New York Times critic Bosley Crowther famously took Susan Hayward to task for over-acting in the first half of this picture before turning subtle in the second without realizing that was the whole point. Hayward was always full-on, either because he played tougher-than-tough characters (weakness their Achilles heel) or was squaring up against macho males like Clark Gable (Soldier of Fortune, 1954) or John Wayne (The Conqueror, 1956).
Here, she duped audiences. Anyone expecting to view her normal feisty screen persona would come away happy with the first half, bewildered by the second. But, as I said, that was the whole point, a superb effort turning expectations on their head. In any case it was a pretty bold undertaking. In the 1960s, Hollywood went on a cycle of regurgitating old classics but mostly with newcomers like Alex Cord standing in for John Wayne in Stagecoach (1966) or Doug McClure for Gary Cooper in Beau Geste (1966).
There were not many actresses who would think of trying to match the legendary Bette Davis in one of her legendary roles. But Susan Hayward was not just larger than life but a queen of melodrama, able to ratchet up emotions with a look. No actress in the early 1960s could match Davis’s record of two Oscars and a further eight nominations (she would win another one later). By that point Katharine Hepburn equalled her on number of wins but had two fewer nominations (her other wins also came later). But Hayward ran both pretty close, one win (for I Want To Live, 1959) and four nominations.
So if you were going to select an actress to take on the Davis role in a remake of Dark Victory (1939) you could do worse than choose Hayward. The plot’s been transitioned to England but it follows the same formula as before – in other words stand by for a full-scale weepie. Jet-setting divorced socialite Laura (Susan Hayward) lives life to the full – and then some. When diagnosed with a brain tumor, her reaction is to let all her wildness hang out, reviving romance with old racing driver boyfriend Mike (Edward Judd) before taking stock and abandoning the high life and settling down in the back of beyond (remote Cornwall) with Dr Carmody (Michael Craig).
It’s basically a film of two halves. The almost otherworldly life of the rich and famous who chase after every expensive delight without any notable increase in their happiness quotient contrasts with life in a Cornish village where problems, although apparently smaller, are every bit as vital to those affected. The gaudy section is filled with fine costumes, grand houses and glorious scenery. The serious part is a good bit more down-to-earth as the grande dame discovers her neighborly and maternal qualities. The characters inhabiting the rich life appear flimsy, the poorer people much more realistic. It is almost as if she has swapped fantasy for reality and uncovered a different kind of richness.
There’s not much more to the story than that so it requires acting of the highest caliber to keep us hooked all the way through. Well, for that, you’ve certainly come to the right place. What appears over-acting in the first section is just that, and deliberately so, since the personality switch is the ideal hook. The film’s emotional impact will hit you hard especially the ending. What initially appears to be heading for the sensational soon pulls back to reveal an ordinary person trying to overcome adversity, not with a grand gesture, but simply by living an ordinary life to the full.
While Michael Craig (Life at the Top, 1965) is pretty much a bystander, his calming approach sorely needed in the first half is redundant in the second as Laura comes into her own, developing an inner life she never knew was possible. Hitchcock protege Diane Baker (Mirage, 1965) continues to show early-career promise.
Perhaps more attention should be focused on director Daniel Petrie (The Main Attraction, 1962) who slides out from under his journeyman tab to over-egg the first section and under-egg (if there is such a word) the second. You could almost get the impression of a conductor fine-tuning an orchestra of one.
Superb showing from Hayward certainly gives Bette Davis a run for her money though you could argue she was too old for the role, Davis half her age in Dark Victory, but it’s to Hayward’s credit that you feel the loss of such a vibrant middle-aged personality as you do with Davis’s younger protagonist.
They don’t do melodrama like this anymore, mostly because there isn’t the likes of a Susan Hayward to make them work.