…beautiful, blind and dying, plants the hyacinth bulbs in DARK VICTORY ; expires in the throes of syphilis in OF HUMAN BONDAGE; crazed for drink smashes open the cocktail cabinet in DANGEROUS; watches Herbert Marshall die on the stairs in THE LITTLE FOXES; goes bananas in the witness box in BORDERTOWN… . The First Lady of the Screen had so many extraordinary moments during a career of over 50 years that LW hardly knows where to begin. Let’s draw a bow at a venture and watch Bette at her zenith in one of her smoothest, most satisfying pictures NOW,VOYAGER (1942): a great cast, capable director & thrilling Max Steiner score, not to mention the leading lady’s lifelong approval of the finished product (very rare).
Fascinating movie: a glossy smoothly- buffed soap opera with a veneer of Hollywood’s then obsession with psychology & psychoanalysis. (What prompted this trend anyway? The trauma of the Second World War?). Or is NOW, VOYAGER in fact the other away about – an entire medical library of neuroses dressed up in Orry Kelly couture and sprays of camellias? My DVD bears the incomprehensible caveat “contains mild sexualised nudity”. In fact there IS no nudity, sexualised or otherwise, but there are a great many pools of dark deep water. Electra complexes¤, eating disorders, constant drinking – alcohol used as a crutch*/ “pre-drinking” – frustrated sexuality, mental sadism, broken marriages, adultery, unwanted pregnancies, unlimited guilt.
NOW, VOYAGER is also a vast chocolate box of soft centre wish-fulfilment. Davis as the unkempt and sexually repressed spinster Charlotte Vale – ” ‘introverted, Doctor ‘” – in the grip of a nervous breakdown is transformed by psychiatrist Claude Rains (and unlimited money) into a glamorous femme du monde**. Furnished with trunks of stunning gowns Charlotte is sent on a cruise to Brazil*** where she is seduced by purring, sensitive, unhappily married Jerry (Paul Henried). In one of the many mirror images of the narrative we see that this is the second memorable cruise of Charlotte’s life: as an attractive girl she was deflowered by a ship’s officer and subsequently imprisoned – actually + emotionally – at home by her monstrous mother, Gladys Cooper•. In South America, Charlotte’s incandescent sexual fulfillment is thwarted once again, but now she sublimates her love for Jerry in caring for his highly disturbed daughter – in whom of course she sees herself as a child. At which point the movie becomes weirdly familiar as we recall similar plots and themes from other Davis hits which revolve around tormented or problematic motherhood, both actual and surrogate: THE OLD MAID, THE GREAT LIE, WATCH ON THE RHINE, ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, THAT CERTAIN WOMAN, THE CORN IS GREEN, THE CATERED AFFAIR,THE NANNY, THE ANNIVERSARY…there are others.•• One may not immediately associate Bette Davis with maternity# yet it is a theme that dominated both her private and artistic life: one of her quasi-autobiographies is entitled ‘Mother Goddam’ – “I have often called myself this to my children”. No other of the great female stars played mothers in such great diversity and quantity. Was this one secret of Bette’s huge popularity, especially with female audiences? Davis later admitted to a series of abortions for the sake of her career before finally giving birth to a daughter – ‘B.D.’ – in 1946. This was the child (glimpsed as a teenage neighbour in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) who was to betray her mother in print at the very end.
Contemporary and later critics have carped that by 1942 every Davis performance had become an over-familiar exercise in mannerism and technique. Myself, I think she’s very much still on top form in NOW,VOYAGER which belongs to her golden age of performances covering a period of roughly eight years from 1935 : she was only 34 and still able to convince as the young Charlotte in flashback. The startling originality of vision, the freshness, zest, vast energy and attack are still there. And the thoroughness: she holds back nothing. She has the support of a sympathetic director and the energising tension (maybe also the competitive threat) of two highly magnetic and charismatic co-stars – Cooper## and Rains – who are more than capable of holding their own against her. Rains was the only actor (and they appeared in four films together) able to upstage Davis, as he does in the later grotesque – and highly diverting – melodrama DECEPTION (1946). And of course she loved him for it.
By the end of the War, however, Davis was ageing badly. Her tiny figure (5’2″) thickened, her notorious low-slung bosom became matronly and her face showed the strain of a personal and professional life of unremitting struggle and disappointment. She seemed to become exhausted by an inner fire of perpetual rage; and stimulated only by rare scripts such as ALL ABOUT EVE and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? which re-ignited her extraordinary electric talent. She burned out consumed by her own energy and thwarted creativity; and I think by a certain bafflement at her own vast talent and how best to express it within the constraints of her time and circumstances.
Everyone remembers the climactic shtik of NOW,VOYAGER: the two cigarettes, the moon and the stars. There are two additional leitmotifs which come from the original novel and are of particular interest to us students of fragrance.
” ‘ I have only a dried corsage and an empty bottle of perfume’ “. The flowers are Jerry’s camellias (his pet name for Charlotte is Camille, a nom de guerre resonant with tragic romance). The perfume is also gift from Jerry – “a slight offering” – after their first shore excursion: spent, with high irony, drinking and selecting gifts for his family. Much is made of this little bottle of scent: “A little bottle of perfume made me feel important…”
” ‘It’s a mixture of several kinds of flowers: it’s called Jolies Fleurs.’
‘I’ll put some on my handkerchief tonight’ “.
On her hanky, please note, not on herself. This may be 1942 but well-bred ladies from Boston are still not applying perfume directly onto the skin. (And we remember Bette as a colonial middle class Englishwoman in THE LETTER exhibiting a similar olfactory discretion). In fact on the ship-board night in question we do not see the perfume brought out; though the hanky is constantly on show, then and later. The scent itself is used to make a dramatic point a couple of reels further in when Charlotte is back in Boston coping with mum & the family; and being courted by a stuffy disapproving old widower. A bracing box of camellias arrives from Jerry (secret squirrels), and we watch Charlotte scenting her hair with the lightest touch of Jolies Fleurs as she dresses for the evening. The scent is her amulet, her talisman: like love, its magic spell is everywhere. Aren’t we all fortunate to be able to make use of it?
BETTE DAVIS 1908 – 1989
¤ not one but THREE problematic mother/daughter relationships: one playful but sinister – “you’ve heard of us? June and December?”; the other two a life & death struggle for existence.
* ” ‘…and because of the drink she lost her inhibitions…..I sound very depraved, don’t I?’ ”
** but Charlotte’s hair is still very tightly secured by numerous combs, and the elementary symbolism of the sequinned butterflies on her evening cloak is much discussed. Everything in old Hollywood pictures has a meaning, as it does in a medieval painting: the greatest difference, perhaps, between vintage cinema and that of today.
*** Latin America: another 1940’s movie obsession on account of the loss of the European cinema market during WW2.
• It is discreetly implied that Mrs Vale’s own sex life was distinctly chilly.
•• one might also reflect on the mother/daughter relationship of Margo Channing + Eve Harrington. Unless you are one of those who see their bond as essentially lesbian?
# contrary-wise, there is always the reference to her perpetual smoking: yet so many of her greatest hits have not a cigarette in sight. Start with all those costume pictures and keep counting.
## please take note of Gladys’s nurse: “‘Pickford’s the name. Dora, not Mary’ “. She’s played by Mary Wickes who had one of the longest careers in the movies: she’s the pawky old nun in all those SISTER ACT epics.