This week, I’m calling in a favor from FilmStruck and looking into some important films that I haven’t seen before. Both are amazing films, but not incredibly well-remembered the way some other films of the era are. This week’s films are:
Irving Rapper – Now, Voyager (1942)
William Wyler – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Now, Voyager is a bit forgotten, it came out the same year as Casablanca, and what film wouldn’t be overshadowed against that one. The Best Years of Our Lives is much more of a well-remembered classic, but I think unless you’re a film fan, it might be a bit more obscure.
But I haven’t seen either before, and I’ve always wanted to, so let’s get into it.
Now, Voyager (1942)
Charlotte is woman who never married. She’s homely, overweight (according to the standards of the time), and a laughing stock in her family. She spends most of her time in her room. Her mother is domineering, ordering her around, expecting her to act as a servant, being the youngest child. The lack of control in her own life causes Charlotte to have a nervous breakdown. Her doctor recognizes the issues and encourages her to live her own life. Charlotte goes on a long trip and becomes a completely different, more confident person. But what will she do with this new life?
The film stars Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, along with Claude Rains as the doctor. Of course, Henreid and Rains also co-starred in Casablanca, which was released the same year. It’s hard to separate these two films in my mind. I actually first learned of this film when exploring the special features of Casablanca. It’s a shame, because while this film isn’t the cultural juggernaut that is Casablanca, it is an excellent film, full of depth and rich characters with tough decisions.
Bette Davis is exceptional. She’s not remembered as a starlet, or a sex symbol, just an amazing actress, probably the best of her generation, and certainly among the best of all times. She goes through a serious journey in this film. In the first scenes, she’s playing a completely downtrodden woman. We don’t see her at first, only seeing her mother and would-be doctor, Dr. Jaquith, played by Claude Rains. Charlotte’s mother tells some backstory of Charlotte’s birth, that she was a late child, unexpected (and hinted that she was unwanted as well). Rains understands the issue immediately, and isn’t afraid to tell her mother that she is what’s causing Charlotte’s mood swings, and breakdowns.
We then see Charlotte. At first, we just get a long shot of her from far away, then a closeup. By Hollywood standards, she would be considered ugly. Thick, unkempt eyebrows, unattractive hairstyle, ill-fitting clothes, thick glasses, the film is telling is in a big neon sign that this is a woman who does not take care of her appearance.
When the doctor spends some time alone with her, we see how suspicious she is. She tells the doctor all her own perceived flaws before the doctor can. When he compliments her she refuses to accept it, finding some way to deflect it. Bette Davis completely embodies the character. In these early scenes, she can’t sit still. She fidgets with her hands, revealing her nervousness and anxiety without saying a thing. She reveals to the doctor a story of a trip with her mother where she met a man and fell in love. In this scene, we also see how much of a hold her mother has on her life. Charlotte sneaks away with her secret lover and kisses him, full of confidence, but when she’s around her mother, she’s a completely different person. Completely subservient. She can’t stand up to her, and her mother sees her as her property. Some might say she is well-meaning, but I don’t know that she’s even that. She just wants full control of Charlotte. When she sees Charlotte without her glasses, she demands she puts them back on immediately, then forces her to sit down and write letters with her, ignoring anything Charlotte might like to do.
Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Vale is a complex character, and along with Bette Davis, was nominated for an acting Oscar for this film. On the one hand, she’s kind of a monster. She’s completely selfish, expecting Charlotte to follow her every order, and never question her, or have a life of her own. She also makes it clear that as a late child, Charlotte was unwanted. But on the other hand, she feels somewhat betrayed herself. She says in the film that when she had a late child, she expected that the child would be her companion into her old age, and take care of her in her last years. She also has made Charlotte the main benefactor of her will. I don’t think any of this excuses her behavior, but I can see some audience members watching scenes where she explains herself, and nodding along. That’s what makes a good villain of course, and Cooper plays the role of the villain well.
Charlotte goes away to what is essentially a mental institution but looks more like a resort. We don’t really see Charlotte there, just the result, that she’s lost some weight, has learned she doesn’t need her glasses anymore. She’s starting to gain confidence. Her doctor and sister-in-law have concocted a plan to complete her recovery. Send her on a cruise by herself to relax and recharge and be around new people that aren’t her mother.
There’s a great reveal here where we see the new Charlotte for the first time. The shot starts at her legs, and moves up her body, revealing an almost entirely different person. Instead of the frumpy, unkempt Charlotte, we get the classy, refined woman she has become.
She immediately meets Jerry, played by Paul Henreid. Henreid seems like an actor that should be more famous than he actually is. He had memorable roles in this film and Casablanca, both released within a few months of each other, but after that, his filmography sort of peters out, dominated by mostly television directing late in his career. I did some research on this, and it appears he was a victim of the blacklisting in the 1950s after being investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
Here he is the smooth and romantic lead, meeting Charlotte and immediately befriending her, him being married with two children himself. In telling Charlotte about his children, she feels an immediate connection to Tina, his younger daughter, just looking at a picture of her. She sees herself in the girl, and finding out about her mother and how she controls her husband and daughter’s life proves her right.
The film is based on a book, so the plot is fairly complex, twisting an turning a bit, giving the characters plenty of time to develop. Charlotte initially refuses to accept that Jerry likes her, or wants her around, even though he is open and welcoming, even inviting her to spend time with his friends. She simply refuses to believe that anyone wants her around. But she slowly begins to accept things, even accepting an invitation to have dinner with Jerry and a friend of his at a port in Brazil. Unfortunately, along the way, the car they’re in falls a short distance off a cliff, stranding them for the night, and Charlotte misses the boat. She has the option to leave on a plane to catch the boat at the next stop the next morning, or the next week. She decides to stay with Jerry, where they admit they love each other. However, he won’t leave his wife and children.
They are separated, and Charlotte returns home a completely changed woman. Her young niece who used to abuse her regularly, is suddenly hanging on her every word, hoping some of her popularity rubs off on her. Charlotte’s biggest challenge is going back to her mother. Her mother, of course, doesn’t accept her new life. Even after having some health issues while Charlotte is gone, she has fired her nurse, expecting Charlotte to act as her nurse. She also gives Charlotte orders about her new room, right next to hers, along with what clothes to wear, having them altered to fit her new slimmer figure.
Charlotte pushes back a little bit, but it looks like Charlotte will succumb to her mother’s wishes. But her mother injures herself before a family gathering, and it is up to Charlotte to play host. She shines, and really comes into herself, shocking her family and asserting herself.
There’s a subplot here where she is engaged to a family friend for awhile, but ends up breaking it after encountering Jerry again. Honestly, the subplot kind of goes nowhere except to take up some additional screentime. It feels very much like a plot leftover from the book, that the filmmakers left in out of habit. The real story here is between Jerry and Charlotte.
When they re-encounter each other, Jerry is still in an unhappy marriage, and his youngest daughter Tina is still distraught. He’s planning on sending her to the same doctor that helped Charlotte. Seeing him again leads her to break off the engagement.
The broken engagement does lead to one plot point. After telling her mother about it, they fight. At this point in the film, Charlotte’s mother has essentially accepted her new lifestyle, but is angry that Charlotte is breaking the engagement. Her fiancee was from a well regarded family, even better regarded than their own, and makes the argument that Charlotte could have a child of her own. Charlotte tells her mother that if her love is what she can expect from motherly love, she wants nothing to do with it. After they fight, Charlotte’s mother has a heart attack and dies. Charlotte of course blames herself, and goes back to Dr. Jaquist.
But when she gets there, she encounters someone she didn’t expect, Tina, Jerry’s youngest daughter. She recognizes her immediately, and without telling her who she is, she befriends the girl. Tina is despondent. She is right where Charlotte was, but somehow worse, and younger. This sequence is what the film has been leading up to. Charlotte now knows how to help people in her situation, she not only knows how to help Tina, but she can finally experience a form of motherhood on her own terms. By experiencing this, she can finally become the woman she has always wanted to be.
This is a very deep and complex character study. Bette Davis is marvelous. No one in this era could act like her. She might not have been the best looking actress, or even the best remembered of her era, but I think any discussion of the greatest American actresses of all time has to include a long debate on where Bette Davis fits into the top 5.
Also, the young actress playing Tina is wonderful. The way she plays the broken, practically abandoned Tina is heartbreaking, and makes Bette Davis’ performance pulling her out of her shell all that more powerful.
Now, Voyager is an excellent film, but it’s complexity probably keeps it from being the type of film that is watched over and over by casual classic film fans.
Let’s get on to our next movie.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This film follows the lives of three veterans returning from World War II. Al, the oldest was a sergeant in the Army, coming home to his wife and two children. Fred was a captain in the Air Force, coming home to a wife that he married shortly before going to war. And Homer, the youngest, who was gravely injured in the war, losing both his hands, which have been replaced by hooks. He is coming home to his mother and father, and a fiancee who agreed to marry him before his injury. None of them have seen their families or friends for 3 years. How will they adjust to the new post-war reality?
The film is directed by William Wyler, whose name doesn’t have the same cachet as Hitchcock or Ford, but he was one of the biggest directors of his era, making Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, Funny Face, and Wuthering Heights, that we’ve covered here before. The film stars Frederic March, who we’ve also covered before, in Design For Living, as a much younger man, as Al, and Myrna Loy as his wife. Myrna Loy starred in The Thin Man series, that I will definitely cover soon. Dana Andrews plays Fred, and Harold Russell plays Homer. The film also includes a personal favorite of mine, Hoagy Carmichael. Carmichael is a piano player first, who wrote Stardust, one of the most famous songs of all time. During the 40s and 50s, he had a few small parts in films playing a character who inevitably played piano. In this film he plays Butch, a bar owner and Homer’s uncle. Carmichael is from Bloomington, Indiana, the town I live in now, and it’s nice to see him on screen.
Probably the most interesting member of the cast is Russell, who isn’t actually an actor, he’s a serviceman who actually lost both of his hands in the service. But watching the film, you wouldn’t really know he wasn’t an actor. He delivers a really impressive performance that’s incredibly vulnerable and touching. He actually won two Oscars for this role. One as Best Supporting Actor, and another honorary Oscar for being an inspiration to returning servicemen. It’s a big risk putting a non actor into a film like this, but his performance is a great credit to Wyler and probably the other actors who must have helped him develop his performance. And of course, Russell himself likely took the process seriously, and succeeded at a major challenge.
The three men meet on their way home from war, not having served together. They are the only three servicemen on the transport, all going to their hometown. They become fast friends, and upon getting home, all end up at the same bar, which Homer has told them about, Butch’s place, owned by his uncle. They all have different experiences coming home. Homer’s is joyous, but he’s uncertain, with his injury. He’s distant and cautious. Al’s homecoming is also joyous. But he barely recognizes his home, it is so different now. His daughter has grown up quite a bit, and she takes care of the home now, working at the local hospital, his son is now a teenager. Things are different between him and his wife too. Instead of being quiet and reserved, he just wants to go out and party, taking his wife and daughter with him.
Fred has a very different homecoming. He goes to his fathers home to discover his wife has moved out into an apartment of her own. She also works in a local nightclub. He goes out looking for her that evening, running into Homer and Al at Butch’s. They’re all thrilled to see each other, and hang out the rest of the evening. This begins the main romance of the film, between Fred and Peggy, Al’s daughter. We see them flirt from the moment they meet, as Al is getting sloshed. That evening, Fred is too drunk to remember where his wife lives, so he is taken home by Al and his family.
That evening we get a sense of the darker side of returning from war, as Fred has a nightmare, screaming in the night about a fire in his plane. Peggy takes care of him that evening, showing her kindness.
Peggy is a good foil for Marie, Fred’s wife. Marie is thrilled to see Fred when he arrives, and even agrees to quit her job at her request. But she isn’t interested in trying to build a marriage as a partnership, she just wants someone to take her out and buy her things. She’s excited to know Fred has money saved from his Army pay, but they quickly run through it trying to live it up, and when Fred tries to impose some restraint on their spending, she gets angry and cruel.
The opportunities available to the men are wildly different as well. Al is invited back to his well paying job at a bank immediately, and even given a promotion. Fred discovers that his work as a bomardier in the Air Force didn’t give him many marketable skills. His old workplace has been bought out by a larger company, and he can’t imagine going back to being a soda jerk. The only job they’ll offer him as as an assistant to the head clerk, a man he used to be in charge of. He initially refuses, but finally relents, realizing he’s not going to do better.
Homer’s story isn’t so much about getting a job, it’s more about accepting that he might be accepted by the people in his life. He feels them staring at his hooks, and trying too hard not to mention them, and it eats at him. He also doesn’t believe that the woman he was engaged to before he left could possibly want him anymore, no matter how often she comes over and tries to make him feel welcome. His character is woven throughout the film, but it’s paid off at the end, when he finally gives his fiancee Wilma a chance to accept him. He offers to let her help him into bed, which involves taking off his prosthetic hands, to show her what her life will be like if she wants to be with him.
This scene happens right at the end of the film and is amazing. It’s almost shot like a love scene, between two cautious and unsure lovers. Homer really reveals himself, becoming totally vulnerable to her. He explains how helpless he is when he takes his hands off. That he can’t do anything for himself. We really feel everything that he’s feeling in that moment. And we feel elation when she accepts him regardless. The film ends with their wedding.
But the main plot involves Peggy and Fred, and Als disapproval of their relationship. Throughout the film, we see the relationship between Fred and his wife Marie, deteriorating. It’s clear they shouldn’t be married. When Fred runs into Peggy at his job, he takes her to lunch, kissing her after. Peggy invites Fred and Marie out with a date of her own, hoping she’ll see how wonderful Marie is, and that will cure her of her interest. But just the opposite happens. She realizes how cruel Marie is, and how badly she treats Fred. She can’t stand it, confiding in her parents that she will do whatever she can to break up the marriage. This is another great scene in the film, where her mother calmly explains how a real marriage works, and how many times she and Al had hard times, only to keep going. Myrna Loy is wonderful in the film. Up to this point she’s been playing the agreeable housewife, but this is her moment, and she nails it. You really feel the weight of their marriage in this moment.
Al gets involved without Peggy’s knowledge, and goes to Fred, getting him to admit that he is in love with Peggy, and then telling him to end the relationship with Peggy. Fred agrees, and does. But of course his marriage isn’t doing any better, and when he comes home to find his wife about to go on a date with another man, he of course objects, but she tells him she is divorcing him.
There’s also a scene in here where we meet a man who objected to the war at the lunch counter where Fred works. Not that the US fought in it, but that they decided to fight against the Nazis and Japanese. I had never heard about this corner of American opinion, but Fred and Homer both object. Homer begins a fight, but Fred ends it, knocking the man out, into a display case which shatters. He loses his job.
After losing his job, his wife, and the woman he loves, Fred understandably decides to leave town, not much caring where he ends up. He goes to the army airfield to catch a plane, and comes across the plane graveyard. There’s another great scene here, likely the most famous from the film, where he climbs into the bomber’s cockpit of a plane, and relives a terrible moment from his service. This is intercut with his father finding his citations from the army, discussing the things he did. Fred wasn’t just a soldier, he was a war hero. Fred is awakened from his daydream(nightmare) by a man yelling at him. He’s the man contracted to take apart the planes. In a moment of inspiration, Fred asks for a job, with a much better pitch this time, about being a man who can learn how to do a new job quickly, just as he learned to be a bombardier.
Al’s own plot pays off with him hearing loan applications from servicemen. He discovers his need to help these servicemen coming back, even if they don’t meet the bank’s requirements. This culminates in a speech he gives to his bank, telling them that even if it means gambling with their depositors money, helping these veterans is the right thing to do. It’s a clear message of the film embodied in this character.
The film also has an essentially perfect ending. Homer and Wilma get married, with Fred as the best man, and Al as a guest, reuniting the men. Peggy of course is there too. She and Fred look for each other, not finding each other initially. As the wedding starts, they keep their eyes on each other as the vows are read. The film almost symbolically marries them in this scene. As the wedding ends, the guests crowd around the new couple, but Fred and Peggy stand still, with Fred finally going to her and kissing her. Thus everyone gets their happy ending.
This might be the best film ever made. That doesn’t mean that it’s my favorite film, or that I’d watch it over any other film, but every moment in this film is set up and paid off in an incredibly satisfying way. The story is solid, letting all the characters grow, and not leaving any threads loose that I could see. The writing, acting and directing are all perfect. And it’s also socially relevant. This film came out in 1946 just after the war ended. These issues were on everyone’s minds. The film also won a slew of Oscars.
In addition, while this is a 3 hour movie, it felt much shorter. I was completely engrossed in the story the entire time. I normally don’t watch such long movies for this blog, as I have limited time. 4 hours worth of films are doable in a week. However, 5-6 hours usually won’t work. But if every 3 hour movie was like this, I wouldn’t mind.
I’m not trying to be hyperbolic when I say this might be the best film ever made. Everyone has their own preferences, but when you see a well-made film, it just transcends all of that. It’s amazing how good this movie is. I can’t say enough about it.
The Double Feature
The first thing I want to say is that both of these films made me cry. That’s pretty rare for any movie to make me cry, but for two in an afternoon to do it, that’s impressive. I related so much to Charlotte, the main character from Now, Voyager. Those feelings of being unwelcome, that persist no matter how much people like you and welcome you, are very relevant to me in my life. My mother is nothing like Mrs. Vale, but I still struggle with that idea that no one actually likes me as much as they might seem. And of course, Homer is dealing with the same issues in The Best Years of Our Lives.
Both films are amazing, and they work so well together. Definitely a worthwhile double feature.
It’s Spring Break here. A good time to relax and reflect. I’ve had a good semester so far. I’m making progress on my PhD, and my health has been good. Of course, last year, I felt the exact opposite. My health was terrible, both mental and physical, and I thought I might never finish the PhD. Taking stock of myself, and doing things just for myself outside the PhD have gone a long way to improving my mental health, and I’ve taken my physical health more seriously as well. In general, feel good about where I’m at.
So what about next week’s films? I think I’m going to stick with FilmStruck, and try to discover some more classic films that I haven’t seen. I found two films that are pretty interesting so next week’s films will be:
John Frankenheimer – Seven Days in May (1964)
Paul Henreid – Dead Ringer (1964)
Both are thrillers, and Dead Ringer reunites Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, this time as actor and director instead of co-stars, so it should be an interesting pairing.
See you then.