Wednesday, 13 April 2011
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville
By Alan Bacchus
Now, Voyager is an astonishingly emotional and epic melodrama of the highest order. Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce is running on HBO right now. It’s a decent re-imagining of the novel that was turned into the now classic Warner Bros. Joan Crawford vehicle in 1945. Now, Voyager, however, dramatizes a character arc so grand and powerful, in terms of shear emotional distance it trumps both versions of Mildred Pierce.
Poor Charlotte Vale (Davis) lives a privileged life as the youngest daughter of an old wealthy widow, Mrs. Vale (Cooper). While she stands to inherit the family fortune as her mother’s unwanted child, Charlotte become the runt of the family, indentured by her tyrannical mother to be husbandless, childless and a broken down mirror of her sad mother.
When a good natured and concerned psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Rains), comes along, the ugly duckling is given a chance to break out of her shell and blossom into a real woman. After a period in the doctor’s solitary care, Charlotte’s new social skills are tested when she’s sent on a vacation cruise to Brazil. The exotic locale and social freedom become a transformative experience, especially when she finds love with a handsome fellow traveller, Jerry Durrence (Henreid). Unfortunately, Jerry’s married, though unhappily. This is just one complication in the epic journey for Charlotte. Battling the near psychotic, passive-aggressive evils of her mother, her desire to become an independent woman and find true love with a man seem to run counter to each other.
It’s a landmark role for Davis, the epitome of the strong female lead roles which were commonplace in the Hollywood heydey but gradually disappeared. Just the physical transformation from the dowdy and depressed homebody she’s introduced as to the strikingly beautiful, sophisticated socialite she becomes is astonishing, let alone the subtlety of her posture, rhythm of speech, walking gait and emotional confidence.
In the Todd Haynes version of Mildred Pierce, he seems to have attempted to strip out the melodramatic tone, instead plugging in a new kind of modern realism. Without this filter, much is lost. The Hollywood melodramatic filter applied to Now, Voyager is the stuff of great storytelling and pure cinema. The core conflicts are identifiable to all of us. Whether or not we are the child in a wealthy family, the power and control a mother has over her child is a fundamental conflict with which we can identify.
Director Rapper directs Charlotte’s mother into such extremes that she becomes a pure kind of evil – that Lady Macbeth or Iago kind of evil, so diabolically manipulative we can’t help but yearn for Charlotte’s escape. We’re always rooting for Charlotte to transform her life from the outset.
Even Jerry Durrance, who represents the pull away from her mother, is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When it appears that Jerry and Charlotte could be together, Rapper and his writers throw even more obstacles in front of her attaining complete satisfaction. By the end, Charlotte’s victories are earth-shatteringly triumphant and her losses severely tragic. Moving so boldly and quickly through these extremes is what makes melodrama so effective and entertaining.
And this is one of the greats.
Now, Voyager is available on the Bette Davis 4-Film Collection, along with Dark Victory, Old Acquaintance and Jezebel from Warner Home Entertainment/Turner Classic Movies.