NOW, VOYAGER (Irving Rapper, 1942)

Twice in my life I have been attacked—I mean attacked—for expressing an opinion about a film. On the first of these occasions, I learned that it is imprudent to mention how horrible a movie E.T. is if there’s a child present in the room. She socked me. By now (for this was quite some time ago), the woman that this violent youngster has become must be filled with remorse and the most bitter regret, especially if she has more recently revisited Steven Spielberg’s 1982 creepily sentimental, inflated, pseudo-mystical, proto-fascist piece of crap. E.T. may not be the worst movie ever made (offhand, I can think of a few worse ones), but it is probably the most morally despicable one for reasons too numerous to go into here. I am saddened at the prospect of how betrayed and disillusioned childhood admirers of E.T. must feel if they are unlucky enough to have a close encounter with it after reaching their majority.

The second film that made me once again a target of female brutality thankfully didn’t involve physical blows. I had occasion to participate, at a private home, in a discussion of Shakespeare’s Othello—the lone gentleman among seven (grown) women. These ladies weren’t exactly swift; they honestly believed—and wouldn’t be budged from their position—that Emilia, Iago’s (understandably) cynical wife, is the play’s most important character insofar as she provides the clearest window into Shakespeare’s intent. (I’m not making this up.) One of them, for some reason, brought up the 1942 Hollywood soap opera Now, Voyager starring Bette Davis, and they all agreed that it is one of the best movies ever made. I expressed disagreement, but, in a democracy, majority rules.

Men are from Mars; women, from Hoboken. We all unite agreeably in any number of domains and on very many important issues. Now, Voyager is not one of these apparently. Let me compare two online critics. This is what Donna Bowman has to say: “Now, Voyager features Davis[, as Charlotte Vale,] in a dual role: a sheltered spinster belittled by her imperious mother, and the elegant, accomplished woman she becomes . . . With its bittersweet romance and air of tragic empowerment, Now, Voyager represents the pinnacle of the woman’s picture.” I am, though, in agreement with Christopher Null: “Now, Voyager, based on a terribly popular romance novel of the era [by Olive Higgins Prouty], is the kind of rambling, go-nowhere story that war wives could lose themselves in for a couple of hours before returning home to worry anew. The plot is barely comprehensible, and Charlotte’s transformation is wholly unbelievable.”

Empowerment: this is the theme that resonates throughout it that makes the film important to so many women. It is best understood in the context of a nation—the United States—a sizeable chunk of whose female population deems themselves Electras vis-à-vis their Clytemnestras. But I see U.S. mother-daughter contentiousness in a sociopolitical context. Deprived of the power that is her due in an egalitarian society, a certain kind of woman, a non-activist, will compensate (in her permissible powerful domain of the home) by lording over her daughters, in whom she (unconsciously) sees the potential for power that irritates, even infuriates, because she herself once had this potential but has failed to realize it. Her daughter’s relative youth only exacerbates matters. If my analysis is correct, the mother’s appropriate target should be the system and the State, not her offspring. Of course, 1942 is not 2007, and more women now are aware of greater options; but surely it is sorely ironic that the empowerment that World War II bestowed on American women, who womanned the homefront and filled important jobs that otherwise would have been filled by men, helped point up to them how relatively powerless they normally were. Now, Voyager deals with none of this, and its focus on a wealthy, high-society Boston family helps ensure an insulated view. Because of this limited view, it’s claptrap.

In one of her most famous, most popular roles, Davis plays Charlotte Vale. Habitually intimidated by her widowed mother (Gladys Cooper, superb—human, not villainous), who years ago dashed her single romance (with a lower-class boy), Charlotte is a deeply neurotic, sexually repressed spinster who suffers a nervous breakdown. She thus becomes a patient of Dr. Jaquith in his country sanitarium. He prescribes tennis, and in no time Charlotte, eyebrows plucked, form slendered down, falls in love with Jerry Durrance on a South American cruise. Jerry is married, wouldn’t you know! His wife won’t give Jerry a divorce (offscreen, she holds onto what power she has), using the threat of destroying their shy daughter, Tina, unless Jerry forsakes his heart, for he is as much in love with Charlotte as she is in love with him. By happy coincidence, Tina also becomes Jaquith’s patient and Charlotte becomes a kind of surrogate mother or big sister to her, and through Tina she mentally bonds with Jerry, even seeing him (nonromantically) from time to time, under Jaquith’s cautious, watchful eye. “Are you happy?” Jerry asks Charlotte at the last. Charlotte: “Darling, let’s not ask for the moon when we have the stars.”

All of this is, of course, ridiculous. It is, as Null says, unbelievable that sick Charlotte would get so much better so quickly—and look so much better, too. I doubt that a little tennis could cause such great recovery. Worse, the medieval abdication of love, all the tortuous self-sacrifice, doesn’t play well in modern dress. At the very least, it’s annoying. Apart from Cooper, moreover, the acting is awful. One of the very greatest American-born film actresses, Davis here is studied, glamorous, selfconsciously actressy. Paul Henreid, as Jerry, is much worse; a more stilted performance would be hard to imagine. Claude Rains hardly ever gives a bad performance. Here, as Dr. Jaquith, he does. Replaying his role of God the year before in the lovely comedy-fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall, 1941), he is simply too above the fray to convince as any sort of human being.

And that famous gesture of sublimated sex, when Jerry lights two cigarettes in his mouth and passes one to Charlotte? As a nonsmoker, I find that also ridiculous.

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