The Moral Lessons of "Now, Voyager"

The poor quality of the movies up for this year’s Academy Award for best motion picture reminds me of the time when movies were indeed better than ever, which was the period of the late Thirties and the early Forties, which produced not only “The Wizard of Oz” and “Stagecoach” (I am still leary of “Gone With the Wind”, another 1939 blockbuster) but also, in the early war years, such movies as “Random Harvest” and “Now, Voyager”, both from 1942, and both heavily melodramatic in that people were given psychological excuses for being out of touch with their own lives and so needed to find ways to integrate themselves back into a social life somewhat abbreviated from a normal life, all the while the characters managing to retain their self respect and not give in to feeling sorry for themselves, which is the constant risk in melodrama. In “Random Harvest” that meant Greer Garson had to settle for a sexless marriage to the man she had known as her husband before he fell into amnesia and in “Now, Voyager” that meant Bette Davis settling for a long term affair with Paul Henreid because circumstances, including themselves, stand in the way of marriage.

So these movies are about incomplete lives, more sad than tragic, though with a sense that circumstances not of the heroines making-- war and neurosis-- drove them into it, and so each movie taking on a bit of the tone of the tragic. Enough to tug at the heartstrings of those who went to what were called at the time “women’s movies” because they dealt with women’s intimate lives rather than with manly adventures without going beyond the sense of pity and so remaining melodramas rather than true tragedies. The movies provided a good cry and even some laughs, as when Charlotte Vale, the Bette Davis character in “Now Voyager”, is revealed to have those gigantic eyebrows to show just how socially gauche and inadequate she is. I want to get beyond the humor and focus on how “Now, Voyager” takes a number of interesting turns, ones not to be expected in a formula melodrama, and so supplies real insights into life that the attentive audience would notice and which would illuminate their own lives, the movies at that time serving to educate its audience about how to think and feel and deal with life, just as the Victorian novel had done for its audience.

The structure of the movie, which I take to be the responsibility of its screenwriter, Casey Robinson, is best understood not as the compilation of the some seventy scenes that make up a movie scenario, some of those more importance than others, that structure giving the movie the expanse of a novel. Rather, the screenplay is modeled on a five act play, whatever are the number of scenes which go into each, each act focused on some particular unfolding of the plot. There is, first of all, the first visit of Dr. Jasquith to Charlotte’s house. This is a scene which is revelatory about the characters and Charlotte’s problems and is what an audience might expect to see as the first act of the drama. Surprisingly, not much attention is paid to Charlotte’s cure at her doctor’s rest home, when a montage of Charlotte’s reclamation might have pleased the audience. The movie is more interested in getting on to her love affair and so the second act is devoted to the cruise on which she comes out, hesitantly at first, as her new, self-possessed self, and finds Jerry, who will become her lover. The discovery of love is also a familiar device through which to catch up an audience. The third act is Charlotte’s return to her mother’s house and the rebuff and humiliation she experiences there, a necessary problem, the audience will see, because otherwise the success is too easy, adversity not overcome but overwhelmed. The fourth act is Charlotte’s on and off promise that she will no longer see Jerry and her romance with Livingston, which shows that she cannot get over Jerry, who was the one who allowed her to blossom. The fifth act has her working at Dr. Jacquith’s clinic to help girls with problems like those she had overcome, and then there is the denouement, hardly a sixth act but an afternote, which has Charlotte and Jerry decide how they are going to manage their lives and confirming what we had already learned about their mutual adventure. This is a very neat division and evolution of an unusual love story, each of the acts suiting what an audience would think ought to come next, and each one supplying food for fresh thought about the roles the characters play and what they might do next.

One of the first things the audience will respond to and learn from is the appearance of Claude Rains as the psychiatrist who is looking in on the case for the first time. What is striking about the patient is how articulate she is about her embarrassment at her own condition, which is that she is mousy, shy and unattractive, how reluctant she is to reveal it to the doctor and how self-reproachful she is for being such a wreck. Charlotte has all of the Bette Davis vitality, glibness and sureness however much her condition is deeply neurotic, she hiding away in her room with her artistic creations and the books of which her mother will disapprove when she discovers them. Different viewers will wonder whether those are by Edna Ferber or by D. H. Lawrence.

What the audience will learn from Claude Rains is that a psychiatrist is not the possessor of a secret code for the unconscious, even though it does seem that repressed sexual desire is one of Charlotte’s problems, her mother having intruded on some kissing she was doing with a young naval officer. She is reminded by her doctor not to be so prim. While wholesome sexual feeling is something of which her mother disapproves, that malady seems to have been avoided by her sister, who is sophisticated and suave as well as by Charlotte’s niece, and so it is the relentlessness with which the mother has stalked her daughter which is the reason for Charlotte’s problems.

The main thing Claude Rains projects as Dr. Jasquith is an exquisite tactfulness and an awareness of whatever is there to be noticed. He makes it easy for Charlotte to open up and talk to him about just how grim her situation is simply because he offers her a cigarette, taken to be a sign of being comfortable with oneself rather than as a bad habit. and admires her carvings. So what psychiatrists do is listen and suggest, as he puts it, which fork of a road to take. Not so terrible, which makes it easy for an audience to feel enlightened about such matters. No theory; no bad feelings; only being graceful, which is the goal that the movie going audience of 1942 can aspire to.

That is the theme as well of the Second Act. Two people falling in love is like gaining trust in a psychiatrist. It is all a matter of being skillful enough in preliminary conversations to reveal some material but not too much. Charlotte is tentative at first, only admitting to her correct name, and then going on to admit to being a spinster. Jerry Dorrance admits to a wife and two children and he does not rebuff Charlotte when she perhaps goes to far and suggests that the younger of his two daughters was unwanted, which we know was the case with her. He takes no offense, which is a sign that he trusts her. So being nice and tactful, calm and well mannered, work in both love and psychiatry. People should strive at civility and it is a pleasure for an audience to watch people being civil to one another.

Act Three might rattle a movie audience out of conventional thinking. When Charlotte returns home, seemingly cured of her social deficiencies and has to deal with her mother again, her mother insists that she become her caretaker, and so has fired the nurse. She has also had all of her old clothes taken in and wants her to allow her hair to grow out. So she wants her daughter not to be cured but remain in a role that is dependant as well as servile. The shocking thing is that the mother shows no sign of self awareness. She does not understand how she had contributed to the stunted growth of her daughter but only wishes to return to the relationship that had existed when her daughter was an emotional cripple. This is very different from the trope where the mother is apologetic and excuses herself for the lapses in judgment which she will try to overcome whether or not the situation calls for thinking that she could repair herself so as to become a companion rather than an oppressor to her daughter. So the audience is a bit shocked to see how little room there is for communication between mother and daughter, and that makes the daughter all the more reliant on her own resources to make herself independent of her mother, the bad omens of what might happen exhibited in the subsequent dinner party subverted only by the deliberate fall Mrs. Vale takes, presumably because she has not been able to order her daughter around, but also an artifice used by the screenwriter so that he does not have to do a scene where Mrs. Vale again humiliates Charlotte. The audience can take just so much of that and so the screenwriter pulls his punches. The movie audience has had enough of a feel for Charlotte’s embarrassment and her struggle to rise above it. Embarrassment has already becomes the emotion most easily recognizable as the source of a deep psychological anguish, as indeed might well be the case, though it is also a common enough emotion that it does not distance itself nor the audience from the protagonist, as happens in Sophocles, and so we remain within the orbit of melodrama rather than of tragedy.

Then comes Act Four where Charlotte has a chance to become what her mother would think to be her total rehabilitation. She has a chance to marry an agreeable and well mannered upper crust fellow who knows nothing about her past and is willing to have her care for his two young children, a task which she finds formidable, perhaps not sure that could manage it, but she rejects him mainly because she doesn't love him in the way she loved Jerry-- which is sexually. Even reclaimed girls have their passions and she has tried to repress her feelings for Jerry but unsuccessfully.

And then we proceed to an equally engaging and quite different Act Five, where Charlotte tests out her new found skills on one of the new patients at her doctor’s clinic, and that turns out to be the daughter of Jerry, this the very long arm of coincidence or, if you prefer, dramatic irony. Charlotte has her doctor’s gift for gab and rehabilitates the daughter by taking her on a camping trip and is then allowed to take her home with her. Noteworthy for the audience is that Charlotte has not tried to go beyond or above the place that had meant so much to her. She does not reject either having been a patient or that there is a new patient on whom she can take out lingering resentments, the audience spared the need to consider that such unenlightened emotions might occur. The movie will allow some revelations about human character, but not too many.

And then there is the brief denouement. Jerry shows up at a lively Vale household where the smart set are enjoying plebeian food treats, and so show they are like other folk and not stuck up. Jerry confronts Charlotte by telling her that he must take his daughter Tina home with him because he has been doing all the taking while Charlotte has been doing all the giving. Charlotte turns that around and advises him of what everyone in the audience will know, which is that she has been doing the taking by being allowed to take over the care of Tina, something she was not looking forward to doing, as attentive members of the audience will notice, with the children of her one time suitor, those a buren she might not be able to manage, while she feels capable of superintending Tina’s life.

What their future life of Charlotte and Jerry will be like is left ambiguous. Charlotte tells Jerry that she remains on probation with the doctor and that disclosure might indicate that she would not be able to recommence her relationship with Jerry. Or, on the other hand, this might just be the aesopian language of the time that hid illicit sexual relationships, and so the discerning audience would gather that when she says Jerry could come and visit that it meant they would resume their sexual relationship, the only limitation that Jerry would never divorce his wife. So what the movie is conveying is the legitimacy of adultery on at least some special occasions when it is the only way to make relationships work, and that is a bit of enlightenment earned by a conventional movie, as is the wisdom of the movie’s last line “Why wish for the moon when you can have the stars?” which is testimony that in life you sometimes have to settle for less than perfect outcomes. The people in the audience can notice that their lives are imperfect. Their husbands are less than they had hoped they would be; they struggle to make ends meet; their children turn out not so well; and all of this without having been so neurotic as to have been sent off to a sanitorium. So Charlotte didn’t do so badly in the life she will now become settled into, anymore than the audience need feel sad about the lives it has settled into. This is melodrama at its best: learning not to feel sorry for yourself even if you think you have a right to.

My point is that in the Thirties and Forties the movie moguls found ways to bring both entertainment and enlightenment to their working class audiences. They created vehicles for Irish and Italian life and in the Forties even tried a little bit to find a way to deal with Negroes, that previously unassimilable group. They did this without surveys or focus groups but by having their movie executives trust their gut about what audiences would find moving and would, at the same time, raise their level of moral perception, that regarded not as a goal, but just another way to entertain or make an audience feel better about itself. Putting a psychological drama in the household of the Boston Vales showed that even upper class people had problems, just like those revealed in “The Philadelphia Story”, but in “Now Voyager” an audience could feel superior to the reprehensible richies.

What changed? The studio system had another quarter century to run, but the Second World War had intruded and then came the era of film noir, which showed the bad side of bad people, and not just the criminal class, everyone caught up in an atmosphere of endless night. Small spectacles of self-creation would no longer do, Hollywood also indulging serious tragedies based on Broadway hits like “A Streetcar named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman”, interspersed with mindless musicals starring Jane Powell. Hollywood made a recovery with its spectacular epics in the Fifties and Sixties, but with brief exceptions, like the Jane Austen movies, it has not reclaimed its hold on the aspiration of movie goers to imagine slightly better lives rather than the totally better lives of superheroes. I don’t know where it turns next.