Fairytale Elements in Now, Voyager
The Untold Want
Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) is the movie based on the novel of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty. The author took the title from a line in the poem, The Untold Want, by Walt Whitman. With its great story, interesting characters and strong performances by actors like Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, the movie became a classic.
What I find most interesting is the way that the story takes stock fairytale characters and places them in modern settings, filled with contemporary challenges and conundrums. The solution is indeed a little dated – the film was made in 1942 – but it still stands as a fine old story and movie.
The Frozen Princess
At the opening of the movie, we meet Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis). She is not obviously a beauty but is fat and bespectacled, with her hair pulled back in a bun. She is not Cinderella reduced to sweeping ashes, but is actually the daughter of the wealthy matron who is seated by the hearth of her grand Boston mansion, like a queen on a throne. Charlotte’s clothes are not in tatters, but are frumpy and out-of-date, and her manner is cowed and timid. Using flashbacks, the movie reveals that Charlotte was once an exuberant young woman who had an affair with a sailor while on holiday. Her horrified mother, Mrs Vale (Gladys Cooper) responded by repressing her lifestyle and transforming her into the creature we now see, like a princess under a restraining spell. Charlotte takes refuge in a world of creativity, carving little ivory boxes.
The Wicked Witch
Charlotte’s mother comes across as the wicked witch of the story, her restraints preventing her daughter from becoming a fulfilled woman. Unlike the average witch, however, Mrs Vale most certainly has reasons for behaving the way that she does. Given her age in the story, Mrs Vale would probably have been born sometime in the final decades of the 1800s. By the nineteen twenties, she would have reached middle age and witnessed young women cutting their hair – and their dresses – short, going out working, drinking, dancing and smoking. Through her Victorian eyes, the new “anything goes” world would have seemed to have gone to the moral dogs. Unable to hold back the tide of change, she took control of the one thing in her power, her only daughter.
The Transforming Magician
The average fairytale requires an agent to break the spell. It could be a kiss, the capture of a precious object or the recitation of magic words. In Now, Voyager, the afflicted princess is thrust into the care of that very modern thing, a psychologist. In an act of sympathy, Charlotte’s sister-in-law introduces her to Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains), who has opened Cascades, an experimental sanatorium for people with obvious social problems. Dr Jaquith is in effect Pygmalion, a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with the statue of a lovely woman and prayed to Aphrodite so that she brought the statue to life. Away from her mother, Charlotte begins to blossom and within months, she is all dressed up and embarking on a cruise to South America.
The Handsome Prince
On the cruise, the transformed princess meets her handsome prince, Jerry Durrance (Claude Rains), who is travelling with friends. Their whirlwind romance includes a night on a Brazilian mountain, following a car crash. This prince is not free to marry, however. Durrance is already married and he drops frequent hints to Charlotte about his wife’s complaining ways and how unhappy he is. He also has two daughters. Here, Mrs Durrance – whom we never meet or find out anything about – is the second wicked witch of the piece. In a fairytale, she would die conveniently and free Jerry. But in this story, it is wicked witch one who bows out.
When the cruise is over, Charlotte returns to Boston and tries to settle down. But her relationship with her mother is more fraught than ever. Mrs Vale continues to exert control, threatening Charlotte with the loss of her financial support if she does not comply. But Charlotte is now strong enough to exert her independence, insisting that she is a modern woman who will go and find a job, if she has to. Worn out, Mrs Vale dies of a heart attack.
The Lost Child
At this point in the story, it is Charlotte who fragments into two personalities. Fairytales are filled with orphans and lost children, babes in woods and imprisoned in towers. Since Charlotte is now a mature and wealthy woman, the story introduces the disaffected Christina, a patient at Dr Jasquith’s sanatorium. Seeing her former self mirrored in Tina, Charlotte befriends her, takes her camping and eventually, to her Boston home. In effect, Charlotte becomes Christina’s mother. In best fairytale fashion, Charlotte discovers that Tina is Jerry Durrance’s daughter, cast out by wicked witch two, Mrs Durrance. All the while, she has to contend with the disapproval of Dr Jaquith. He relents eventually, even going into partnership with Charlotte for an extension to Cascades.
Symmetry and storytelling
The majority of fairytales embody a kind of symmetry, the completion of a circle or cycle of events. The character who has lived and suffered now realises him or herself. Tales often end in the same physical space in which they began. Now, Voyager ends around the hearth of the palatial Vale home but, instead of the stuffy atmosphere that Charlotte grew up in, it is filled with happy, young people, chatting and roasting sausages over the fire. The niece that once made fun of “Aunt Charlotte” is now her best friend. Jerry and Dr Jaquith arrive, stating their purpose is to see Tina. Charlotte takes Jerry into a room and warns him that they must only ever be platonic friends, because of the scandal that an affair might cast on Cascades. Reluctantly, Jerry agrees, and Charlotte regales him with that immortal line: "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars".
The Pygmalion cycle is now complete with Dr Jaquith controlling the morals of the woman whom he fought so hard to liberate from the destructive control of her mother. In summary, Dr Jaquith has become Charlotte's parent. On reading reviews of the movie, many writers speculate that he wants to marry her, thus his veto on her relationship with Jerry. To the modern reader, this bittersweet ending is an odd sort of compromise, but more than justified in the context of the era. I rest my case.
The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology, edited by Pierre Grimal