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Now, Voyager (1942)
Some people's favorite villains are the ones with the biggest gadgets, the deepest vendettas, or the loopiest plans for world domination. I get it. Who doesn't want to see a hero prevail over crotch-splitting lasers, flying monkeys, or Satan's minions? That kind of victory is exciting, high-stakes, splashy stuff. But for me, the more terrifying evil is the quiet, intimate kind that goes on right under everyone's nose: the mean girl spreading life-destroying rumors (These Three), a seemingly doting husband carefully driving his wife mad (Gaslight), and of course, any number of domineering mothers.
If Freud had been a girl, Mrs. Henry Vale (Gladys Cooper) in the 1942 romantic drama, Now, Voyager, would have been his worst nightmare. Mrs. Vale is the matriarch of one of Boston's oldest families, with a couple of grown sons we don't see much of and a 30-something daughter, Charlotte (Bette Davis), who lives at home. Since the day the child was born -- unwanted and late in life -- Mrs. Vale has told her what to do, where to go, whom to see, what to wear, what to eat, and when to talk. As a result, Charlotte is a thick-set, hand-wringing bundle of nerves, whom everyone in the family treats as an object of either pity or fun.
We meet Charlotte on the day her kindly sister-in-law, Lisa (Ilka Chase), decides to help the poor girl by introducing her to Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), a friendly psychiatrist who runs a sanitarium in the country. Mrs. Vale thinks the whole idea is preposterous. Why, Charlotte isn't having a nervous breakdown, she's just seeking attention; simply one of her latest peculiarities. No one in the history of the Vale family has EVER had a nervous breakdown. The idea! Charlotte, stop that blubbering at once!
Bette Davis does a grand job of it, tricked out in a padded suit under an awful dress, insanely sensible shoes, and one big eyebrow. She walks like a person whose every move is scrutinized (because it is) and reads insult and contempt in every word she hears (because it's there). Dr. Jaquith manages to get Charlotte away from her mother for a quiet talk up in her room. She is skeptical and mistrusting, but when Jaquith shows a genuine interest in her artwork (Charlotte, in sublimating her intense frustrations, has turned naturally to the old whaler's craft of scrimshaw), she opens up slightly with a tale of mother-thwarted romance on the high seas. She gives Jaquith a box of tightly carved ivory in thanks for his kindness and attention.
When Charlotte's niece, June (Bonita Granville, see evil child above), spies the gift in Jaquith's hand she teases her aunt about it in that casually cruel way pretty girls sometimes have with their plainer acquaintances; it is certainly the way her family has taught her to talk to Charlotte. Dr. Jaquith has seen enough. He insists that Charlotte check into the sanitarium immediately, giving old lady Vale a piece of his mind in the process.
After several months of weaving and eyebrow therapy, Charlotte is a new woman. Almost. Dr. Jaquith and Lisa give her a recovery gift of a pleasure cruise to South America, with the instruction to live a little and to try new things. One of the new things she tries is hanging out with handsome hard-starer, Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), an unhappily married man with great clothes and a sexy way of lighting cigarettes. The two get stranded on shore after a car wreck and fall in love. As you do.
Alas, it can never be; he is married, if unhappily, with two children to consider. Charlotte reunites with her cruise with a good deal more confidence and Jerry goes off to build stuff in the jungle or whatever. Once back in Boston, everyone is amazed, if not entirely delighted, by Charlotte's transformation. Even the loathsome June is nicer and apologetic. Charlotte 2.0 charms the entire family, with one notable exception: her mother.
It seems the Mrs. Vale developed a heart problem (you think?) while Charlotte was away and has needed a nurse (the wonderful Mary Wickes) day and night since. But now that she's back, the old battleaxe expects Charlotte to take up her former position as unpaid, browbeatable servant. Bolstered by her shipboard romance, or more likely months and months of therapy, Charlotte politely but firmly refuses to return to the way things were. Mrs. Vale, not liking this newfound independence one bit, promptly throws herself down the stairs, but Charlotte holds her ground. Time passes, and the two women reach an uneasy truce. Charlotte gets engaged to a nice enough man and all seems to be working out.
Until one night, she runs into Jerry at a party. The two must pretend they've only just met and have a silly non-conversation along the lines of "(Louder than necessary) Architecture, that must be very interesting -- (slightly quieter) Oh Jerry, how I've longed to see you." "(also louder than required) Yes, building a hospital...(lighting two cigarettes) darling, how I love you." They say goodbye again and Charlotte realizes that she can't marry the new nice guy because she doesn't love him. Back home, exhausted, she tells her mother that the engagement is off and the two quarrel. The ONE TIME Charlotte says something remotely mean to her mother, the old lady's heart gives out and she DIES.
Now that's commitment to the villain project.
Wracked with guilt, Charlotte checks herself back into the sanitarium. It doesn't take as long to bounce back, partly because she has tweezers now and other therapeutic tools, but also because she meets an awkward young girl with self-esteem issues there; a girl who reminds her of herself at that age. Turns out the child is none other than Jerry's daughter, Tina, and Charlotte takes her under her wing. It gets a little weird after that, boundary-wise, but in the end, Charlotte finds a calling, Dr. Jaquith gets to build a new wing at the sanitarium, and Jerry, one supposes, finds some other ladies to share cigarettes with.
I'd always imagined -- in the world beyond the movie -- that Charlotte wound up with Dr. Jaquith somehow. He's infinitely more suitable than Smoky McTwoCigs. Or how about she just chooses not to be with anybody. Why not? This is one of the few films where the heroine saves herself in the end: she gets some much-needed romance on the high seas; gets out from under her mother's toxic control; develops a relationship with her remaining family; declines to marry a guy she doesn't love; and uses her Boston money to help others.
I don't know why they call this a romance; this is a success story.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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