Last week I learned that a friend of mine passed away, and in tribute to her memory, this week I am reviewing one of her favorite films. The film is 1942’s Now Voyager and it is considered one of the best of the ample canon of films that featured the ever versatile Bette Davis. The film is a densely packed drama that explores the familiar themes found in many melodramas of its day such as illicit romance, personal transformation, family angst, and the emerging impact of psychology on modern life. Despite its plethora of familiar ‘40’s trappings, however, the film manages to remain relatively grounded and tells a heartfelt tale of one woman’s struggle to lead a life of confidence and purpose after years of being taught she isn’t worthy of such happiness.
The story begins with timid Boston socialite Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) receiving a visit from psychiatrist Doctor Jacquith (Claude Rains) regarding a case of depression or anxiety that the film labels a “nervous breakdown”. While Charlotte’s mother (Gladys Cooper) and well-meaning sister-in-law (Ilka Chase) have orchestrated the appointment, Charlotte is completely unaware of the doctor’s ulterior motives, and believes that his visit with the family is purely a social one. Soon, however, Charlotte’s mother spitefully reveals the ruse and tries to shame her daughter into refusing treatment. Eventually, the doctor coaxes Charlotte into opening up and learns of the ways in which her domineering mother has ruled over her life since childhood. Confronted with her own pathetic state, Charlotte finally breaks down and makes her first step in reclaiming her life by asking the doctor to treat her against her mother’s wishes. After months at a posh facility, Charlotte embarks upon a cruise to South America to debut her new look and new attitude. While on the trip, she meets charming architect Jerry (Paul Henreid), and the two strike up a friendship. As they get to know each other, the pair realize that they have been leading similarly stifled lives and start to fall for each other. When the cruise ends, however, the couple are forced to return to the very broken homes that they had fled and Charlotte’s recovery is put to the ultimate test.
Much like its ugly duckling heroine, Now Voyager is not the film that it appears to be. While it does contain enough twists, romantic entanglements, and coincidences to fill a full season of a soap opera, the film is strangely restrained and poignant. The histrionics of the ‘weepies’ of its day are absent as the script examines the effects of loneliness and abuse. Instead of resorting to types, the film treats all of its relationships with an objectivity that provides each character with a level of understanding that makes them and their predicaments relatable. For instance, Charlotte’s mental illness is revealed to be a side effect of constantly being oppressed by a mother who made it all too clear that she would have been happier had Charlotte, her ‘change of life baby’, never been born. Similarly, Jerry only strays from his wife after years of suffering through a dictatorial relationship in which he was forced to repeatedly give up his passions and friendships. Thus, the couple create a believable portrait of two people trying to reach out from their isolation rather than the saucy sinners that the plot would suggest. Even Charlotte’s vindictive mother is shown to be suffering from feeling abandoned and obsolete as she desperately tries to maintain a role in her daughter’s changing life.
Beyond its characterizations, the film also successfully manages to balance its complex script. Although the plot seems to twist into a serious tangle, its later developments are really just an echo of its essential premise. When Charlotte finally frees herself from her oppressive family she creates a new life by making her own family, and when she meets Jerry’s similarly depressed daughter (Janis Wilson) at Dr. Jaquith’s facility she helps the girl by becoming part of her family. Through these parallel plot lines, the film reiterates its emphasis upon the ways in which we can all overcome adversity, with a little help from those around us. Similarly, the echoing events show that depression and alienation are issues that can be found in many homes of all kinds, rather than the marks of shame that Charlotte’s mother attempts to portray them as. The film is also surprisingly progressive in its portrayal of gender roles. For example, while Charlotte’s relationship with Jerry is a turning point in her story, their romance does not solve any of her problems. It is only when Charlotte decides to face her mother on her own terms that she begins to overcome a lifetime of adversity. Furthermore, the script presents her proposal to move out and get a job rather than continue living with her mother as a logical plan instead of a radical last resort. The script even remedies its portrayal of Charlotte as a stereotypical spinster by having her end the film as independent and single by choice rather than the spinster without options that she opens the story as. The script also offers a similarly modern take on psychiatry with Doctor Jaquith portrayed as an average man trying to do his job rather than the genius (as seen in Spellbound) or malignant force (as seen in Cat People) that therapists were often portrayed as in this era. The script refreshingly avoids the familiar clichés of blot tests and hypnosis and instead shows the hard work and dedication that treatment requires. Finally, the film realistically portrays the ways in which treatment alleviates, but does not obliterate mental illness as Charlotte continues to struggle, albeit with increasing success, against her own trauma and insecurity.
The cast provide uniformly excellent performances that bring the story alive with an elegance and emotional honesty befitting a true classic. Bette Davis is a revelation as Charlotte and conveys each stage of her character’s evolution with intelligence and empathy. Paul Henreid makes Jerry a fully fleshed person in his charming performance rather than a generic love interest and portrays his outward joviality and inner torment with equal skill. Janis Wilson provides a generally believable performance, but occasionally displays the theatricality of many child actors. Claude Rains lends excellent support as the understanding Doctor Jacquith as does Gladys Cooper as Charlotte’s vicious mother.
Through its combination of believable writing and captivating performances Now Voyager conveys an emotional tale that rises above its label as a melodrama. The film relays a resonating message; happiness is possible for any of us as long as we are able to work for it and recognize it in its myriad forms. The title of this film comes from a quote from Walt Whitman in which he instructs us to “go now voyager to seek and to find”; I strongly encourage you to seek out this film and find all of the pleasures that it has to offer.
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