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DARK VICTORY – Max Steiner

February 1, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Actress Bette Davis discovered the play “Dark Victory” and was determined to play Judith Traherne in a big screen production. She convinced Warner Brothers producers Hal Wallis and David Lewis, as well as Director Edmund Goulding to take on the project. Yet they did not have the film rights, which they had to purchase from David O. Selznick for $50,000. The film would be based on the 1934 play “Dark Victory” by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch, with Casey Robinson hired to write the screenplay. A budget of $1 million was provided and a truly stellar cast assembled. Joining Davis would be George Brent as Dr. Frederick Steele, Humphrey Bogart as Michael O’Leary, Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ann King, Henry Travers as Dr. Parsons, Ronald Reagan as Alex Hamm and Cora Witherspoon as Carrie Spottswood.

The story involves Judith Traheme, a young heiress and socialite from Long Island. She is willful, carefree and leads a hedonistic lifestyle. Yet her world comes apart when progressively worsening symptoms of headaches, dizziness and blurred vision lead to a diagnosis of Glioma, a terminal form of brain cancer. She falls in love with her doctor who operates yet fails to remove all of the tumor. He wants Judy to live a happy life and so hides the fact that she has only a year at best to live with the end being swift and painless. His duplicity is discovered by Judy’s friend Ann and Dr. Steele convinces her to let Judy live out her remaining days in happiness with him. Judy and Frederick become engaged and prepare to move for a quiet life in Vermont however when Judy discovers the truth in his medical file on her, she breaks off the engagement, yet she reconciles when her friend, and secret lover Michael convinces her to return to Frederick, who really loves her. She does and lives three wonderful months with him before succumbing while he is away at a conference, dying in her bed at peace. The film made a modest profit of $300,000 and achieved near universal praise with Davis commended for yet another powerful performance. The film earned three Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Film Score.

Max Steiner was under contract by Warner Brothers and the creative team never had anyone else in mind for scoring the film. As was his practice, Steiner joined the project when he had a copy of the final version of the film as his fury when forced to rescore a scene due to edits was well known. He understood that he would have to speak to the film’s narrative of a young vivacious and willful woman struck down in her prime by a devastating diagnosis, who nevertheless finds the inner strength and fortitude to make the best of things. To properly capture and evoke the emotions expressed in the film, Steiner severely minimized and limited his use of horns and most of the percussion, preferring to let the string and woodwind sections of the orchestra carry the score.

To that end Steiner composed three primary themes for his soundscape; one for Judy, one for the struggle posed by the implacable cancer, and one for the man who adored and loved her. Judy’s Theme offers classic Steiner romanticism, a long-lined sumptuous string borne melody, which sweeps us away with its eloquence and lyricism. A retinue of woodwinds support the strings, with depth provided by warm contrapuntal French horns, which enrich its sound. With the exception of the Main Title and “Prognosis Negative” scene, her theme emotes minor modal. For me, it is the sumptuous major modal rendering in the Main Titles where the theme achieves its most sublime expression. Dr. Steele’s or Frederick’s Theme offers a warm, masculine and comforting construct carried by warm French horns nobile, and confident strings. His major modal optimistic theme evolves during the film, becoming more romantic as Frederick transitions from doctor to lover. The Dark Victory Theme serves as the score’s primary theme, which speaks to Judy’s fight against the implacable and insidious specter of glioma. It is malleable and rendered in a multiplicity of forms including; a misterioso carried by a ghostly string tremelo, vibraphone, and celeste with harp adornment, a sad, descending string line full of despair, or yearning and fully romantic as in the cue Judy’s Suspicions, or lastly, refulgent with ethereal choir as heard in the film’s final scene where it becomes transcendent.

“Main Title” offers a wonderful score highlight. We open with Steiner’s iconic Warner Brothers fanfare, which supports the company logo. As the roll of the opening credits commences, we are graced by a sumptuous major modal exposition of Judy’s Theme, its finest presentation in the film. Steiner casts the film in romantic auras informing us that at its core, the film is a love story, not a medical drama. “The Accident” reveals Ann and Judy being awakened after a long night of partying by an ill-timed call from stablemaster Michael who asks them to come by the stables. They argue over whether her prize horse Challenger has what it takes to be a champion, and Judy orders him to bring him to her for a ride. In the aftermath of the argument, she grimaces from a headache, which Steiner supports with the troubling Dark Victory Theme. At 0:15 the music brightens as she runs to Challenger. As she commences her ride, carefree and fanciful galloping music carries her progress to the track. At 1:05 she breaks the horse into a fast gallop, which Steiner supports with his galloping music now rendered brightly allegro. At 1:36 a dissonant and painful crescendo commences as her headache returns and she is beset by double vision. We conclude with an orchestral crash as she and the horse crash through a wood fence.

“Ann’s Concern” offers a plaintive rendering of Judy’s theme with interplay of the Dark Victory Theme, as Judy opens up and shares her symptoms with Ann. Ann is very concerned but Judy brushes it off, refuses to see Dr. Parsons. A spirited, carefree rendering of her theme carries her departure. Yet at 2:07 a grim descent motif supports her collapse and tumbling fall down the stairs. “Running Away From the Truth” offers another score highlight with just exceptional writing by Steiner. It reveals Judy, after much resistance, being examined by neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Steele. He is an astute observer and when he begins to expose something is wrong, she starts to storm out, but she stops due to pride when he asserts, she is running because she is afraid. She agrees to an examination and music enters to support this with the dire strains of the Dark Victory Theme. At 1:16 the rest of the 5-minute cue was dialed out of the film, which is regrettable as the interplay of the Dark Victory and Judy’s Themes is exquisite. At 3:50 the music darkens as he relates his observations to her, yet her spirit is indomitable and a warm rendering of her theme prevails and closes the scene.

“Diagnosis” reveals Dr. Steele and two associates consulting with Judy. She departs with a facade of happiness descending halfway down the stairs to see Alec, whom she asks to tone down the party noise. Music enters as an ascent motif, which carries her up the stairs and into her bedroom. A portentous Dark Victory Theme brings her to Dr. Steele who gives her the news that he needs to do brain surgery. A three second pause at 0:29 unleashes the Dark Victory Theme, which swells on a crescendo of desperation as she runs and gets Ann. He shares the news with Ann, both are devastated, and the Dark Victory Theme carries the scene. Yet Judy will have none of it and at 1:24 an impassioned rendering of her theme carries her flight to her bedroom as she defiantly orders champagne. At 2:04 we change scene to the hospital where Steiner introduces his Dr. Steele Theme on warm horns nobile, with a transfer to strings as he soothes Judy’s frayed nerves and prepares her for surgery. “In Your Hands” reveals Judy hesitantly taking a pill to make her sleep. As the drug’s effects begin, music enters with a dreamy string borne rendering of the Dark Victory Theme. A slow diminuendo supports her falling to sleep with a transfer to a tender and comforting Dr. Steele’s Theme at 1:12 as she tells him she is putting herself in his hands.

Music for the following two scenes is not included on the album. In “Recovery” the pathologist confirms the tumor is malignant and gives her at best ten months to live. She will not experience pain, but death will follow quickly, triggered by a loss of eyesight. A ghostly rendering of the Dark Victory Theme supports as Dr. Steele visits her, writes some orders and departs. In the hallway he lies to Ann that she will have a full recovery, but Ann senses he is being untruthful. “The Letter” reveals Dr. Steele opening a letter from a grateful Judy who invites him over for cocktails. A vibrant rendering of her theme brimming with optimism supports the scene. “Telling Ann the Truth” offers an exquisite score highlight where we are graced by Steiner’s evocative writing for strings. Dr. Steele, under pressure from Ann, informs her that he cannot save Judy and that she has only months to live. Ann is devastated but relieved that there will be no pain, understanding that the end will begin with loss of vision followed by death in a few hours. Steiner supports the conversation with a gorgeous extended rendering of the Dark Victory Theme. We open with the melody emoted by strings dolorosa and as Ann tries to absorb the terrible news the melody shifts at 1:23 to solo violin tristi for an exquisite exposition. When Judy joins at 2:27 the melody assumes her happy demeanor becoming vibrant and carefree as she presents Dr. Steele with a gift. At 2:55 the theme’s expression becomes molto romantico as he opens the gift box containing gold cuff links. We conclude at 3:30 with a return to the vibrant and carefree articulation of the theme, which reflects Judy’s happiness and new lease on life.

“Judy’s Suspicions” reveals Judy becoming unsettled when she learns from her maid Martha that Ann went to visit Dr. Steele. The Dark Victory Theme emotes as a misterioso, which shifts to idyllic auras as she gazes out into her verdant garden. The music brightens at 0:30, becoming dance-like as Ann returns. Judy asks where she has been, and Ann deflects, which causes Judy to press. The tension is broken by the arrival of Dr. Steele with an ascent motif carrying Ann up the stairs to escape the interrogation. At 1:11 the Dark Victory Theme shifts to strings romantico as Judy informs Frederick that she is in love with him. We culminate with heartfelt expression as the embrace and he declares his love for her. “Prognosis Negative” reveals Judy helping to pack Frederick’s office for the move to Vermont. Music enters with a foreboding Dark Victory Theme, which becomes plaintive as she finds her file. As she reads a report that states “Recurrence is certain”, we shift to Judy’s Theme with an orchestral surge, which rises to support the words “Prognosis Negative” enlarging on the screen. Her theme shifts to strings sofferenti and swells as she thumbs through report after report displaying the same conclusion – “Prognosis Negative.” A diminuendo of uncertainty carries her into the next room where nurse Wainwright is typing. The music shifts to a rising tide of fear as Judy asks Wainwright what “Prognosis Negative” means, achieving a crescendo di dolore at 1:39 when she states that it means the case is hopeless. Strings dolorosa speak to Judy’s devastation and flight from the office.

In “Oh! Give Me Time For Tenderness” Judy confronts Ann and Frederick at a restaurant, and then flees with Alec to a local night club where vocalist Vera Van sings the song “Oh! Give Me Time For Tenderness”. They are drunk and take last call. Judy is moved by the song lyrics and gives the singer and her band $50 to reprise the song. The lyrics are poignant and the decision to use the song in the scene, brilliantly conceived:

“I will never ask for more than you can give,
Yet when you say, ‘Be gay today and live,’
My heart answers cautiously, ‘Today will soon be gone,’
Why rush to meet our destiny?
Why must we hurry on?”

“Oh! Give me time for tenderness,
One little hour from each big day,
Oh! Give me time – to stop and bless
The golden sunset of a summer day
Let my heart be still and listen to one song of love,
Let me feel the thrill of quiet we know nothing of.
Oh! Give me time for tenderness
To hold your hand – and understand
Oh! Give me time”.

“The Tack Room” offers a score highlight with impassioned scoring. Judy joins Michael for a conversation. At her insistence all pretenses are dropped as she attempts to seduce him. We open on tentative woodwinds, which usher in at 0:36 a romantic rendering of Judy’s Theme as he reveals that he has from day one been in love with her. As he professes his love at 0:55 the music swells on a crescendo appassionato, which crests powerfully at 1:17 as they embrace, kiss, only to have her pull away. He is upset, believing she recoils because he is just a stable hand. She assures him that is not the reason at all. At 1:34 as a molto tragico rendering of the Dark Victory Theme rises as she confides to him that she will soon be dead. He is stunned and saddened, and she is inconsolable as she departs and returns home. “Ann Weeps Over Judy” reveals Judy despondent and weary of living her final days like this. She asks Ann if it would be better if she just ended things now. Ann is very distressed, which causes to weep on Judy’s lap and beg her not to do it. Plaintive interplay of Judy’s and the Dark Victory Theme support the scene.

“Fred Proposes To Judy” offers another score highlight where Steiner enhances the film’s fateful scene. Frederick is having a drink with Alec in his apartment when Judy arrives. Alec diplomatically exits so our two lovers can have some privacy. As Judy and Frederick begin their talk a warm, inviting and comforting rendering of Frederick’s Theme by strings tenero support the reunion. At 0:55 Judy’s Theme joins she informs Frederick that she has been terribly wrong, and if he could forgive her. She realizes that she has little time left and a plaintive Dark Victory Theme so full of longing joins at 1:24 as they both profess their love for one another. We close with a heartfelt statement of his theme as he proposes marriage, and she accepts. “Home In Vermont” offers the score’s most happy music. It reveals their snow-covered house in Vermont, where we see Judy happily running out to the street to greet the mailman. Steiner supports her with carefree, happy go lucky music abounding with a Joie de Vie. Back inside Martha relates that he again is refusing his lunch. Judy will have none of it and grabs the luncheon service. Music abounding with happiness carries her delivery across the chilly, windswept back yard to the laboratory building behind the residence.

In “The End Is Near” Ann has come up for a visit and the two spend time together tending her garden. It is a sunny day and as they plant bulbs Judy relates that rainclouds are coming as the skies are darkening. Yet when she feels sunlight on her hands, music enters on discordant woodwinds as she realizes she is going blind and that the end is near. An orchestral descent diminuendo of despair enters as the embrace and Ann sobs. A jubilant Frederick calls them in for news that they are going to New York instead of Philadelphia. Judy tells Ann to reveal nothing and they join him in the house at 0:47. He is happy and this is reflected in the expression of his theme as he shows them the telegram. The Dark Victory Theme joins at 1:02 as Judy finds strength to tell him she will not be joining. Regretfully the music starting at 1:34 was dialed out of the film. On the album at 1:34 a warm and confident rendering of his theme unfolds as he relates the honor, he will realize from the distinguished men that will be attending. At 2:41 a stirring ascent on his theme as she informs him that she will not be joining him as she prefers to remain in Vermont. We close at 3:24 on a despondent iteration of the Dark Victory Theme as we see his disappointment.

“Our Victory Over the Dark” offers a powerfully persuasive and transcendent score highlight. Frederick decides to cancel his trip, but Judy changes his mind, assuring him she is fine with a convincing performance. As they descend the stairs they pause to embrace on the landing, and we see in her eyes her realization that this will be their final precious moment together. A tender and loving rendering of his theme supports the embrace. They release, she turns to gaze out the window, and his theme blossoms as she declares to him “What we have cannot be destroyed. That’s our victory, our victory over the dark. It’s a victory because we are not afraid”. As his car drives away at 2:19 the Dark Victory Theme returns on strings tristi, which swells with aching beauty as Judy carries on and insists that they finish planting the hyacinth bulbs since they are Frederick’s favorite flower. We flow into a supremely moving and heartfelt rendering of Frederick’s Theme as she asks Ann to take care of Frederick after she has gone as he will need her. A diminuendo on harp delicato supports Judy’s request to be taken inside. At 4:42 high register tremolo violin commences a transformation of the Dark Victory Theme, from one of abiding sadness to an ethereal radiance as we see Judy ascend the stairs, say goodbye to her dogs and then enter her bedroom. Slowly angelic wordless female choir arise as Judy sends Martha away, stating that she wants to be alone. The ethereal strings and angelic choir join in a wondrous communion, which swells on a refulgent crescendo and culminates in a flourish as the screen slowly blurs and descends into blackness. Bravo! In “End Cast” a bright and confident Frederick’s Theme sounds as cast credits display.

I would like to thank James d’Arc and Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production for the restoration of Max Steiner’s masterpiece, “Dark Victory”. The digital transfer from the 60-year-old acetate discs and mastering has produced a fine recording, which provides an enjoyable listening experience. Steiner understood that he would have to speak to the film’s narrative of a young vivacious and willful woman struck down in her prime by a devastating diagnosis, who nevertheless finds the inner strength and fortitude to make the best of things. To that end he composed three themes, one for the vivacious and indomitable Judy, one for the struggle posed by the implacable cancer, and one for the man who adored and loved her. The elegance and lyricism of his writing for strings offer a testament to his mastery of his craft. Bette Davis’ performance in the film was a tour de force, and in scene after scene Steiner’s evocative and poignant music enhanced the powerful emotions unfolding on the screen, achieving a sublime cinematic confluence. Folks, this is one of Steiner’s finest scores, irrefutable evidence of the power of music to empower and enhance a film’s emotional expression. I believe it to be one of the finest scores of the Golden Age, and highly recommend you purchase this fine album.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the gorgeous Main Title: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbOVjFZDylU

Buy the Dark Victory soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (0:55)
  • The Accident (1:53)
  • Ann’s Concern (2:27)
  • Running Away From the Truth (5:13)
  • Diagnosis (2:46)
  • In Your Hands (1:38)
  • Telling Ann the Truth (3:57)
  • Judy’s Suspicions (2:18)
  • Prognosis Negative (1:53)
  • Oh! Give Me Time For Tenderness (performed Vera Van) (0:28)
  • The Tack Room (2:55)
  • Ann Weeps Over Judy (1:17)
  • Fred Proposes to Judy (3:06)
  • Home in Vermont (1:56)
  • The End Is Near (4:25)
  • Our Victory Over the Dark (8:01)
  • End Cast (0:36)

Running Time: 45 minutes 44 seconds

Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production FMA-MS116 (1939/2006)

Music composed and conducted by Max Steiner. Orchestrations by Hugo Friedhofer. Score produced by Max Steiner. Album produced by James d’Arc.

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