Archive for February 22, 2018

Sweet Charlotte

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2018 by dcairns

This is how it began —

I posted something on narrative structure here, and regular Shadowplayer and honorable copy-editor (thanks!) Chris Schneider asked on Facebook for my thoughts on NOW, VOYAGER, going so far as to wonder if I’d seen it. I hadn’t! Why not? Answer to follow…

For the record, the film is based, fairly faithfully, I suspect, on a novel (by Stella Dallas scribe Olive Higgins Prouty [I know — that NAME!]), and novels seem to attempt, and often get away, with far baggier and more varied structures than plays and films, probably because they’re not designed to be consumed at one sitting. So NV, while certainly divisible into a set-up, development and resolution, but these in turn are composed of a lot of overlapping movements, with different themes progressing at different rates. This is, in many ways, a better way of doing structure than the Syd Field paint-by-numbers method.

NOW, VOYAGER has one overarching issue — Charlotte Vale’s quest for happiness. But happiness is a complex thing.

In what we can take to be Act I, we meet Charlotte at her lowest ebb, dominated by her vicious old bat of a mother, and suffering under eye-glasses and out of control eyebrows that look like two friendly caterpillars roosting on her brow. I’m only going to show one image of her in this section because it’s not a good look, even as a bad look. The character is also supposed to be overweight but absolutely no effort seems to have been made to suggest this.

This introductory section also features a moderately long flashback, eminently cuttable, one would think, depicting Charlotte’s first romance, with a radio operator on an ocean voyage, savagely quashed by mom. This first movement/act is over within twenty minutes.

One very unusual thing about the movie is that, from here on, things start getting better — there are dips in Charlotte’s fortune, but she never again seems to be in danger of relapsing into her original mousey nightmare. Her eyebrows remain shapely. Rather than this resulting in an intolerable dramatic slackening, it makes us feel good. We’re relieved that bit’s over with, and we’re interested to see what will happen next.

Charlotte goes into therapy, gets a makeover, goes on another ocean voyage, and meets another man, Paul Henreid (typecast as “another man”). He’s unavailable, but this doesn’t stop them enjoying a pretty definitely sexual relationship — and neither of them has to die as a result. Warners definitely took a more progressive approach to the woman’s picture than MGM or any other studio.

Her holiday over, Charlotte returns to mother — this is around the halfway point — and kills her by telling the truth. The nasty old thing has such a conceit of herself that a single grain of truth is absolutely, instantly fatal. This takes us to the ninety minute mark in this two-hour movie. Believing herself to be headed for another breakdown (but we don’t really think it’ll be that bad) she heads back to her shrink (I forget to say, he’s Claude Rains) but instead she basically adopts Paul Henreid’s neglected daughter, who reminds her of herself at that age. This will form a connection back to him, though the movie tries to convince us that the relationship will be all very proper (the stars) rather than sexual (the moon). Actually, the famous last line is about happiness, which should be embraced even if it’s incomplete.

So, the problem of happiness is introduced, wrestled with, and semi-resolved. Along the way, two antagonists are introduced, the wire mother, and Henreid’s awful wife, never glimpsed, but described vividly by Lee Patrick, who was Sam Spade’s secretary and so can be trusted. (There must be a MALTESE FALCON-related thematic reason for her tiny cameo in that other San Francisco detective drama, VERTIGO.) Mom gets offed at the act two curtain, whereas the invisible Mrs Henreid cannot be bested as she has no corporeal form in the movie, but that means she can be more or less ignored. She’s a sort of implacable barrier to full happiness, but with the help of Claude (who knows all about invisibility) there’s a satisfactory workaround.

BUT

This is also how it all began —

 

I picked up Michael Curtiz’ THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX for £1 in a charity shop (how we know Blu-Rays are fully ascendant: you can get DVDs second-hand for 25p) and Fiona was enthusiastic about seeing Errol & Bette, or, as she put it, “a Bette Davis Misbehaves Double Bill.” But we couldn’t make it through TPLOEAE. The Technicolor was nice (but I prefer Curtiz in b&w) and the Anton Grot sets. But there were not ENOUGH sets. Being a play, the damn thing hangs about in one room for ages, and though the crazy perspective on the painted ceiling is SICK, one gets tired of it after twenty minutes. Or forty minutes. You can’t stare at a ceiling forever, as Bette could tell you.

Smoking is sex intercourse.

So we switched to NOW, VOYAGER (also shot by Sol Polito, see yesterday’s post for more) and had a rare old time. Fiona declared it to be tosh, but brilliantly enjoyable tosh. Why hadn’t we seen it before? Fiona had no explanation, and mine would be sheer auteurist snobbery. Curtiz is kind of an auteur, though one who dispenses with “recurring thematic concerns” and settles for beautiful visuals. Irving Rapper isn’t much praised as an auteur, but he directs the hell out of this thing, and proves a very clear channel for the Warners house style (the BEST house style). For whatever reason, the whole “genius of the system” thing works best when Warners is used as example.

Also — a Max Steiner score I can really get behind. I especially liked how the love theme really WAS a love theme, unheard until Henreid appears (with Franklin Pangborn playing Cupid) and  only tentatively and after a decent delay then. It’s a very tentative theme, in fact, all hesitation, moving forward in little shivering surges. Which is what makes it so damned romantic, and so right for this film and these characters.

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