by Evander Lomke on
A wonderful movie was made in 1942. The critics at the time considered it a standard “weepie.” Yet, the film Now, Voyager, has stood the test of time. Why?
The title is taken from a short and obscure lyric by Walt Whitman, a two-liner almost of a type out of the still-to-be-developed Imagist School, on the unfulfilled want. Desire. Desire is certainly one of the great motivating emotions of the human world.
But this film is much more. Like The Snakepit, which was made several years later in the same decade, Now, Voyager, centers on a theme of psychoanalysis. Specifically, this movie–starring Bette Davis (Charlotte Vale), Claude Rains (analyst Dr. Jasquith), and Paul Henreid (Jerry Durrance)–is The Ugly Duckling story with a modern analytic twist.
Charlotte is a homely, painfully shy, even antisocial, upper-crust New Englander who lives under the roof and thumb of her sadistic mother. Enter Dr. Jasquith. Through intensive analysis, Charlotte is transformed into a beauty with stunning grace and poise. Liberated, she falls in love with Jerry Durrance, who is married and has a daughter with issues similar to Charlotte’s. Everything works out, to some degree, by the conclusion of the film. (Undoubtedly, the Hays Office diluted the central relationships; the story is taken from a novel. But the contours of the story are clear.)
The movie touches on a number of relevant themes. One of the most important: Could psychoanalysis have such a transformative power? Dr. Jasquith is no Victor Frankenstein. Dr. Jasquith cannot create a new person virtually ex nihilo. Truth is, the real Charlotte was always inside her. It takes a talented psychiatrist to reveal the reality within, the core-human within–desire and spirit are unfettered. In her case, Charlotte was suppressed by a jealous, manipulative parent until Dr. Jasquith came along. Charlotte is helped to such a degree that not only could she act decisively and form a meaningful relationship, she could also help a young woman overcome many of the same emotional problems. As the movie begins, the idea that Charlotte would be in a position to help anyone would be laughable.
As played by Claude Rains, Dr. Jasquith is the ultimate film psychiatrist. Unrealistic? To a degree. The process of analysis can be terribly painful. It does not always work, as it does for Charlotte; certainly, not within the confines of a two-hour Hollywood movie. Most analysts could never be the perfect father or mother figure, the God-like figure we secretly crave. But Dr. Jasquith has an uncanny eye and an intelligence that transcends his immediate circumstances.
Now, Voyager, does not delve into the nitty-gritty of analysis–issues involving transference and countertransference for example. What it does beautifully is show, almost as a parable would, how analysis at its best and most effective could change the world for one individual. As the individual’s world is changed, so is the world in which she lives.
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