Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is an impetuous and headstrong heiress who lives life with furious energy. Her life revolves around parties and horses. She sees Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent) for her headaches and dizzy spells, and he tells her she has a brain tumor. He operates, and she believes she is cured. Her soul is cured as well, because she and the doctor have fallen in love, and for the first time she feels genuine happiness and peace.
She learns that Frederick and her friends have kept the truth from her; her prognosis is negative, and she has very little time left. She breaks the engagement, telling Frederick he only wants to marry her out of pity. At first, she returns to her old life, trying to bury her fears and loneliness in a frenzy of parties. But she is terribly sad, and when Michael, her stableman (Humphrey Bogart) tells her that she should allow herself to see that Frederick really loves her, and take whatever happiness she can, in whatever time she has left, she knows he is right.
She marries Frederick, and has blissful months with him on his farm in Vermont before she dies, having had a lifetime of love and happiness in their time together.
This classic melodrama is also almost an encyclopedia of emotions. At first, Judith is in denial about her illness and about her feelings. She shows displaced anger when she breaks her engagement to Frederick. Most important to discuss with kids, though, is that she makes a classic mistake of confusing pleasure and happiness. The contrast between her frantic efforts to find distraction through parties (“horses, hats, and food”) and fast living, and the peace and joy of her time in Vermont with love and meaningful work (okay, it’s her husband’s meaningful work, but this was the 1930s) is exceptionally well portrayed by Davis and by director Goulding. This is one of the most important emotional distinctions for kids to learn, especially teenagers.
Families who see this movie should talk about questions like these: Why is it so hard for Judith to find happiness, even before she learns she is sick? How can you tell that she does not understand herself very well? Why does she break her engagement with Frederick? What does Michael tell her that makes her change her mind? Why doesn’t she tell Frederick that she is close to the end, sending him away instead?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Big Lie,” another romantic drama with Davis and Brent.