Under Nye Stjerner
I have a tendency to get very involved in the story of the films I watch. That can get quite embarrassing at times when I feel the pain or joy or embarrassment of the characters involved and I often have to put a lid on myself in the cinema. I take the story seriously and I guess I expect it to take me seriously as well. This is why I tend to be overly critical to stupid or manipulative movies. It also makes me wish for the best for the characters involved, that they get their issues sorted out and avoid the worst of disasters.
“Now, voyager” is a movie that leaves me torn on that account. On the one side it is a really wonderful movie, romantic, with interesting issues and stellar performances. On the other I get annoyed that the characters seem to create their own problems more or less out of nowhere for the dual purpose of creating drama and torture me. This film could have been resolved 45 minutes in with an obvious conclusion that would leave everybody happy, (except for a few people who do not deserve it anyway) and save everybody a lot of anguish.
Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself.
“Now, Voyager” is really two stories: A psychological drama about narcissistic dominating mothers and their victimized daughters and secondly a melodramatic love story about an unconsummated, “impossible” love affair. To my mind the first is far more interesting and the one I really care about.
Old Mrs. Vale (Gladys Cooper) is the undisputed queen of her very wealthy and conservative Boston estate (as old school as you get in America). She has a number of adult children, who have all left home except the youngest, a late child that she is now projecting herself upon. Without it being actually mentioned. Mrs. Vale suffers from a mental state normally referred to as the narcissistic mother. She practically runs the daughter’s life, makes all her decisions, dresses her as she would herself (old, modest, plump) and generally treats her as an extension of herself. The means of suppression is tyranny and guilt games, effectively destroying any spark of confidence and independency in the daughter. Mrs. Vale also is deeply concerned about appearances and needs attention which she primarily demands from the daughter.
Not surprisingly the daughter, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) is quite a wreck. It is symbolized by her drab appearance and manifested in hysteric attacks. Her mother, entirely unable to consider her own hand in this is convinced it is some sort of disease and so together with Charlotte’s concerned sister has sent for a doctor (Claude Rains and Dr. Jaquith). Thus begins Charlotte’s voyage to free herself from the oppression of her mother and that is one interesting story. This is also the meaning of the title as “Now, voyager” are the opening words of a Walt Whitman poem about embarking on a voyage of freedom into the unknown.
To begin with I found Bette Davis way too melodramatic and frantic in those opening scenes. It seemed to me that such a life would have made her more seclusive and broken; instead she is feisty and almost aggressive. Yet later as I thought it over it did make some sense. There is desperation in her as if this is the last chance to finally escape. As she “recovers” she balances between an extreme counter reaction to her repression and a frightened shyness to the world. This is perfectly understandable and Bette Davis does it well.
Later we get a very similar situation between Tina (Janis Wilson) and her mother, the unseen Isobel. Tina likewise being the unwanted and unloved child of her mother. This time Charlotte is watching the wretched girl from the outside and recognizes herself in the girl. They create a bond of care, sympathy and eventually love between them even before Charlotte finds out who Tina really is as Charlotte helps Tina on her own voyage out of the shadow of her mother. This part is also very good and in my opinion where Bette Davis shines the most. There is nothing to make you heal than by helping others.
I could have wished for little more from this story element. A more active revolt against the mother, a more clear placing of the blame on the mothers to make the children realize that their predicament is not their own fault. Instead the film seems to defend the mothers as if it is the mother’s right to ruin their daughters if they so please. I cannot agree with that sentiment.
The second story is the love story between Charlotte and Jerry (Paul Henreid). Transformed to a swan (amazing what money can do) Charlotte takes the voyage part rather literal and take a boat ride to South America. On the boat she meets Jerry. Jerry is married with children, but immediately strikes a friendship with Charlotte that in my eyes is a lot more intimate than I would expect from a married man. Jerry is described as extremely chivalrous and dutiful, something that causes them endless trouble and yet with those qualities he court her quite blatantly. Of course the story is that his marriage has gone sour and that should explain his need, but he is also playing two horses throughout the film. Charlotte and Jerry fall madly in love, their intimacy symbolized by the sharing of cigarettes (oh, the forties!) and the story could basically have ended there if Jerry had ended his marriage to his sulking wife. She keeps him in misery and Charlotte gives him an opportunity to get out of the marriage to the benefit of his children, but he does not take it. Better to be in misery and feel chivalrous.
This part of the film I feel less good about. The melodrama is played too hard to my taste, but I suppose we need the drama to get a film and this stuff sells tickets. I keep thinking what this film would have been with more focus on the mother-daughter conflict and less on the love story.
Still there is a romantic sweetness to the entire story that makes it very watchable and it was very heartwarming for me to watch Tina blossom. I do have a weakness for lonely children and there Charlotte becomes my own proxy.
You cannot always get what you want, but the film you get may still be good. Let us not ask for the moon. We got the stars.