Years before Bette Davis scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination playing Judith Traherne, Barbara Stanwyck knew the leading role in Dark Victory was a winner. Despite starring in the Lux Radio Theatre version of the play, she couldn’t convince David O. Selznick or Jack Warner that she could play a woman in the prime of her life cut down by disease.
Eight years later, she finally got the chance in The Other Love. Stanwyck plays Karen Duncan, a world famous concert pianist who is sent to a Swiss sanatorium to treat a serious lung illness.
In Dark Victory, Judith discovers her fate when she accidentally discovers her case file stamped with “prognosis negative” on her doctor’s desk. It is a brutal moment of reckoning.
For Karen Duncan, the truth comes slowly. It is in these moments when the film—and Stanwyck—shine brightest.
On her first night in the sanatorium, a white orchid is delivered to her room. Thinking her handsome doctor sent the flower, she is pleased and elated. She then discovers that the flowers were sent by “a man who died months ago to a woman who died yesterday.” That is, the front desk forgot to cancel the standing order for the daily flowers that were sent to the previous occupant of her room.
Dr. Tony Stanton takes her cigarette lighter away and forbids smoking. While searching around in his office, she discovers a drawer overflowing with the confiscated lighters of the dead.
She hears a patient coughing and a look of pure horror crosses her face. Lost in an employee-only area she sees nurses wheel away a body.
Despite Dr. Stanton’s constant assurances, death surrounds her.
Because it is the 1940’s, Dr. Stanton does not tell her the full extent of her illness, and that it is possibly terminal. Instead, he gives her rules she is not to question. She can’t smoke, she can’t drink, and worst of all—she can’t play the piano.
She can never have too much exertion.
Though she follows them, she chafes against the restrictions.
After an ordered month in bed, Karen is set loose from the sanatorium for a day’s shopping in the village. By chance she meets Paul Clermont, an attractive race car driver who flirts with her and invites her to dinner. Though she refuses, when she returns to the sanatorium, she is overjoyed at the normality and believes she is on the road to recovery.
Dr. Stanton—who unbeknownst to Karen has just met with a specialist who pronounced her case all but hopeless—forbids future visits to the village, chides her for getting too much excitement, and pours her a tonic to calm her.
Mistaking his concern for jealousy, Karen throws the glass into the floor so that it shatters. (Editor’s note: There is no move I love more in the 1940’s than female stars smashing glassware in fits of temper. Stanwyck gives a fine example here, but Joan Crawford in Humoresque sets the standard.)
The doctor’s restrictions have become chains.
His concern is understandable—her life is in the balance, and his job is to keep her alive.
But her job is to live.
Karen puts one of her own records on the turntable. For a moment, she just stands there, listening to the music she once made that she can no longer play. As if to prove to herself that she is well, she goes to the piano and begins to play.
Her inability to keep up with her own recording shatters her.
She sneaks away from the sanatorium and finds Paul Clermont, the impulsive, attractive man she met in the village. Knowing nothing of her illness, he sweeps her away into a whirlwind romance of drinking, smoking, and gambling.
We are supposed to see Karen’s action as reckless, that she is putting her small chance of recovery at risk. But when she sits at a piano playing and smoking, it is clear she is a woman who understands she only has so much time left.
Death stalks her. Paul gives her a white orchid, bringing up the ghost of the first night at the sanatorium. And after Paul kisses her passionately, she loses her breath and rushes from the room.
For the first time, she begins coughing, huge wracking coughs she cannot control. Coughs like the ones she heard from the dying in the sanatorium.
She lays her head on a table.
“Oh, please, God, no,” she says. “No, not now.”
Dr. Stanton, who cares for her as more than just a patient, eventually tracks her down and shows up on the scene by lighting her cigarette with the lighter he took from her.
In the end she returns to him and the sanatorium, chastened and significantly weakened by her escapades. The doctor brings her back from the brink of death, and they marry.
At the film’s end, she is wrapped up in blankets in their cozy little cottage while the doctor plays the piano badly and she speaks of a future that will never come. She has gotten past her petulant tantrums, and waits patiently for death.
Reader, I hated this ending.
In Dark Victory, Judith gave up a shallow life for a deeper one when she accepted the terms of her brain tumor. Though she could not defeat the tumor, she lived her life and died on her own terms, with a dignity that gave her a victory even over death.
Karen Duncan’s death did not feel like acceptance. It felt like surrender.
I once read that when the great cook Julia Child lost her sense of taste, she lost her will to live. I do not believe that the great pianist Karen Duncan would live in a world where she could not play piano.
Exist, yes. But not live.
Better to die after a final concert, pouring her heart out into the piano one last time.
I didn’t want her wrapped in blankets while her doctor-husband played mediocre piano.
She would die, there was no outrunning her fate, but I did not want her lighter to end up in that doctor’s box.
Rather she fling it over a cliff, and herself after it.
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”