By Christine Bamberger
Now, Voyager – 1942 – dir. Irving Rapper
[Warning: Definitely brimming with spoilers!]
Although a definite relic of another age and sensibility, Now, Voyager is still regarded as one of the greatest romantic “women’s pictures” of all time. Indeed, it may be that its old-fashioned theme of self-sacrifice and its emotionally evocative Max Steiner score are part of the very reason the movie continues to fascinate us.
Set in a milieu of privilege and high-mindedness, it does focus mainly on women, but convincingly portrays the characters’ complexities and relationships in such a way that non-wealthy men and women of today can relate to it as well. But the most extraordinary aspect of this 1942 film is the matter-of-fact way it reaches beyond the genre’s frequently soapy formula to tell a compassionate story about sufferers of severe depression and social phobia.
Smack in the middle of an era in which most movie psychiatrists were portrayed as routinely arrogant toward female patients (Fred Astaire in Carefree), or virtually instant curers of deeply embedded psychotic illness (Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound), Claude Rains is remarkably modern as Dr. Jaquith. From the outset he makes it clear that a person “having a nervous breakdown” is ill rather than morally weak, and that there is nothing frightening or shameful about psychological treatment:
“It’s very simple, really, what I try to do. People walk along a road. They come to a fork in the road; they’re confused, they don’t know which way to take. I just put up a signpost: Not that way—this way.” With his understanding nature Jaquith wins the confidence of the profoundly introverted Charlotte (Bette Davis). He shows an interest in her not just as a patient, but as a person with a talent for her hobby of carving ivory boxes, and before long she is revealing to him a painful intimate memory.
Appearing on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1971, Bette Davis observed that it was inevitable that her character of Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) had not ended up together at the end of the movie. “Because of course,” she explained, “the man… was never going to be right for her—he was too weak. I always felt in Voyager that eventually she married Dr. Jaquith, my gorgeous Claude Rains.” But it seems obvious that screenwriter Casey Robinson set the stage for the lovers’ reunion to come later, as just before Charlotte breaks her engagement, Jerry mentions to her that his wife’s illness is worse (so we find ourselves perversely hoping she’ll be a good sport and die!). Dr. Jaquith is more of a father figure for Charlotte, whose father died when she was still an infant, and whose mother’s idea of love and support is selfish and warped. Bette had a massive crush on Claude Rains, a man who indeed could have played romantic leads as often as character roles if he’d been given the chance (and did, along with Davis and Henreid again, in the gloomy and overwrought Deception five years later). Though many fans argue that the Davis-Rains team is more compelling than that of Davis and Henreid, Davis’ contention that Charlotte’s married lover was too weak is surprising, as his inability to leave his wife is very much a part of his noble character.
In Casablanca, Paul Henreid’s quiet anti-Nazi hero is somewhat overshadowed by the cagier valor of Humphrey Bogart as Rick. (Had Henreid had been allowed to play Lazlo as a man more passionate toward his wife, it might have made her decisions even more agonizingly dramatic.) Like that film, Now Voyager, though made under the Hays Code, seems to sanction adultery (though neither movie allows the married people to live happily ever after with their lovers). The script, remarkably faithful to the best-selling novel on which it was based, is carefully constructed to make it clear that Jerry’s situation is unfair and miserable, not only to him but to his children. Thus Henreid gets to be heroic once again, but his Jerry also possesses human frailty and an appealing kind of suppressed passion. Interestingly, in Olive Higgins Prouty’s book Jerry reveals to Charlotte that he, too, once suffered a nervous breakdown. His character remains in a loveless marriage for the sake of his children, but falls desperately in love with a woman who is struggling to overcome her mother’s domination of her life. The affair and its aftermath help her become stronger and more self-possessed.
Even more important than the healing romance in Now, Voyager is its theme of parent and child, and how important parental nurturing is to self-worth. Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper play repressed daughter and overbearing mother in a way that manages to avoid caricature of the monstrous person Cooper portrays. The way Charlotte speaks to her mother as she holds her ground is firm and yet somewhat nervous, and the humor into which they both retreat—Cooper’s acidic, Davis’s amused—is natural and believable. In one scene Charlotte and her mother discuss Charlotte’s contemplation of marriage (to Elliot Livingston, a man she doesn’t love, but who is high on the social register). Affectionately teasing, Charlotte tells her mother, “I think you’re pleased.”
Mrs. Vale: I’m nothing of the kind. I’m only so astonished that you of all the family should bring such a feather to the family cap.
Charlotte: Then, if you really do approve, Mother dear, why…
Mrs. Vale: Oh, keep all that soft talk for Elliot.
Charlotte: Mother, there’s no one like you.
Though Cooper’s Mrs. Vale maintains her steeliness, some fondness for her daughter emerges along with the gladness over the suitable social connection, and one senses the potential for their relationship to become more than just a truce. Her mother’s death (during a later argument between them) throws Charlotte into a tailspin, and she returns to Dr. Jaquith’s care. At the sanatorium Cascade, she meets Jerry’s troubled daughter Tina (Janis Wilson) and is magically granted her chance to act as a mother to the child. Finding Tina’s situation resonant of her own experience, Charlotte connects with her as no one else has been able to, in echo of Dr. Jaquith’s and Jerry’s connections with her. Granted the right to care for his daughter, Charlotte can even feel that she has a part of Jerry.
One gay friend of mine thinks lonely misfit Tina Durrance as much a symbol of gay men as Dorothy Gale (maybe even more so, because she comes to adore Bette Davis!). But anyone who ever felt a lack of confidence or a sense of not being valued by a parent for his or her own identity can relate to the child’s anguish.
Along with the film’s unusually intelligent view of mental illness, and the strength of its cast members, this is yet another of the qualities that make it genuinely touching as it walks the tightrope between stylish weeper and melodrama.