desire to)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator...

Two of my favorite things are school and old movies, and I'm constantly looking for ways to combine the two (that don't involve actually changing my major). This blog was the result of one such endeavor; for another, I got to re-watch Metropolis last week for a class called Modernity in the Western World. It's an Honors history class, and my presentation focused on the film as a representation of the post-industrial attitude toward Futurism; don't worry, I won't be rewriting that essay here. I will say, however, that upon seeing Metropolis for the second time -- the first was a year ago, in the film history class I've mentioned here before -- I picked up on a lot of things that I'd missed the first time around. I've blogged before about my lack of patience for silent movies, but I really think Metropolis is a film worth seeing twice.

Metropolis is about a city divided into two classes. The collective "head" of the city is the ruling class, those who live aboveground. The "hands" of the city are the laborers, who live underground and work in shifts to ensure that the city above them runs smoothly. Maria, a wise young woman to whom the workers look for guidance, preaches patience and predicts that a mediator will come, someone who will be the "heart" and unite the two classes for the betterment of all.

It's interesting to see not just how far off Fritz Lang's vision of the future is from what we now know -- although Norman Ball of the Bright Lights Film Journal is quite right to say that he "misses the productivity gains of the computer age by a mile." However, I find it more interesting to look at how he delves into the past in order to create that vision of the future.

The image of the laborers being forced into the machine to replace their comrades who had just perished in the explosion, for example, was strongly reminiscent of images of Hewbrew slaves being forced to build the pyramids in Egypt. Maria's speeches to the workers about waiting for a mediator parallel John The Baptist foretelling the coming of Jesus. The story of the Tower of Babel is directly invoked throughout the film, both when it's mentioned directly and in the image of the aboveground city. My Dad, an avid fan of the genre, always tells me that the best science fiction draws material directly from history; Metropolis is an excellent example of this.


Ball, N. (2008). Metropolis, Ezra Pound, Mammon, and the law of too-large numbers. Bright Lights Film Journal, (62). Retrieved November 11, 2008, from