Now, Voyager is a classic women’s picture, a melodrama, a three-hanky weepie. In many ways, it’s something of a mess, with separate stories and themes jostling for attention.
The 1942 film tells the story of Charlotte Vale, Boston heiress and downtrodden, dowdy maiden aunt driven over the edge of mental stability by her mother’s treatment of her.
She is brought back from the brink by the intervention of kindly, understanding psychiatrist Dr Jaquith, and after a spell in his sanatorium goes on a lengthy cruise, where she falls for Jerry Durrance, handsome, charming and, oh dear, married.
Their love affair is doomed, as a sense of duty makes Jerry stay with his manipulative wife and two daughters.
But in a development unusual for romantic dramas, love gets its eventual expression in parental and maternal care, as Charlotte finds fulfilment in giving Jerry’s younger daughter Tina the love which her mother withholds, and which Charlotte herself never experienced.
So Now, Voyager is a bit of a sudsy soap opera, a bit of feminist showpiece, a bit of a study in the benefits of therapy, a bit Hollywood glamour vehicle. If the sum of its parts don’t make a coherent whole, it touches on fascinating themes on its journey, encouraged by Walt Whitman, from whom the title is taken: ‘Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.’
Familiar patterns and stereotypes are given depth and lifted out of their familiar rut.
The Grammar Of Glasses
Or spectacles, or eye glasses — it’s a well-worn device, one which is so familiar that it has become a parody of itself.
The assumption behind this gag is that a woman wearing glasses cannot be attractive or desirable, but once the glasses are removed, usually by a man or at a man’s instigation, she becomes beautiful.
The bins’ thing (British slang, people. I checked Urban Dictionary which confirms that this term is still in use, and offers the example ‘Check out that guy’s bins! They’re like the bottoms of jam jars! He must be well blind.’ Isn’t that just darling?) is nicely done.
Recognising that Charlotte no longer needs her glasses, Dr Jaquith snaps them in two. Charlotte observes that she feels undressed without them. It’s good for you to feel that way, he tells her. We applaud Charlotte’s liberation while wondering just what kind of therapy can cure short sight.
Charlotte joins the ranks of all those Cinderellas whose lives are transformed by a new outfit and a bit of lippy.
Charlotte Vale, frumpy spinster and old maid, ‘the fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair’, becomes the groomed and glamorous Miss Beauchamp who finds love on a sea cruise.
The before and after theme is beautifully framed by two shots of Charlotte’s footwear. Early in the film, a shot of Charlotte’s unattractive sensible shoes captures the essence of her browbeaten joyless life, while her emergence into independence is heralded by the shot of the elegant two-tone high heels in which takes her first step on the ship’s gangplank.
But this makeover is more than superficial, and it does more than show the power of a pair of eyebrow tweezers and a stunning hat.
Charlotte becomes her own woman, comfortable in her own skin. She behaves with assertiveness and self-confidence, strong enough to stand up to her mother and claim her right to her own life. Independence, she says, is ‘freedom from subjection, and reliance upon one’s own will and judgement.’
A combination of love, sympathetic psychiatric help and her own resources and life experience unlock Charlotte’s inner strength, which is supported, not created, by the aesthetic of beauty and sophistication.
The film’s treatment of mental illness and depression is thoughtful and convincing. Both Charlotte and Tina have troubled relationships with their mothers.
Charlotte is the victim of emotional and verbal abuse, subjugated to the tyrannical will of her domineering and manipulative mother, and driven to a nervous breakdown as a result. Tina, unwanted and bullied by her mother, suffers from self-hate and no self-esteem. Charlotte finally heals herself by offering nurture and emotional rescue to the sad, needy little girl.
Crucial to this journey is Dr Jaquith (played by Claude Rains), whose therapeutic approach highlights the benefits of psychoanalysis, and who teaches that depression is nothing to be ashamed of.
The writer of the novel on which the film is based, Olive Higgins Prouty (1882-1974), suffered from mental health problems. She gave financial support to Sylvia Plath after her attempted suicide in 1953, and appears rather unflatteringly in Plath’s The Bell Jar as Philomena Guinea, wealthy philanthropist and writer of trashy romantic novels. Seems a bit unfair.
The moon and the stars
The final scene of the movie is a killing combination of symbolic gesture and highly-wrought dialogue. There’s the two-cigarette shot, nicely established throughout the film as an indicator of Charlotte and Jerry’s intimacy, in which Jerry lights two cigarettes in his mouth and passes one to Charlotte. Then Charlotte’s last line: ‘Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon — we have the stars.’
Hey, what’s this? No sinking into his arms? No rejecting him for Dr Jacquith? No romantic conclusion at all? What we get instead is a complicated, difficult ending involving the, let’s face it, rather weird commitment to bringing up Tina as if she were their daughter, while Jerry remains married to the wife from hell. You feel many more consultations with Dr Jacquith coming on…
Imagine another scene following this one. We know that Charlotte has become interested in the hospital and Dr Jacquith’s work, and she is now a wealthy heiress. Wouldn’t it be great if she invested in the field of mental health, practically and academically. She could do ground-breaking work on the relationships between mothers and their children. She could be the founder of a medical centre, named after her. She could give speeches and deliver papers, standing on the dais in her lovely designer outfits, wearing a pair of cool and stylish glasses, available from high-street opticians everywhere.
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