We Americans aspire to a carefree life, a life which finds it meaning in the pursuit of money and pleasure. Indeed, many of our countrymen think of life as a non-stop party. This party reached its high point last week in the celebration of Christmas, when shoppers jammed the big box stores frantically seeking meaning in the purchase and consumption of material goods. In that sense, Christmas, as celebrated by most of us, paid more honor to Mammon, than it commemorated the birth of Christ. This week, party-goers will seek to drown their anxieties for the coming new year in an ocean of wine and whiskey.
But the unpleasant truth about life, is that our mortal existence is an unpredictable series of crises which culminates in a final, dread inevitability. Each of us, at every moment, draws closer to that horizon which lies between our earthly existence and the world to come. Indeed, our view of that final horizon gives life its ultimate meaning. This subject is virtually ignored by Hollywood, and we are at a loss to think of a single contemporary film which deals with the tragic nature of human existence. A thoughtful, compassionate view of pain and suffering has been banished from the screen, and is as unheard of today as salaciousness and graphic violence were in a bygone era. As a result, we can hardly imagine a film in which the final scene shows the heroine at peace with her God and ready to depart this life.
But that is the closing scene of the movie "Dark Victory," a stunningly profound film, made long before Hollywood sunk into a morass of banality and triviality. The heroine Bette Davis is well-cast as Judith Traherne, a flighty, superficial playgirl, spoiled by great wealth and permissive and indulgent parents. As she goes from one raucous party to another, drinking and flirting at a dizzying pace, little does she know that a terrible disease is growing within her body. The clock ticks away the hours and the days, with the vivacious, young Davis unaware the bell will soon toll her final hour.
As the first symptoms manifest themselves, Davis denies the grim force which is devouring her. She hides her pain by intensifying her hedonistic existence, thereby deepening her own predicament. Only when she discovers her prognosis is hopeless does she enter a spiritual crisis leading to her salvation. Davis sees the superficiality and emptiness of her existence, and seeks the comfort of marriage, spending her last days blissfully in a small cottage with a loving husband.
When the final hour strikes, Judith, the former playgirl, is planting bulbs for next spring. Her best friend leads her gently to her room where she prays by the bed and prepares to meet God. The final scene is a fadeout into eternity. The movie is a wonderful reminder that evil and pain always pass away, leaving us only that which is eternal - love for family and friends, and if possible, a Christlike love for all mankind. Entering into the darkness, Judith gains her victory. But it is not darkness really, but rather, a glorious light.
Another fine feature of this movie is the performance by Ronald Reagan as Alec, the male counterpart of the flighty Davis. Reagan is perfectly believable as a typical rogue, always ready with an insouciant, impertinent remark. Humphrey Bogart also stars in the film, as the stable hand Michael O'Leary.
If current movies consist mainly of meaningless drivel, it is because Hollywood ignores the great drama of life. Countless millions of lives are indeed given over to the pursuit of money and pleasure, but current films tell only part of the story. Party as we may, we will all be called to account one day, some going on to bright victory, others to darkness and perdition.
Old Embers Column