powered by AFI
For his directorial debut, Shining Victory (1941), former Warner Brothers contract dialogue director Irving Rapper was lucky enough to be provided with the best resources the studio had to offer. His production crew included highly respected talents responsible for many major films up to that point. His cast, while none of them major stars, were noteworthy actors who had made excellent impressions in supporting roles in important pictures. And he got some rather unprecedented support from the Queen of the Warners lot herself - Bette Davis.
Ms. Davis was at the height of her stardom in 1941 and considered by many to be the finest actress in American cinema. She was certainly one of the most acclaimed; she was between her fifth Academy Award nomination (with two wins already under her belt), for The Letter (1940), and her sixth, for The Little Foxes (1941), when she made an uncredited walk-on in this melodrama about a devoted medical researcher and the female doctor who loves him and sacrifices her life so that he may continue his work. Davis took on a very brief role as a nurse to give her friend Rapper a career boost.
The two had known each other since they worked together on Kid Galahad (1937). Rapper served as the dialogue director on that and four more Davis movies: The Sisters (1938), Dark Victory (1939), Juarez (1939) and All This, and Heaven Too (1940). In addition to her appearance in his debut feature, it's almost as if she had lent him some of the best talents from her own movies.
In 1941, Dublin-born Geraldine Fitzgerald was given the opportunity to break through to starring roles after distinguishing herself in such high-profile supporting parts as Isabella, Heathcliff's unhappy wife in Wuthering Heights (1939), and best friend to Bette Davis in Dark Victory. The two became lifelong friends on that picture but only worked together one other time after Shining Victory in Watch on the Rhine (1943). Despite well-received performances in Wilson (1944) and Three Strangers (1946), Fitzgerald's Hollywood career was virtually over by the end of the 40s, largely because, taking her cue from friend Davis's struggle with Warners in the 1930s, she refused many parts she thought were unworthy. She kept working, however, on TV and stage, and later in life returned to films in a number of memorable character roles.
James Stephenson, as the brilliant but stubborn researcher, had appeared with Davis three times prior to this: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Old Maid (1939) and as her humiliated friend and attorney in The Letter, which earned him an Oscar® nomination. Shining Victory was one of his few lead roles; there likely would have been more for this British stage-trained actor, but he died suddenly of a heart attack in July 1941, less than two months after the release of this film.
Screenwriter Howard Koch worked with Bette Davis only once prior to this, but it was a notable venture adapting Somerset Maugham's play The Letter into a script whose repressed sexual tension offered Davis one of her best roles. It was only Koch's third film. He went on to create such classics as Sergeant York (1941), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and Casablanca (1942), for which he won an Academy Award (shared with the Epstein brothers).
Donald Crisp had one of the longest and most distinguished careers in motion pictures, beginning with his first role in 1908 and continuing through 1963. A frequent player for D.W. Griffith during the silent era, he took on many important supporting roles from the 1930s on. He was already in his late 50s when he first appeared with Bette Davis in That Certain Woman (1937). They made five more films together before Shining Victory, including her second Oscar®-winner Jezebel (1938). Crisp also directed 71 pictures, all silent films except for his last The Runaway Bride (1930).
Of course, it's impossible to mention Bette Davis's career without referring to the composer on Shining Victory, Max Steiner, who wrote the scores for 22 of her films between 1932 and 1959, garnering an Oscar for one, Now, Voyager (1942).
Cinematographer James Wong Howe only worked with Davis this one time, but it's a measure of how much support Warners gave Rapper for his first film that they assigned a man who had been in the business nearly 20 years, creating the look for dozens of esteemed movies. Howe had an amazing career, from the early 20s through the mid 70s, thanks to his great adaptability. Rather than forcing a uniform, personal style onto every film, he individually crafted each according to the needs of the story and the characters.
Rapper made the most of the talents he was given for Shining Victory, carefully pre-planning the opening, closing and highest dramatic moment of each sequence, and turned out a respectable B picture despite a story some critics found overly sentimental. But it definitely started him out on the right foot. And he returned the favor to his friend Bette Davis by directing her in four more films, including one of her best performances and the picture many consider Rapper's finest work, Now, Voyager.
Director: Irving Rapper
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Howard Koch, Anne Froelich, based on the play by A.J. Cronin
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Original Music: Max Steiner
Cast: James Stephenson (Dr. Paul Venner), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Dr. Mary Murray), Donald Crisp (Dr. Drewett), Barbara O'Neil (Miss Leeming), Bette Davis (Nurse, uncredited).
by Rob Nixon