Director – Irving Rapper – 1942 – US – Cert. PG – 117m
A woman must overcome mental illness caused by her overbearing mother – out in cinemas on Friday, August 6th
The wealthy Vale family from Boston invites Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) to meet their youngest daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis) to see if he can do anything with her. Failing to get matriarch Mrs. Henry Vale (Gladys Cooper) to introduce him without his title, he presses Charlotte to show him round the house, including her room. There, she keeps a library in which are hidden forbidden books, smokes illicitly and makes ornate boxes with ivory decoration. Years of living with her domineering mother have given Charlotte a problem with her own self-image.
Jaquith has Charlotte stay at his rest home, then instead of returning to Boston has her take the place of her sister Lisa (Ilka Chase) on a cruise to Rio de Janeiro on which she meets and falls for married man Jeremiah ‘Jerry’ Durrance known to his friends as JD (Paul Heinreid), whose absent wife dominates one of his daughters Tina back home much as Charlotte’s mother dominated her. The pair spend time together in Brazil during which they are involved in a car accident in which no-one is injured.
By the time her sister and niece June (Bonita Granville) meet her in NY, Charlotte is the most popular person on the ship – a changed woman, in fact, friendly with lots of men. Back in Boston, a romance ensues with wealthy socialite Elliot Livingstone (John Loder), but she can’t get JD out of her mind. Then on a return visit to Dr. Jaquith’s rest home she meets JD’s daughter Tina (Janis Wilson), now staying as one of his patients, and becomes first her carer then the loving mother neither has ever had.
This holds up remarkably well after 80 years. That may in part be because it’s dealing with subject matter which at the time may not have had the understanding, words or vocabulary to describe it but which today we would. In a nutshell, this is about a form of child abuse: a married woman gives birth to many children then, late in life, has a final child she never wanted. She sees the child as someone who can care for her in old age, forces her own personality and values upon the child refusing to allow her the room to grow up and find her own way in life. It’s effectively a form of slavery within the family. No-one helps her and she becomes a family joke, the spinster aunt, constantly and cruelly teased by her unthinking niece June.
Our first glimpse of Charlotte is hands emptying cigarette ash into a bin then hiding the dirty ashtray in a drawer, a dirty secret that mustn’t be discovered. She comes out of herself and blossoms thanks to a series of men and the generous gift of a cruise from her sister. Dr. Jaquith teaches her to believe in herself at a fundamental level, her romance with JD affects her emotional core while her engagement, later broken off, to Livingstone sees her learning to assert herself in ways in which she would not previously have been able.
Davis is superb first as the self-doubting daughter whose free will has been curtailed at every turn then as the individual struggling to find herself even as demons from her past do their utmost to stop her in her tracks and ultimately as the woman who, having beaten those demons, is able to help someone else experiencing a similar plight. The script is subtle enough to allow her to feel she isn’t good enough to wear a fabulous evening gown her sister supplies for her on the cruise and to experience guilt that she is responsible for her mother’s death which occurs as the two of them have a heated argument.
Cooper perfectly captures the matriarch who thinks her daughter owes her something. The supporting cast are tremendous: the brusque, professional Rains genuinely wants to improve people’s lives, leading man Heinreid has real chemistry with Davis in their scenes together in a way that the likeable Loder, the man Charlotte plans to marry but doesn’t really love, doesn’t.
The narrative takes you from the Vale house in Boston to the rest home, then on a cruise to Rio with a brief adventure in the Brazilian countryside before returning first to Boston with its heroine a changed woman and her mother, harsh as ever, dying of ill health and firing home help nurses by the dozen as she goes before, finally, ending up back at the rest home where Charlotte meets then gets to know Tina.
It ends in a place you don’t expect, with a promise of better things to come tempered by the realisation that things in life can’t always be perfect. As Charlotte puts it to JD, “don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” It’s as effective an ending today as it must have been 80 years ago.
Now, Voyager is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, August 6th.