Psychiatry Films from AMHF: “Now, Voyager” (1942)

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Thoughtful, caring: The ultimate analyst as shaman

Now, Voyager is the second “psychiatry film” in this series of blogs on movies with themes or characters that are relevant to the mission of AMHF. Released almost seventy years ago (October 22, 1942), Now, Voyager, which gets its title from lines in a poem by Walt Whitman (“The Untold Want”), was something of a milestone in the career of Bette Davis. More to the point, though thought of as a weepie, the movie has important things to say about the power of psychoanalysis in the character of Dr. Jaquith, commandingly portrayed by Claude Rains.

The relatively complex plot, from Wikipedia, follows.

Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) is an unattractive, overweight, repressed spinster whose life is dominated by her dictatorial mother (Gladys Cooper), an aristocratic Boston dowager whose verbal and emotional abuse of her daughter has contributed to the woman’s complete lack of self-confidence. Fearing Charlotte is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase) introduces her to psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who recommends she spend time in his sanatorium.

Away from her mother’s control, Charlotte blossoms. The transformed woman, at Lisa’s urging, opts to take a lengthy cruise rather than immediately return home. On board ship, she meets a married man, Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid), who is traveling with his friends Deb (Lee Patrick) and Frank McIntyre (James Rennie). It is from them that Charlotte learns of Jerry’s devotion to his young daughter, Christine (“Tina”), and how it keeps him from divorcing his wife, a manipulative, jealous woman who keeps Jerry from engaging in his chosen career of architecture, despite the fulfillment he gets from it.

Charlotte and Jerry become friendly, and in Rio de Janeiro the two are stranded on Sugarloaf Mountain when their car crashes. They miss the ship and spend five days together before Charlotte flies to Buenos Aires to rejoin the cruise. Although they have fallen in love, they decide it would be best not to see each other again.

When she arrives home, Charlotte’s family is stunned by the dramatic changes in her appearance and demeanor. Her mother is determined to regain control over her daughter, but Charlotte is resolved to remain independent. The memory of Jerry’s love and devotion help to give her the strength she needs to remain resolute.

Charlotte becomes engaged to wealthy, well-connected widower Elliot Livingston (John Loder), but after a chance meeting with Jerry, she breaks off the engagement, about which she quarrels with her mother. Her mother becomes so angry that she has a heart attack and dies. Guilty and distraught, Charlotte returns to the sanatorium.

When she arrives, she is immediately diverted from her own problems when she meets lonely, unhappy Tina, who greatly reminds her of herself; both were unwanted and unloved by their mothers. She is shaken out of her depression and instead becomes interested in Tina’s welfare. With Dr. Jaquith’s permission she takes the girl under her wing. When she improves, Charlotte takes her home to Boston.

Jerry and Dr. Jaquith visit the Vale home, where Jerry is delighted to see the changes in his daughter. While he initially pities Charlotte, believing her to be settling in her life, he’s taken aback by her acid contempt for his initial condescension. Dr. Jaquith has agreed to allow Charlotte to keep Tina there with the understanding that her relationship with Jerry will remain platonic. She tells Jerry that she sees Tina as his gift to her and her way of being close to him. When Jerry asks her if she’s happy, Charlotte finds much to value in her life and if it isn’t everything she would want, tells him, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars,” a line ranked number 46 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes in American cinema.

There is so much going on in this film, it is impossible to reduce the plot to “the beneficial effects of psychoanalysis on a seriously repressed personality.” The relationship between Charlotte and her domineering mother takes center stage, and is reflected in a subplot involving Charlotte and the young Tina. Jerry remains a bit of a cad from one point of view; yet, his influence on Charlotte is positive. She is out of her shell when they chance to meet. But it is Jerry who informs the rest of Charlotte’s life.

We see little of the actual methodology of Dr. Jaquith. In many ways, like the Marlon Brando character in Don Juan DeMarco, Claude Rains’s doctor-portrayal is almost as unrealistically indulgent and thoughtful on a single patient: Dr. Jaquith is an idealized psychiatrist, a magician of sorts.

As a study of the transforming power of analysis, the film is a little less believable in the first part, since (unlike Don Juan DeMarco), the viewer is privy to little of the psychiatrist’s methodology. Charlotte essentially blooms offscreen. Later, however, Charlotte’s ability to take Tina under her wing and provide her with the emotional backbone and stability that she (Charlotte) had lacked in the relationship with her own (eventually, and thankfully, deceased) mother—the Gladys Cooper character—show the possibilities of soulful growth thanks to, but clearly beyond, Dr. Jaquith’s techniques (whatever they were) and influence.

Overall, Now, Voyager remains one of the most astonishingly inspired and inspiring films ever made on the hope-filled, positive effects of psychiatry.

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