Walt Whitman´s poem The Untold Want:
The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.
Borrowing from Whitman for the title of her 1941 novel Olive Higgins Prouty wrote Now, Voyager about a woman and her over-bearing, controlling mother.
Irving Rapper directed many 1940s movies including Now, Voyager (1942) and he based it on Prouty’s book.
Touching on psychotherapy and with a love story intertwined the plot gathers your emotions and increases their intensity as the movie unfolds. Telling the tale of Charlotte Vale as she gets to know herself is both compelling and absorbing.
Mrs Windle Vale
A huge ornate Boston house greet us with a stone plaque outside that reads VALE. Affluent and well-to-do Mrs Vale (Gladys Cooper) struts down her staircase as the grandfather clock chimes 4 o’clock. Her maids and butler are scuttling around finishing off their chores. Mrs Windle Vale asks William the butler if her daughter-in-law Miss Lisa (Ilka Chase) has phoned. Seemingly, yes and she will arrive at 4 o’clock. Snapping back at him she retorts that it is that time already!
Instructing William to bring tea into the drawing room as Lisa is bringing someone with her she prompts him to tell Miss Charlotte (Bette Davis) to be down in 10 minutes.
Tap, tap, tap. “What is that!” Mrs Vale shouts. Tapping his pipe in the foyer Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) has arrived with Lisa. As Lisa is explaining to Mrs Vale that she does’t think it will do any harm to just talk she is interrupted by Dr. Jaquith walking in. Formal introductions take place and it is clear that Mrs Vale does not approve of Dr. Jaquith being there. She unequivocally states, “My daughter is no more ill than a molting canary!” (By the way, a canary molts in a 6-12 week period once a year, who knew?)
Pleasantly introducing the doctor, who she says is the foremost psychiatrist in the country Lisa tells her that he has made a special journey from New York to see Charlotte.
Lisa asks her to call him Mr and not Doctor as she believes Charlotte will clam up if she suspects that they have engineered an examination. Having a mistrust of “the pack of them”, meaning the medical profession the stoic Mrs Vale looks blankly at her.
A pair of hands are busy carving a little wooden box delicately. A knock on the door from William lets her know she is wanted in the drawing room. Stubbing out her cigarette Charlotte Vale empties her make-do ashtray into the bin and lays a tissue on top to hide it.
Slowly walking down the stairs Charlotte can hear her mother talking about her. Having her late in life she thinks that Charlotte is “marked” and calls her my ugly duckling.
Dressed in old ladies clothes and with her bushy eyebrows Charlotte hovers in the door frame looking nervously at all of them. Lisa jumps up and walks towards her with open arms and Charlotte smiles slightly. On being introduced to Mr Jaquith, she continues to be silent. Apologising for her bad manners Mrs Vale immediately calls him Dr. rather than Mr. While her mother berates her for causing such a fuss Charlotte stares at the floor wringing her hands in her lap.
Conveying her irritation of her daughter and the doctor, Mrs Vale says, “The very word psychiatry, doesn’t it fill you with shame? My daughter, a member of our family!”
“Not That Way, This Way”
Explaining that there is nothing frightening or shameful about his work at his centre Cascade, Charlotte looks and listens to him. Continuing on to describe his work he explains that people come to a fork in the road and they don’t know which road to take and he just puts a signpost up, “Not that way, this way,” he smiles amiably.
Jumping up and dashing out the room, it has all been too much for her. Fumbling with her hands Mrs Vale looks away sternly, ignoring her daughter’s escape. Charlotte is climbing the stairs and Dr. Jaquith follows her. Asking her to show him around the old Boston mansion he uses it as a pretense to get to speak to her alone.
Describing Boston houses as bastions standing firm and proud, resisting the new, turning in on themselves and hugging their pride, Dr. Jaquith looks at Charlotte who is now staring at him. Charlotte finally speaks, “Introverted doctor,” she whispers. He tells her that he wouldn’t know about that not having faith in scientific words.
A Woman’s Castle
On asking to see her room, she replies, “I’m not your patient yet doctor.” Taking out a key to unlock her room she remarks that it is significant and he must take note. His casual response that it just signifies her door and that a woman’s house is her castle surprises Charlotte.
Tapping one of the thick wooden posts of her bed he remarks that they are solid and built to last a lifetime. “Enduring and inescapable,” is her only comeback, pointing to how she feels about her life.
Noticing her carved wooden boxes he is impressed and says he has always admired people that can work with their hands. Beginning to trust the doctor she offers one of her boxes as a gift and starts to open up to him.
The Freight Deck
Flipping through a large journal containing photos she shows him a large ship. When she was twenty she went on a cruise with her mother. Smiling, she reflects that he would not have recognise her as she looks so frumpy now.
Falling in love with one of the ship’s officers they would arrange secret trysts on the freight deck. One night her mother and the ship’s Captain found them canoodling in a limousine on the deck. Following the officer’s proposal to marry Charlotte her mother orders her back to her cabin. Afterwards her mother declares that he is unsuitable for her and Charlotte becomes distraught.
From that moment complete control of Charlotte by her mother ensues.
Sobbing in her room Dr. Jaquith leaves her to go speak to her mother. Assuming that it is all just nonsense Mrs Vale is met with a strong response from the doctor, “She is seriously ill thanks to you.” Re-iterating what she said earlier about no-one in the Vale family having a nervous breakdown Dr. Jaquith answers, “Well there’s one having one now! I suggest a few weeks at Cascade.” Charlotte goes to Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium and her journey begins.
Rejecting the movie because you think it is a just another love story, you will miss out. It is much more than that. More so, it is about a person discovering who they really are and discarding all thoughts of who others think they are. And stepping into their power and moving forward in their journey.
Personally, I think 1940s movies like this are absolutely worth your time. And if you enjoy this then check Stella Dallas, this movie was also made from one Olive Higgins Prouty’s novels.
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