My Latest Book

My Latest Book
By Jim Manago, Biographer (Shirley Booth, Huntz Hall, and Kay Aldridge)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On NOW, VOYAGER (1942)

Novelist Olive Higgins Prouty (January 10, 1882 – March 24, 1974)  is best known for writing the story Now, Voyager.  In 1942, the story received an excellent Hollywood movie adaptation by Warner Brothers. It's probably among the top ten best love story pictures ever made!  

I know my mother could never get tired of watching this gem. For years, it seemed to be the one and only movie she asked me replay on video every other month.  Each time I would play Now, Voyager for her, I would also watch it.  Indeed, every time I watched it, I would find another layer of meaning or something that would fascinate me about it.

The story is about a repressed Boston woman named Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) who suffers from the poisoning effects of a domineering mother played to perfection by British actress Gladys Cooper.  Eventually, through the assistance of an understanding therapist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), Charlotte finds love at first, and ultimately the peace that empowerment and self-assurance brings. In addition, a married man named Jerry Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henried) plays a part in her recovery. 

Dr. Jaquith gives Charlotte a verse from a poem by Walt Whitman (from his famous collection, Leaves of Grass, 1900)

"The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,

Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find."

Bette Davis is compelling and fascinating in playing this part. Her success as an actress came from staying in movies with her superb talent, just as Shirley Booth successfully stayed onstage and avoided the movies as much as she could.  Both Davis and Booth excelled at what they did, and were definitely among the 20th century's finest actresses. Along with Shirley Booth, Bette Davis is among my favorite actresses of all time.

Besides the fine acting from a stellar cast of Bette Davis, Paul Henried (January 10, 1908 – March 29, 1992) Claude Rains, and Gladys Cooper, there's Max Steiner's beautiful score which rightly won the Academy Award that year.

The men are very likeable in this film (Paul Henried & Claude Rains), but the women certainly leave much to be desired - from Henried's miserable wife who we never see, Charlotte's niece June (Bonita Granville) who certainly sickeningly loves to torture her aunt with nasty jibes, and most importantly, Charlotte's tyrannical mother who thinks that being a good mother means controlling everything your adult child feels and does. Even Jerry's depressed daughter Tina (Janis Wilson) is a mess - suffering from low self-esteem and feelings of isolation.  [Footnote: it was Wilson's first film.]

For many reasons Now, Voyager has stood the test of time as "The Woman's Film." The story, written by Prouty, has a screen adaptation by Casey Robinson, which leaves much of the original story and actual lines of dialogue amazingly intact. Irving Rapper directed this wonderful story of a woman suffering serious psychological problems and how she breaks free of her mother's domination to choose her own destiny. 

I initially sensed that the writer seemed to have studied this situation or went through such an ordeal.  Prouty's writing is keen on women's issues as well as mental issues. There's an interesting autobiographical element to Now, Voyager. Indeed Prouty was the right person to tell such an unusual story about the mentally ill Charlotte Vale.  She herself was from a fine Boston family and she too herself suffered a mental breakdown as an adult in 1925 after the death of her one-year old infant (She also had an earlier breakdown at the age of twelve). Prouty went to a sanitarium for recovery where she met two therapists - one of them encouraged her in her writing career.

So Prouty knew what she was writing about when she created Charlotte Vale.  Does anyone remember the story Stella Dallas? That too was written by Prouty.  However, she was not too happy with the melodramatic screen and radio adaptations.

The point that seems evident is that Charlotte Vale is not really better off at the bittersweet conclusion than she was at the start....She might still seem to have some issues to work on, depending on how you want to see her decision to play surrogate mother to a married man's child. However, at least she has finally stood up and chosen her own destiny despite the consequences. Charlotte is liberated finally....That's what I especially like about Now, Voyager.

In short, Charlotte overcomes her mental problems and becomes a complete person. She learns to win and assert her independence, first by dumping repressive family ties, and then overcoming those limiting class and gender restrictions which society brainwashes us at an early age to accept as normal and the only sensible way. She does not need a man or a woman to be happy. She does not let that drive her ambition.
Charlotte is a character that finally exhibits strong empowerment. She even achieves her stated goals of having a home (inheriting her tyrannical mother's house), having a child (through being a surrogate caretaker of her "ex-lover's" daughter) and having a man to call her own (via a very non-traditional friendship with a married man). 

Now, Voyager's character of Charlotte Vale is quite remarkable, especially when you consider the time when this story was written.  In achieving her goals in an unusual manner, she frees herself from the repressive upper class stuffiness and patriarchy of the traditional male-dominated, anti-feminine, Western  gender code. 

Olive Higgins Prouty's Now, Voyager is worthy of your attention for challenging these things!  


 5 Stars out of 5




No comments: