Sweet Charlotte

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.


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.

10 Responses to “Sweet Charlotte”

  1. Irving Rapper directed my all-time-favorite Bette Davis Tosh-O-Rama, “Deception” — in which she gets to shoot Claude Rains with all the fervor she utilized in the opening scene of Wyler’s “The Letter.” Irving started out as a “dialogue coach” and graduated to director. He was a Big Ol’ Gay Homosexual and nearly made it to 100. I tried to get in touch with him for my Gay Hollywood book but he was “resting comfortably” in preparation for The Big Nap. His last two films were “The Christine Jorgensen Story” — a rather stolid sortie through her not uninteresting life — and “Born Again” –a biopic of Watergate conspirator Charles Colson who discovered God while in prison and sought to spread the fertilizer afterward. It starred Dean Jones who discovered God while starring on Sondheim’s “Company” — leaving that Den of Musical Iniquity shortly afterwards for reasons unexplained (but guessed.)

    What I love most about “Now Voyager” are the scene with Jerry’s kid being brought out of depression and into Life by Bette. It’s a flashback without an actual flashback of her character’s youth — but with a happy ending.

  2. David Wingrove Says:

    And I spent years of my life thinking *I* was the only person whose favourite Bette Davis movie was DECEPTION! Isn’t it glorious? I prefer it to NOW, VOYAGER because it never once tries to be elevating or ennobling.

    David Ehrenstein, perhaps we are the same person and don’t know it. Now there’s a terrifying thought!

  3. I have Deception but for some unaccountable reason haven’t watched it. I think Fiona will want to complete her interrupted double bill.

  4. We were likely twins in another life Mr. Wingrove. Like The Malets (Laurent and Pierre)

  5. chris schneider Says:

    We should say, at least as far as the talent involved is concerned, that Gladys Cooper — the woman who plays Charlotte’s mother — was a stage star who had a huge success playing the lead in the stage version of Maugham’s THE LETTER. So there’s a bit of a generational conflict there … although Davis made a point of expressing her admiration for Cooper. The man who wrote the script for NOW, VOYAGER was Casey Robinson, who I think had a crucial role in forming the on-screen personality of Warners BD. He wrote IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER, DARK VICTORY, THE OLD MAID, ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, and THE CORN IS GREEN. The actress playing the daughter Tina, who for some reason is uncredited, is Janis Wilson.

    I think we should try to see Paul Henreid with pre-CASABLANCA eyes — even though Robinson contributed to the CASABLANCA script. I’d say that in VOYAGER he’s “the longed-for he” rather than someone’s second choice. Only circumstance won’t have it so, as Mr Peachum would say in THREEPENNY OPERA.

    Speaking of second choices … given that Max Steiner wrote the music for MILDRED PIERCE, I think it’s a bit poignant that when Mildred has her beach house fling with Zachary Scott that the record player is playing a version of “It Can’t Be Wrong.” In other words, Crawford canoodles to Bette Davis’s second-hand smooch music.

  6. Most literary adaptations in the classic era tended to adapt the novel into a play, and then shoot the play, so you hardly get that novelistic richness and texture of narrative density that you get from a literary structure. Great movies came from that, like Lean’s Dickens films, so it’s not a bad approach by default

    Stroheim tried, vainly to do differently with GREED, Welles went further with his Magnificent Ambersons but stumbled for the same reasons (though Citizen Kane is arguably more successful in evoking a novelistic texture on film), albeit the triumphant opening of Magnificent Ambersons is just like those great descriptive passages that 19th and early 20th Century books start with.

    Scorsese once mentioned that it was Truffaut’s Jules et Jim that really solved the problem. It adapts a novel into the film while being novelistic and not theatrical. And Visconti’s The Leopard’s famous ball sequence (which is way longer than what the book describes) went even further in using cinema to visually convey character interiority on-screen.

  7. chris schneider Says:

    Bette Davis said, in interview, that she imagined Charlotte winding up married to Dr. Jaquith (the Rains character). That makes sense to me.

    The next to last time that I saw it, I was touched by the way that Davis — calling Tina’s father — hesitated before speaking into the phone, so that she could have an extra moment hearing Henreid’s voice. This time I noted how completely Charlotte takes over young Tina’s life. I mean, we know it’s right ’cause it’s Davis and we’re rooting for her. But still, from the absent mother’s point of view … imagine one’s husband meeting a woman on a cruise and having her take over, pretty much immediately, the role of parent.

    Oh, and then there’s the Vale family fireplace. Gladys Cooper declares that it’s not to be used. Davis orders it lit up. Later Bonita Granville, a teenage Vale, and her friends are seen cooking hotdogs in it. Ah, Forties Freud!

  8. It seems kind of co-dependant, the way Davis takes over Tina’s life — not just her care, but her life. We never really see the girl form any other attachments, and though we’re rooting for Bette it’s always possible to be a little worried about Bette, especially where motherhood’s involved.

    Henreid really has the first-choice role in Deception, doesn’t he? We have to believe Bette merely settled for Claude.

    Jules et Jim gets away with its novelistic meandering (which Hitchcock fretted over) partly by having a really good song explaining that’s what life is like. The stop-start approach does make it feel a little longer than it is, but it’s central to the story.

  9. Hitchcock said he disliked costume pictures because he could never imagine the people in them going to the bathroom. In “Jules and Jim” one could definitely imagine everyone in it going to the bathroom. I was in high school when it opened stateside. All my friends and I loved it, and what we loved about it most the way it depicted the bohemia of the past that was totally congruent with our (then) present. It was very “beat.”

  10. Yes! I found it very identifiable as a schoolkid and student. And it’s an area where the film’s budgetary constraints, used with skill, really help it.

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