This comparison shows Dark Victory to be conservative, and Now, Voyager to be liberal, on the question of how women can achieve lasting satisfaction. Of course, in Dark Victory one must finesse the fact of Judith’s death as the subtextual penalty that she must suffer for taking up the socially conventional role of a submissive helpmeet. She has lost her hateful freedom, but it catches up with her in the end anyway. Meanwhile Now, Voyager needs, really, no subtextual reading. Its path is clear – a path of empowerment and the ruthless appropriation and/or disposal of Tina and Jerry. The irony is that the film has still the reputation of a great romantic narrative.
* * *
Dark Victory (Warner Brothers 1939) and Now, Voyager (Warner Brothers 1942) are, of course, two of Bette Davis’s best-known roles, and she received Oscar nominations for both performances, as she did for a total of eleven films. Both movies have gotten some attention from scholars working in Hollywood women’s cinema – especially Now, Voyager, which has attracted extensive commentary. What strikes me that seems supplementary to this body of analysis is the uncanny complementarity of the two films: they are each other’s negative double. In Dark Victory the heroine must erase her hysterical condition of too much freedom and social independence and exchange it for a quieter and more conventional position as a traditional good wife; in Now, Voyager she must escape from her imprisonment in a condition of dependence and family ties to find and occupy a position of freedom and independence in society. For Judith Traherne (Dark Victory), more subordinance, more reliance on others; for Charlotte Vale (Now, Voyager), less subordinance, more self-reliance. Judith Traherne must learn to put herself into the hands of a wise and gentle lover; Charlotte Vale must progress first toward sexual viability and then away from it, to arrive at a solid asexual existence in which men play no important part.
In Dark Victory, Judith Traherne is a well-to-do young woman who blazes her way through society in an endless round of parties and horse riding. She is parentless, and ostentatiously free. Well, clearly what is wrong with her at the beginning of the movie is that she is too headstrong and self-indulgent, too independent. Her manifestos of defiance and autonomy are blazed off like gunfire. “Nobody owns me, nobody controls me, nobody tells me what to do” is her creed, and she emphasizes it with a life of smoking and drinking and sexual freedom and mastery of horses. Her style is aggressive and brazen, and accompanied too by a kind of hysterical insistence. “I’ve never taken orders from anyone, and I never will take orders from anyone! I’m young and I’m strong and nothing can touch me.” Although she has an ever-ready young admirer in the form of the always-drinking and always-drunk Alec (Ronald Reagan), she doesn’t have any form of a lover, or a love interest. But she is also suffering from crippling headaches, which are interfering with her eyesight and causing other oddities. Her family doctor Parsons (Henry Travers) has a diagnosis: “too much smoking, too much drinking, staying up too late.” That there might also be some hint of sexual promiscuity, as opposed to romantic interest, in her life is left resolutely unspoken. When she is dragged in to consult Dr Steele (George Brent), a prominent brain surgeon, she is ultra-nervous and ultra-provocative, her movements and her words a series of micro explosions in lightning succession (this aspect of Judith’s behaviour, here and when she discovers that her operation has failed, is the signal tour-de-force of Davis’s performance). Steele treats her like a high-strung colt or a hysterical child – slowly, quietly, authoritatively, like a benevolent father – so that the contrast between his calm presence and her violently skittish one could hardly be greater. When she tries to flirt with him he doesn’t even notice. He performs the diagnosis, and orders surgery. In the period leading up to the operation there are further manifestations of his loving care and her gradual retreat from fierce independence to complete surrender to his safe hands. But the operation is not a success. There is bound to be a recurrence, even though the headaches and other symptoms are gone and she has been transformed into a radiantly happy woman in love. On her first appearance before her old friends at a gathering to celebrate her recovery, she announces: “Behold! A new woman from top to toe!”
She is kept in ignorance of her negative prognosis, with only her best friend and confidante Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) struggling to pretend that everything is fine. These painful charades, incidentally, are little melodramas in themselves. Steele says: “It isn’t a question of what you or I could stand, Ann. The important thing is for her to be happy – every hour!” As she is gaily helping her husband pack up his office in preparation to their retreat to Vermont so that he can conduct research, she stumbles upon her own medical file: “prognosis negative” repeated again and again in the letters of other surgeons consulted. Now she is crushed, and leaps to the conclusion that Steele’s professions of love are motivated only by kindness. She reverts spectacularly to her earlier condition of partying, steeplechasing, and drinking, and even thinks for a moment of having a sexual relationship with the groom Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart). But Steele brings her back to her senses, and intones that “We all have to die – the only difference is you know when,” and that she should “find peace,” and “meet death beautifully and finely.” This becomes her second salvation at Steele’s hands. From this point, the film opens its final chapter: an ecstatically happy existence on a farm, with Steele curing cancer in his lab and a radiant Judith providing for his every need. But the end must come, and finally she goes blind (this will be her only fatal symptom, we have been told), performs a heroic sacrifice in sending her husband off to his medical conference, and withdraws to die in her bedroom to the quiet strains of a heavenly choir.
What is Judith’s trouble? Certainly it is not simply a fatal disease. Although there is a lot of medical paraphernalia in the film, the disease itself begs to be read as something else. It is, rather, a symptom of her state of impossible independence and freedom – impossible for a woman, that is. Pam Cook remarks on the way the pressures of social conformity can cause the heroines of women’s melodramas to somatize psychological stresses as bodily illnesses:
Her desire is often presented as a symptom, resulting in mental or physical illness (Joan Crawford in Possessed, Bette Davis in Dark Victory), so that her body becomes an enigma, a riddle to be read for its symptoms rather than an object of erotic contemplation. This hysterical body is inaccessible to the male protagonists, often a doctor or psychiatrist who fails to understand it adequately, to explain it, or to cure it. . . . Thus it threatens to slip out of male control, and the only solution is frequently the heroine’s death.1
Judith is hysterical, all right; in fact she lives in a permanent state of hysteria. That is exactly the word to describe a condition that is only proper in a woman who is contravening social conventions to such a degree. Indeed, the whole story shows hysterical symptoms arising from its effort to do something about that intensely problematic creature, the independent woman. To put things rather too simply, what Judith needs is a man. And not a man like Alec, who’s just hanging around waiting to be consumed by her at her whim – and also not a man like the Michael character, who would be a kind of impermissible lower-class sexual adventure like something out of D. H. Lawrence. No, a strong, solid, reliable man like Dr Steele, a mature, older authority figure who would know what’s good for her when she didn’t know herself and would take care of her whether she wanted to be taken care of or not. A man to whom she could surrender her hysterical independence as to a benevolent and wise father. Her real father is missing from the story, having drunk himself to death, while her mother has escaped to Paris, no doubt carrying on in the same heedless pleasure-seeking way as Judith. Both parents have failed in their duty to their daughter; both, clearly, have been resident in that same state of barren self-indulgence that Judith is presently suffering from. However much Dark Victory might admire and find attractive and fascinating Judith’s wild independence, in the end the movie has to say it’s a tormenting curse, and what she needs is a patriarchal male to relieve her of its burdens. And in this process she has to become a little girl again, to be relieved also of her adulthood and her mastery of herself. Or one might say that her dramatic independence is revealed to be an immature outburst like a child’s temper tantrum, and she needs to understand – as in fact she unconsciously wants to understand – that she is only a little girl and she needs to do what her daddy tells her to.
All the early scenes between Judith and Steele move in this direction, and they culminate in the hospital scene just before the operation, She is objecting to the extremely plain patient’s gown that she wears, and Steele responds by putting her own fancy nightdress around her neck like a shawl, depriving it of any personal or attractive qualities. He cajoles and smooth-talks her into taking pills to “put her to sleep,” and sits at her bedside like a father; she is reconciled. Their father/daughter, daughter/father relationship is explicitly confirmed: she is like a child going to sleep at bedtime. She remarks, “I’ve never given in to anyone before – now here I am letting you bounce me up and bounce me down” – a very odd conflation of filial and sexual activities. She asks with trepidation, “Where exactly do you operate? what exactly do you do?” and he: “Now, that’s my business.” In keeping with the whole pattern of keeping secrets from the afflicted, not to know is always better, and Judith’s desire for knowledge seen as pathological, self-destructive, undesirable. She surrenders: “That’s right, I must do everything you say. I put myself in your hands.” The scene is finally like a death scene, as she goes to sleep under the influence of the sedative he has given her, Steele crossing Judith’s hands like those of a corpse after she falls asleep. It signals the death of her old wildness, and it previews Judith’s acceptance of her actual death at the end of the movie.
The disease is a brain tumour, and a lot of emphasis is placed on this disorder in the brain, in the actual seat of the personality. Again it is highly appropriate, since Judith’s real problem of too much independence is a disorder of the personality. “What makes normal healthy cells go berserk and grow wild?”, Steele despairingly asks, in effect about Judith’s brain, and he might just as well be asking “What makes a normal healthy woman whom nature intended to be passive and well-integrated go berserk and grow a wild and monstrous freedom and self-sufficiency?” This wildness of hers is a fatal disease, she can’t live with it, she needs to be cured of it. She herself even understands this subliminally, since not only is her personality a schizoid mixture of defiance and uncertainty, but one of her medical symptoms is seeing double. The symbolic nature of the illness is indicated as well in its progress: first, during her period of brazen independence, it causes her splitting headaches; but after her operation she has no symptoms whatever – she feels perfectly well. (A close relative is No Sad Songs for Me from 1950, where Margaret Sullavan, after her diagnosis, is able to have a period of bliss with her husband and even handpick her successor before passing away peacefully. As Molly Haskell remarks, “Women with fatal diseases receive all the attention and sympathy of an invalid without actually acting or looking sick.”)2
But this may remind us of the role of doctors in women’s melodrama. Jeanine Basinger, in her fine monograph A Woman’s View, has an entire section on this topic. Placing doctors broadly in a category of “asexual characters,” along with asexual husbands and father figures.
Women constantly go to their doctors in the woman’s film. These men are wise, and they have all the answers. Sometimes the woman doesn’t want to hear the answer, but the doctor always has it. He cures the woman’s cancer, her blindness, her deafness, and her craziness. Doctors are a form of fake men, because they care too much about a woman’s concerns. Real men aren’t supposed to do that. The doctor sits and talks with a woman about her things, her clothes, her children, her worries. He listens and he cares. He is like a girlfriend. In the doctor category is the fantasy male who most often represents the woman’s desire for a lover rather than for freedom or a perfect husband or liberation into a career, but when he becomes a romantic figure he has still played a role that is more feminine than masculine. In addition to the father-figure psychiatrists and the destructive psychiatrists and mad plastic surgeons, there are the romantic doctor figures who end up loving the woman, even though their primary function is asexual because it is concerned only with the woman’s health and well-being.3
For Judith, Dr Steele is gnostic hermeneute Steele, who sees into her and interprets her from the basis of his superior knowledge. He tells her what her fears and thoughts, her true nature is, overriding her own consciousness. But although he is also in love with her, and in fact marries her, there is very little sexuality in her relationship with her doctor. There is a long kiss, but it is tender rather than hot. As implied by Basinger’s remarks, he is feminised, he does not belong to the category of lovers who are overpowering or erotically desirable. Judith can journey from a free woman to having her ideal spouse with no distractions from sexual desire on either side.
In the meantime, other details of the picture are filled in. Judith’s “free” costume is inevitably black, and aggressively haute couture. After the apparent success of her operation she appears instead in brighter and calmer costumes, together with a pixie hairdo that conceals her operation scar. But when she discovers that she is in fact still condemned, she reverts to her earlier black, loudly stylish wardrobe. These strokes of mise-en-scène are transparently clear. She storms through, and wins, a riding competition. In slacks and riding crop, and displaying a tyrannical manner, she is more of a man than any of the men around her. She repairs to the bar, the cup-winner arm in arm with two eligible men, and marches triumphantly past the disapproving matrons of the club. She ends up alone with Alec, sharing his drunkenness-to-oblivion and singing along tragically with the band in a torch song about time and mortality. She is ready now for Steele’s deeply sympathetic philosophical calm – we all have to die sometime, we can only strive to meet death in a meaningful way.
The following scene has her going to the stables to help a young horse through a crisis and confronting Michael the trainer. (The counterintuitive spectacle of Humphrey Bogart with a regrettable Irish accent and in the role of a servant is not a successful one.) He goes after her without flinching: “We’re alike, you’ve got the fight in you, same as I have in me. You’ve got to have action. […] I was born out of time, when it counted for something to be a man, the way I like to ride and I like to fight. What good does it do now, riding and fighting?” And she surrenders for a moment to his rough sexual kiss. “You invited me to talk to you as a man,” he says, “they’re all afraid of you, but not me.” Men are supposed to fight and ride, but now Judith is wearing the pants and Michael is condemned to the role of a lackey. It is the death of true masculinity. The time is out of joint when sexual/gender roles are blurred; there is a crisis of values, and much suffering is the result. And Michael is as troubled a figure vis-à-vis class as Judith is vis-à-vis gender. Meanwhile, Alec seems to be walking down the exact path of her father, drinking himself to death because, as it appears, Judith is basically indifferent to him. (And this in turn prompts a speculation that her mother had perhaps a similar indifference toward her father.)
Now Judith’s acceptance of her new subjectivity as a faithful wife who has jettisoned all of the brittle and poisonous trappings of her previous life manifests itself in a wholly new setting and a wholly new presentation of the character. As she runs out to the mailbox in the Vermont retreat/research centre in the brisk, bright winter weather, her hair streams in the wind, and she wears a checked farmer’s coat, shapeless slacks, and work boots. Once more the mise-en-scène is anything but subtle. Judith’s makeover is almost as startling as Charlotte Vale’s in Now, Voyager. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dark Victory is that even though Judith wants to be rid of her distressing adult self-mastery and freedom, and even though she discovers the perfect gentle patriarch to undertake the operation of lobotomizing her problem and becoming her loving husband, the operation is not finally a success. That is, she can’t be rid of her actual self, the self that refuses to conform to the role society prescribes for women, even though she wants to. Judith Traherne the happy, well-adjusted, serene housewife is finally an impossibility. She is too good to be true – that is, the solution of making her well-adjusted is too easy and too pat. And then, to look at it from another angle, the movie simply can’t give up the masochistic pleasure of watching her sacrifice herself. All the tear-jerking scenes in the film fundamentally rest on the fact that the women in the audience know at some level that they just can’t be given some kind of curative treatment to remove their own troublesome selves and become totally happy and well-adjusted in their social roles. “If only I could be a happy zombie!” – that’s the wish of the movie, and the wish of the probably not-so-happy female viewers of the movie. They can’t, though.
Bette Davis fought hard to get this role, and for her it seemed to answer some kind of wish. In the first place, her favourite co-star was George Brent (they made eleven movies together),4 and his gravity and calm are nowhere better realized than in Dark Victory. In her essay on Now, Voyager, Maria Laplace remarks that in the publicity for the film:
Exhibitors [were] exhorted to “remind your fans that Bette Davis has given them some of their most dramatic film entertainments” and the Press Book lists them at length. . . . “Recent releases seemed to indicate she was reaching new heights of insolence and selfishness. . . . The Press Book differentiates between these roles and the “real” Bette Davis. She is not “a neurotic, hyperthyroid young woman with a tragic outlook on life” but rather “a lady whose chief enthusiasms are her New England farm, her horses and practical jokes.”5
Her New England farm and her horses: that is an exact description of Judith’s final resting point in Dark Victory.
In Now, Voyager, Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the 40-something unmarried daughter of a rich old Boston family, who is being frog-marched toward a horrible fate of miserable spinsterhood by her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). But through the efforts most notably of a couple of men, she eventually manages to break free of that trap into a life of self-confidence and independence. At the beginning of the movie Charlotte isn’t just shy and nervous and plain – she is a nightmare vision of female sexual ineligibility. Her body is lumpy, her coarse hair is done up in a severe bun, she has King Kong’s eyebrows, and she wears window-sized slab-glassed spectacles which are constantly catching the light in unflattering ways. On top of all this she has a truly hideous wardrobe of dowdy calf-length print dresses in drab colours and patterns. Really, she looks more like some pathetic monster than a person (indeed, she bears something of a resemblance to Mrs Bates in Psycho).
Now, Voyager is routinely described as the greatest of Hollywood “makeover” movies. Almost never in movies do we get to see the heroine of the picture presented so unattractively. She is ordered about with the utmost severity by her mother and mercilessly mocked and patronized by her other relatives. But just as she’s having a nervous breakdown because of all this, she falls under the scrutiny of a kindly psychiatrist, Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains), who treats her like a distinct and even gifted human being and whisks her off to his clinic in the woods to restore her self-confidence. Then her sympathetic sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase) supervises a new wardrobe and beauty-parlour treatment followed by a long sea voyage. When we see her again on board ship the transformation is utterly astonishing: the caterpillar-like Charlotte has become a beautiful butterfly, temporarily renamed “Camille Beauchamp” by her attentive new acquaintance Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) nominally to disguise her real name, but actually to emphasize her shockingly new air of European beauty and sophistication. Perhaps it would be better to say she becomes a version of Bette Davis that fans would recognize from the glamour magazines and her other movies. One of the ironies of Now, Voyager is that the real makeover isn’t the one that transforms ugly Aunt Charlotte into a radiantly beautiful woman. The real triumph of makeup and wardrobe is the one that transforms the Bette Davis everybody already knew into ugly aunt Charlotte in the first place – a kind of anti-makeover. Then when she’s re-made-over into a confident and attractive woman, the person who emerges is the real her – and we know it’s the real her because it’s the Bette Davis we all recognize. Perhaps this corresponds with a belief that however misleadingly unattractive you may be on the outside, on the inside you are just as beautiful as anybody, maybe even more beautiful.
At the outset, Charlotte’s primary symptom is a drastic lack of self-confidence and a powerful sense of self-loathing. Her appearance is, so to speak, the somatic symptom of her condition. Like Judith Traherne, she begins the story as a person with an illness, and like Judith Traherne, her cure (not quite complete in Dark Victory, of course) is engineered by a doctor. Jaquith is not a neurosurgeon but a psychiatrist, operating on his patient’s brain in a different way. He diagnoses her as experiencing a nervous breakdown, and he coaxes her gently, quietly onto a road that will result in a much-improved self-image. When her treatment is over, she is to go on an ocean voyage to South America, and her makeup, coiffeur, and wardrobe are hand-picked by Lisa. In contrast to Dr Steele, Jaquith is not in love with his patient, and in fact behaves toward her in such a way that his distance and power are always visible. Once more there is no father, and Jaquith steps unmistakably into that role. He is older, he is not even a potential romantic interest, his attitude (in contrast to Steele’s) is never marked with overt sympathetic emotion and never relinquishes his titular authority.
Stage two of Charlotte’s transformation occurs on board the cruise ship. In the first place her costume, makeup, and presentation are a shocking improvement. (Apparently even her eyesight has been corrected, since she is doing without glasses decades before contact lenses came into use.) She captures Jerry’s adoration without even trying. In fact, it is left to him to complete Jaquith’s work, reassuring her of her attractiveness and interestingness step by persistent step. Soon he makes her a profession of love, although he is a married man. As they are riding the precarious mountain roads outside of Rio in a chauffeured automobile, they grow closer and closer despite the ostensibly hilarious distractions of a moronic, gesticulating Latin driver. When the car plunges off a hillside, they are left to spend the night in the wreck awaiting rescue the following morning. And during that night they huddle together for warmth and come very close to a sexual act. That such an act did not occur is clearly indicated by their bundled clothing and their sleeping postures. Nevertheless, that night together is always spoken of by both of them, and especially Charlotte, as if it did include a sexual coupling.
A pair of Jerry’s friends are also on the cruise, a married couple, and in a friendly and confiding way the woman informs Charlotte that Jerry’s wife is a selfish, whining, possessive, passive-aggressive woman whose main object in life is to control Jerry and to offload as much of the care of their two children as possible. Now we hear of his daughter Tina, a deeply unhappy girl for whom her mother does nothing at all. Charlotte and Jerry nobly decide that theirs is a love that can never be, since Jerry feels tied to his wife, who depends upon him for everything, and hence cannot seek a divorce. He offers deep professions of love, she deep professions of gratitude. As Maria LaPlace penetratingly observes:
Although Charlotte is self-abasingly grateful for Jerry’s love and attention – a position which reaches its extreme in her words to him: ‘I’m such a fool, such an old fool. These are an old maid’s tears of gratitude for the crumbs offered her. No one ever called me darling before’6) – it is Jerry who exhibits his love for Charlotte and not the other way around. Jerry falls madly in love with Charlotte without any effort on her part; she is never seductive or flirtatious; he makes all the advances, all the requests to spend time together, speaks extravagant words of love to her: “I’m head over heels in love with you.” “I can’t get you out of mind or heart.” Charlotte never even tells Jerry she loves him.7
As the ship disembarks in New York, the dazzling new Charlotte comes down the ramp surrounded by a cluster of tall, handsome, single, rich men who would like to see her again. From being the Ugly Duckling, Charlotte, through the kind ministrations of two men (Jaquith and Jerry), is now the possessor of every man she meets, and the envy of every woman. Her sister-in-law and niece, meeting her at the dock, are amazed and impressed. This ability to attract men is a crucial acquisition of Charlotte’s – but it gradually becomes clear that she is less interested in using it to attract a potential mate than to impress all the women around her. Maria LaPlace again:
Charlotte cannot gain her sanity without clear-cut male approval; she must be seen, desired and pursued as an attractive and sexually viable woman. When Charlotte returns to Boston, she returns in triumph. . . . “There was no lady on this cruise as popular as you,” the cruise director tells her. Lisa and June are dumbfounded by the change not only in her looks but in her status as desirable object. . . . The rewards of stylishness and good grooming seem to be universal love and admiration.8
She is rehabilitated with both sexes; her status and power are clear for all to see; she has definitively escaped the prison of mother-persecution and self-persecution in which she was immured.
Her outraged mother immediately orders her to get her back into her frumpy wardrobe, unattractive hairdo, and hideous spectacles. This is the definitive, horrifying statement of Mrs Vale’s tyrannical project of keeping her daughter ugly, miserable, and completely under control. But Charlotte will not surrender, and now, as she stands before her Dickensian bad parent, she presents a figure very gratifying to the viewer. So that battle is on the way to being won. But Charlotte’s relationship with Jerry remains problematical. When they meet by chance, Jerry – ever self-denying – apologizes profoundly for having entangled her in an affair he, a married man, cannot pursue. Charlotte assures him that she has learnt much from their relationship, and once more expresses her gratitude. Now Charlotte receives a proposal of marriage from the most eligible widower in Boston, one Elliot Livingston (John Loder). He is from a family as old and aristocratic as the Vales, he is tall and handsome, mature and tender, he is kindness and attentiveness itself. She does not love him, but she decides to marry him anyway. Her oft-stated fundamental desire to have a house and a child of her own may be fulfilled through him. But this too will not come to pass. Instead, she runs into Jerry at a social function, and he once more pours his heart out to her. She is moved, and they kiss. That is the end for Livingston. When she informs her mother she has broken the engagement, they quarrel bitterly, and Charlotte accuses her mother of being a terrible parent – and this brings on a fatal stroke or heart attack. “I killed her,” the distraught Charlotte keeps repeating.
Guilt and confusion drive her back to Jaquith’s clinic. Not much needs to be done for her, it transpires. But she finds Jerry’s daughter Tina is being treated there, on Charlotte’s own earlier recommendation. They are finding Tina a tough case who is not responding to treatment. Charlotte is drawn to Tina as to a magnet: unattractive costume and glasses, on the verge of a nervous breakdown from lack of confidence and self-loathing – in other words, Charlotte herself as a daughter. (The glasses are a particularly telling point: Tina seems to have inherited exactly the window-pane variety that Charlotte herself used to wear.) Now she has the most fortunate opportunity to minister to the girl as she herself had never been. Begging a slightly miffed Jaquith to allow her to take up residence in the clinic and take Tina on as personal case, Charlotte can now become, in addition to the Good Mother, the healing physician as well. She is replacing Tina’s own mother, a character never seen but universally reviled by viewers, and also Dr Jaquith, her own Good Father substitute – and also to a considerable extent Tina’s real father. She will author Tina completely. Her efforts are rewarded. Tina is still desperate to speak and be with her absent father, but now becomes very happy under Charlotte’s concentrated attentions. Next Charlotte proposes that Tina come home to live with her. When Jerry is consulted, he passionately refuses the move – he can never allow Charlotte to sacrifice herself for his child. Charlotte has to explain to him that it is no sacrifice for her. If she cannot have Jerry, she says, she can have a child of Jerry’s – it will be their child. But she can only undertake this task if Jerry will agree to end their relationship. Tina will be Jerry’s gift to Charlotte, and, as they stand on the terrace under the night sky, she famously intones: “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon – we have the stars!”
We have to recognize that this ending, ostensibly a sacrificial one, is in reality not any kind of a sacrifice for Charlotte. It is instead a story of a woman becoming completely free and independent. To recapitulate, Charlotte has first of all rehabilitated her self-belief (with the help of Jaquith) and her feminine beauty (with the help of Lisa); then fully explored her new ability to attract men and to engage in a serious quasi-romantic relationship with one (Jerry). Upon returning home, she demonstrates her attractiveness to men as the hard currency of her woman’s power, and is now highly respected by everyone. Then she “kills” her mother and inherits the Vale mansion and almost all of the large Vale property. Returning to Jaquith’s clinic and taking up Tina as a patient, she demonstrates that she can be a more successful psychiatrist than Jaquith himself. Finally, she takes possession of Tina as her own daughter while shucking off Jerry both as a potential mate and as an actual co-parent.
Her final state is one in which she is free of everything and everybody. She has no binding ties with her two male rescuers. She has her own house and her own child, and she doesn’t have to be bothered with an emotionally demanding and not all that much desired relationship with a man. Standing back, it simply appears as though, in the end, she has ruthlessly disburdened herself of everything except precisely what she wants: independence, a house, a child. This is not a typical woman’s romance, it is a woman’s anti-romance. LaPlace sums up her own reading:
[Charlotte has] the desire for autonomy, independence and mastery, which is strongly linked to the Bette Davis image. This is structured in much the same way it is in women’s fiction, by a specifically female narrative trajectory: the separation from the mother and the achievement of an independent identity as a ‘healthy’ mature woman. Thus, although on one level Charlotte’s cure comes through beauty and the help of men, on another level it is through moments of female self-creation, when she is the agent of her own desire, moments when she asserts herself against authority and exhibits her strength and independence.9
Charlotte has disencumbered herself – or rather the film has created the circumstances for this disburdenment. What extreme knots the plot ties itself into to effect this truly happy ending!
A quick x-ray overview shows the situation at its simplest:
- Jerry is married.
- Jerry refuses to get a divorce because his wife is too dependent on him.
- Charlotte attracts the most desirable suitor in town and then turns him down.
- Charlotte frees herself from her mother while assuming ownership of the family home and the family money.
- Jerry has a child whom Charlotte can take possession of and rescue.
- Charlotte can appropriate this child while simultaneously making the condition that her father essentially disappear from the scene, forever.
- Charlotte can end the relationship and the movie with a ringing line (“let’s not ask for the moon”) that means precisely nothing but serves to enfold her and Jerry in a perfumed cloud of sentiment and fake self-sacrifice so that she can make a safe getaway while still appearing to be selfless.
Meanwhile, throughout all this, viewers have been asking themselves: When are Charlotte and Jerry going to become a couple? Surely all difficulties will be swept away at the end and they will be free to marry? Surely Jerry’s wife could succumb to a sudden case of influenza or some other fatal mischance? But no, the plot insists on arbitrarily placing the helpless, demanding, deeply unsympathetic unseen wife as a definitive roadblock for a Charlotte-and-Jerry marriage. She exists only to prevent Jerry from marrying Charlotte. Likewise, Tina arrives with the perfect specifications to be Charlotte’s motherly object, and to allow Charlotte finally to mother herself. Jerry himself has to be defined in such a way as to be strong enough to attract Charlotte but weak enough to be overpowered by a sense of obligation to his distant rotten wife so that he need never be paid back for the gift of his love to Charlotte. That is a lot of intricate arranging and deck-stacking. Despite the insight of a few viewers like LaPlace, the narrative’s true purpose of allowing the heroine to shed potential obligations that in most romances would not be obligations remains hidden, and it can even claim (plausibly to most viewers) to be a bittersweet story of self-sacrifice.10
One might note, especially in the context of psychoanalysis that is so explicitly instrumental in the early parts of the story, that a particular family romance is being enacted in the film. In the first place, all the men in the film are very sympathetic. Jaquith and Jerry are there to rescue Charlotte from misery and Livingston to boost her worth on the social stock exchange. (That last point is even made explicit when Charlotte is saying a final goodbye to him: “You’ll meet someone – thank you for thinking it was me. I have that on my record, anyway.” [emphasis added]). They are all splendid chaps. Jaquith is clearly presented as a benevolent father figure to poor Charlotte from the outset, and is heavily contrasted with her despotic mother. It is easy to see this pattern as reflecting a kind of young girl’s (Electral) fantasy.11 Her father is never home – perhaps he’s off at work all the time – but when he is home he is kind and loving and admires her crafts and calls her his beautiful little princess and thinks she is talented and intelligent. On the other hand, her mother is always home, and always on her case, criticizing her and controlling her and refusing to let her grow up, and especially refusing to let her be attractive and seductive. Even the ultra-romantic Jerry can be reconfigured as a father to Charlotte, as in the following syllogism: Jerry = Tina’s father; Tina = young Charlotte; therefore Jerry = Charlotte’s father. Father is good, and Mother is bad. Charlotte’s actual mother is such an extreme form of the tyrannical older woman that she is almost a caricature. The judgment of the guild of women can also be harsh, and demonstratively represented by the casually humiliating behaviour of Charlotte’s niece June (Bonita Granville), and even June’s later gushing enthusiasm for her aunt is a marker of how superficial these women’s judgments are. None of the men in the film would ever act, or even think, so insultingly. And then there is Jerry’s wife – a figure even more contemptible than Charlotte’s mother. There are a couple of marginal exceptions – her sister-in-law is kind and helpful, and can offer an insider’s knowledge in remodeling Charlotte specifically for the eyes of judgmental women, and so is the wife she meets on the boat. But the general paradigm is sound.
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This comparison shows Dark Victory to be conservative, and Now, Voyager to be liberal, on the question of how women can achieve lasting satisfaction. Of course, in Dark Victory one must finesse the fact of Judith’s death as the subtextual penalty that she must suffer for taking up the socially conventional role of a submissive helpmeet. She has lost her hateful freedom, but it catches up with her in the end anyway. Meanwhile Now, Voyager needs, really, no subtextual reading. Its path is clear – a path of empowerment and the ruthless appropriation and/or disposal of Tina and Jerry. The irony is that the film has still the reputation of a great romantic narrative. Jerry’s lighting of two cigarettes was a famous romantic gesture at the time, and the final “let’s not ask for the moon when we have the stars” continues to reverberate as a grand, heartbreaking renunciation that disguises the movie as a typical woman’s melodrama where the heroine has to sacrifice the thing she wants most because of social convention. As we have seen, however, Charlotte does not have to sacrifice anything. It is others who sacrifice – her mother, Jerry, Eliot – while Charlotte has conducted a brilliant series of Napoleonic manoeuvres to get exactly what she wants. Nothing of this is hidden – it is all right there. But there are a flurry of distractions, not least the ones provided by the stereotypes of the romantic melodrama that are brought to the film by viewers and manipulated with great skill by Charlotte.
In the end, these films provide once more the fascinating spectacle of the completely different ideological work that is undertaken through the arrangement and rearrangement of classical genre narrative conventions. The debate in ideology concerning where, and how, a woman can achieve freedom and satisfaction is bracketed here by complementary solutions, without anyone making speeches on the subject. Of course, a number of things are missing: there are no issues of material sustenance (both heroines are from well-to-do backgrounds), the protagonists are not caught in a cruel trap of conflicting necessities, the narratives proceed essentially without the kind of scandal, or threatened scandal, that powers so many narratives. Perhaps these absences allow the two films to proceed with greater focus on their central topic. And together they bracket perhaps the most central issue in women’s genre cinema of the era.
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All images are screenshots from the DVDs.
- Pam Cook, “Melodrama and the Women’s Picture,” in Marcia Landy, Imitations of Life: A Reader in Film and Television Melodrama (Detroit: Wayne State University Press 1991), p. 254. [↩]
- Molly Haskell. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Third Edition. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition, loc. 2830. [↩]
- Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press 1993), pp. 300-301. [↩]
- Davis and Brent embarked on a lengthy affair during the shooting of Dark Victory. [↩]
- Maria LaPlace, “Producing and Consuming the Woman’s Film: Discursive Struggle in Now, Voyager,” in Christine Gledhill, Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (London: British Film Institute 1987), p. 150. [↩]
- This is not strictly true, as there is a flashback early in the film that shows a young Charlotte and a ship’s officer necking in one of the lifeboats. “We’re going to be married,” the fellow protests, as the two are severely separated by Charlotte’s mother and the ship’s captain. One imagines that in that context Charlotte might have been called “darling.” (It is perhaps of interest that both of the heroine’s romances occur on ships. [↩]
- LaPlace, pp. 144-5. [↩]
- LaPlace, p. 145. [↩]
- LaPlace, p. 161. [↩]
- This is reminiscent of the ending of the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, where Bea sends off the perfect man in order to devote herself more fully to her daughter. [↩]
- Freud’s idea of the female’s “negative” Oedipal situation is based on the notion of “the girl’s attraction to the father and hostility towards the mother” (Jill Scott, Electra After Freud [Cornell University Press 2005], p. 2. Pam Cook speaks of “the heroine’s desire to take the place of the mother” as a feature of the genre of women’s melodrama (p. 250). Certainly it is Charlotte’s wish to take the place of her mother. [↩]