Monday, June 23, 2014

Now Voyager (1942): The art of melodrama

“THE untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
 Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

-Walt Whitman, The Untold Want, Leaves of Grass (1900)

Novelist Olive Higgins Prouty chose the title for her popular novel ‘Now, Voyager’ from two lines of poetry by Walt Whitman. These words in the book and in the film are offered to a repressed spinster, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), the youngest daughter of a wealthy Boston matriarch (Gladys Cooper), by her psychiatrist Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) as the key to freedom, to her making her own way in the world.  Away from the oppressive hold her tyrannical mother has over her.

Now, Voyager while absolutely a ‘woman’s picture’, significantly and importantly transcends melodrama. Yes, ugly duckling Charlotte finds love and purpose in two romantic hours of movie magic from Hollywood’s golden years. There is more than romance though. There is romantic love and passion, but also compassion. A compassion that sublimates romantic love to a familial love that from nurture finds fulfilment and a kind of freedom.

After spending time in a sanatorium Charlotte does embark on a voyage. A long cruise to South America where she meets Jerry a gentle older man (Paul Henreid) who not only loves her, but in their falling into love, gives her the agency to overcome her inhibitions.  He reaches for the person she wants to be. She responds a flower blossoming in the warmth of his regard. But he is married with children and the affair must end, and they reconcile to life without each other.

Charlotte’s renaissance is almost complete. She is to be tested again when she returns to her cloistered home in Boston. Charlotte discovers she is not afraid – she will and does defy her mother’s tyranny.  She builds a new life and settles on the prospect of marriage with a man she may grow to love. The mother’s sudden death after arguing with Charlotte, when Charlotte breaks off with her suitor after a chance encounter with Jerry, throws her into a panic of guilt. She seeks refuge by returning to the sanatorium. There she meets a troubled young girl, and sees herself as she used to be. That the child is the daughter of Jerry is a convenient but eminently forgivable irony that comes with the genre territory. Charlotte finds meaning again when she befriends the child and makes it her mission to help her.  This innocent will bind the lovers, yet also constrain them. Their happiness will come from the care of  ‘their’ child, and their union must take second place. They don’t have the moon, but they have the stars.

But Now, Voyager is so much more. Above all else, we have the sublime Bette Davis as Charlotte, whose transfiguration has you captivated. It is all there, the vulnerability, the frustration, and the anger against the selfish and domineering mother who has held her emotionally captive and mentally shackled. Then the journey of self-discovery and emancipation. The psychological underpinnings are rudimentary and overplayed, but are not any less compelling for that. It is the sincerity of the portrayal that counts. There are no histrionics but felt emotion. You enter into Charlotte’s life. Through voice-over and flashback you are less a voyeur than a sympathetic friend.

There is the subtlety of Prouty’s story, the brilliance of the script and the literate dialog from the pen of Casey Robinson; the strength of the supporting cast; the elegance of the direction and of the editing; and there is the lush romantic grandeur of Max Steiner’s score. But it is Davis that commands your attention, your complicity, your admiration, and your love.

Paul Henreid as Jerry and Claude Rains as the psychiatrist Dr Jaquith deepen the sincerity. These two decent men who though they have different roles to play in Charlotte’s life, are motivated by compassion, the same desire to release Charlotte from her isolation, from her loneliness, and from her self-doubt. That same compassion Charlotte in turn bestows to her troubled lover, who laments to her the unfairness to her of him not being free. She tells him that she fell in love with her eyes wide open, and makes no judgment nor demands. The same compassion she will show to Jerry’s daughter. This final solicitude has a true pathos, and I am not ashamed to admit that it always brings tears to my eyes.

For catharsis is the dramatic essence of Now, Voyager. Our emotional involvement is not limited to a suspension of disbelief, but involves us binding to the life we are privileged to share.  While the lives portrayed have no existence beyond the celluloid passing through the projector, our own lives will be enriched by the memory. As Jerry tells Charlotte, after she tells him when they first have to part that she hates goodbyes, there is always the memory.

Director Irving Rapper in his first major directorial assignment has the camera fluid and mobile, framing scenes and shots with a seamless élan, with the protagonists always front and centre. He uses close-ups sparingly and only for dramatic effect, including cinematic flourishes that give visual cues to emotions and motivation. He uses recurrent motifs to convey changes of mood and intimacy, and particularly character development. When Charlotte first appears we see only her legs below the knee as she hesitantly walks down the stairs of her mother’s mansion in the sensible stridently unfeminine shoes her mother insists she wear. We do not see her fully until the next scene in another room as a dowdy woman past the first blush of youth. Later a similar shot has Charlotte stepping down the gangplank of her cruise liner to join an excursion ashore. This time she is wearing stylish shoes, and the camera does not stop there. It moves up and reveals a new women – elegant and a little mysterious. Charlotte is still hesitant in her new incarnation though, and while she wears a chic hat, a soft wide brim hides her timid eyes.  Later at the end of  the cruise when she disembarks in New York she is even more elegant, vibrant and assured, walking down to the wharf accompanied by gentlemen admirers, and in a stiff-brimmed hat revealing sparkling confident eyes.

Of course there are the famous cigarette scenes between the lovers, which are consciously phallic, and suggest there has been a consummation of their love. In an earlier scene in a mountain hut after a mishap on an onshore excursion has them spend a night alone. As they lay together the camera pans away from the lovers to a bright log fire, which by morning in the next scene is reduced to glowing embers. In the movie’s final scene, when Charlotte takes the cigarette lit by Jerry holding it in his lips with his own, the metaphor is re-imagined as a sublimation of their sexual union. An incomplete reconciling, and perhaps a cutting loose. The late British critic Andrew Britton in an essay on the film writes of the “erasure of the phallus”, and goes as far as to say that Charlotte does not need Jerry, or any man, any more. Charlotte has achieved fulfilment outside the bourgeois expectation that a woman may find it only in the love of a man consummated by marriage and domesticity. While plausible, this radical interpretation is perhaps to a degree imposed. While Charlotte can and will find a kind of fulfilment outside marriage, this does not necessarily mean she prefers to be alone.

I have only scratched the surface of this gem of a film.  There is an intelligence and richness that deserves greater recognition. It is a romance and more. It is also a feminist polemic that only an actress of  Bette Davis’ stature could innately comprehend and express. We all want and need love, but as Charlotte says to Jerry, in the taking we also give.