After Marked Woman, the next feature was the one I really wanted to see: Now, Voyager. (I didn’t really have any idea what it was about, so perhaps only because it is generally well-regarded.) And, honestly, I am not a big Bette Davis fan. I don’t think she was especially pretty or charming, and her acting seemed to fall along fairly predictable lines, at least what I had seen of it. In this movie, however, she truly shines. I had a hard time believing it was her at points, as she plays Charlotte, a mousy, neurotic old maid (I don’t know, her character is probably, like 26 and Davis was 34) who is completely under the thumb of her mother (Gladys Cooper).
She goes on a cruise and falls in love with a Jerry (Paul Henried, Casablanca, Goodbye Mr. Chips). He’s married but miserable, and in fact his wife seems a lot like Davis’ mother (who has no first name in the movie), with their daughter Tina being the recipient of the sort of abuse Charlotte is personally familiar with. In the end, Jerry has a responsibility (to Tina primarily) to go back home, and Charlotte continues on her merry way.
The funny thing here being her way really is merry. Her brief, intense relationship with Jerry changes her. And once she’s seen the potential of life out from under her mother’s thumb, she blossoms. (And in classic ’40s de-frumpification, she takes off her glasses and gets less boxy clothes to signal losing weight.) When she gets home, she finds her family surprised at her newfound confidence, to say nothing of wardrobe.
Her mother, natch, wants no part of it. She wants her out of those slutty clothes and into her good, old spinster wardrobe, to throw out all those smutty books (I have no idea what those could be, but back in my mom’s day it was salty things like East of Eden), and to take the room right next to dear old mother so Charlotte can take care of the increasingly valetudinarian matriarch.
This movie surprised me. It surprised me that Charlotte blossomed. And it surprised me even more that she manages to stand up to the mother who formerly dominated her so thoroughly. I kept expecting there to be a big struggle between the two, but Charlotte handles her precisely right: She doesn’t allow herself to be baited while at the same time doing as she pleases.
The movie takes a third act turn (involving Jerry and Tina) which also surprised me. Much like Casablanca, though, Charlotte respects that her amorous interests are not the most important thing in the world. Her sense of ethics and morality , and the care of others, take precedence. And she finds a high degree of happiness in this.
It doesn’t have to be the only message in movies (it’s not always true). But it’s nice to see from time-to-time. (Quick: Name a contemporary mainstream film with that message.)
Bette Davis has never been better, if for no other reason than she plays against type, and does so utterly believably. Paul Henried is good, as always, though his role is relatively minor. Cooper (Rebecca, and that great “Twilight Zone” episode where she gets a phone call from Beyond The Grave) plays Davis’ mother, and is great. She’s too young for the role, but she doesn’t look it. (Charlotte’s supposed to be a “late in life” baby, but Cooper is only twenty years older.) Claude Rains plays the kindly psychoanalyst, but his sanitarium doesn’t seem to be very effective relative to pleasure cruises.
Max Steiner won an Oscar for the score.
It was the height of director Irving Rapper’s career. In the ’40s he would direct The Corn Is Green and Shining Victory, but his career would turn to B-movies by the ’50s and in the ’70s he finished up with The Christine Jorgensen Story (the movie Ed Wood was supposed to make when he made Glen or Glenda?) and Born Again (about Watergate figure Charles Colson). But here, he’s quite competent. This probably is more a commentary on the decline of Hollywood over those 30 years than anything.
The funny thing to me was that this more of a melodrama, by definition, in the sense of being about small matters (one’s emotional state is about as small a matter as drama can tackle) given a theatrical presentation, versus Marked Woman which is more about life-and-death and very noir-ish in its sort-of-flat-affect, but it felt more like a serious drama somehow. Maybe because the emotionalism is displayed as the problem rather than the reason for the story. And as Charlotte gets saner and saner, she makes better and better choices, less steeped in her internal psychodrama.
A good lesson for today, some would argue.