Saturday, November 23, 2019
NOW, VOYAGER - #1004
What separates a drama from a melodrama?
This is something I basically knew from context--what movies get painted with that brush, or when it’s appropriate to tell someone to stop being “melodramatic”--but I never really stopped to look up its full meaning until trying to figure out where to start writing about Now, Voyager, a 1942 Bette Davis vehicle directed by Irving Rapper.
A melodrama is a story that purposely operates with heightened emotions and exaggerated situations and characters in order to provoke an equal response from the audience.
So, big swaths of feeling splashed across the screen at maximum volume. More or less.
If one was looking for a textbook example of melodrama, they’d need to look no further than Now, Voyager, a film where a cross word can literally drive the life out of an old woman. Now, Voyager swings from the depths of depression to the heights of romance, back down to heartbreak and ultimately its quietest concession: acceptance. Its theme is one of independence. Hardly anyone in Now, Voyager is allowed to choose their own fate, no matter how hard they try.
Davis stars as Charlotte, the result of a late-in-life pregnancy. Her widowed mother (Gladys Cooper, Rebecca [review]) has held on to Charlotte as her final companion, somehow trying to correct the mistake of her birth by keeping her close, stifling her social growth, and demanding her constant loyalty and companionship as payment for her inconvenient existence. Charlotte is bookish and shy, and she spends her time in her room carving elaborate ivory boxes. The isolation has started to take its toll, however, cursing her with all kinds of nervous ailments, and at the start of the picture, she is being looked over by Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains, Notorious [review]), a soft-pedaling psychologist who believes he can bring Charlotte out of her shell. He separates her from her mother and takes her to his wellness resort, helping Charlotte to find herself and ultimately sending her on a world cruise so she can experience how life is lived.
It’s there that she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid, Night Train to Munich [review]), an architect and father of two stuck in a loveless marriage. He and Charlotte hit it off, primarily because neither is aware of the history of the other. Charlotte in particular blossoms, at first playing an invented character before fully stepping into the role she was always meant to play--sophisticated, charming, warm, and dare I say...sexual? Naturally, their romance can only last as long as the cruise, and when they land in the states, they must go their separate ways. Jerry is far too proper to betray his wife fully, and Charlotte would never ask him to. (Note: Both Henreid and Rains starred in Casablanca the same year Now, Voyager was released.)
Naturally, their paths will cross again, most importantly when Jerry puts his own daughter (Janis Wilson) into Jaquith’s care. Charlotte sees herself in the young girl and decides to try to help her the way she herself was helped. She can be the mother neither of them ever had.
Location is crucial to Now, Voyager. Both as visuals and metaphor. Charlotte is stifled by polite society. Though she lives in a massive three-story house, its interiors appear cramped. There is never anywhere to go. The production designer packs every inch of the place so that no figure ever stands alone, there is always something next to them. This makes the fresh air and open spaces of Jaqueth’s health farm all the more freeing. Charlotte isn’t just away from the damning eyes of her mother, but she can stretch and breathe and find herself at the source of all life. This is a common trope of melodrama, from Douglas Sirk to Todd Haynes, and also of noir, which plays in a melodramatic shadow all to itself. Civilization makes us forget our humanity. Is noir a kind of sibling to melodrama, then, with the latter’s crimes being of the heart?
If the countryside is freeing, then the vast ocean is even moreso. No land in sight, no connections to their regular lives--Jerry and Charlotte have found a reprieve from all that hounds them. The joke is always that you can do anything in international waters; Now, Voyager amends that. You can also be anyone.
Henreid’s Jerry is a romantic dream. He’s attentive and genuinely interested; he’ll lead the way, but step back when necessary; he will sacrifice his happiness for familial duty. He is less compelling on his own; Rapper lets Charlotte define him by how she surrenders to him. It’s a careful balance. His love for her gives her confidence, but as Now, Voyager progresses, Charlotte makes her own choices--something she would not be able to do if they could truly be together. That would have meant trading her subservience to her mother to serving a man. The denial means that Charlotte has to work to make her own happiness.
Bettie Davis is, of course, incredible. Her beauty is unconventional in a lot of ways, and so it never really feels as thought she is “dressing down” when she plays a spinster or introvert, like they are having to hide who she truly is. It’s not about the hair and wardrobe anyway, it’s about how she carries herself. In the early scenes, Charlotte is closed and bitter; in later scenes, it’s almost like she’s shed her skin and become something new. She could be wearing the same outfit on both sides, it wouldn’t matter, because the acting.
In all honesty, Now, Voyager is successful as a whole in much the same way as its lead actress, in that it has its own level of confidence and it never apologizes. There is much that could be considered overwrought or even silly were Rapper’s presentation not so assured. He hits the big notes with vigor, and yet understands the lows with the same measure. Thus, we get a surprising ending to the picture that holds its ground, giving audiences what makes sense over what is obvious, the camera panning toward the sky as Davis delivers two of the most memorable final lines of romantic cinema, redefining just exactly where these lovers are voyaging to, but finding comfort and love there all the same.