Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.
Release Date: October 31st, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Irving Rapper Actors: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville, John Loder, Ilka Chase, Lee Patrick, Mary Wickes
he’s coming down.” The maids and butler are quite on edge when stern, strict, unfriendly Mrs. Vale (Gladys Cooper) glides down the staircase. She’s particularly uncooperative as renowned New York psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) arrives, journeying to Boston for this exceptional client. Jaquith is primarily concerned with Mrs. Vale’s odd, “ugly duckling” daughter – the anxious, fidgety, introverted, bookish, bespectacled Charlotte (Bette Davis), who has been under her mother’s tight control for her entire life.
“I’m my mother’s servant!” Charlotte eventually tells the doctor about a cruise, during which she met a young officer named Leslie (Charles Drake), many years ago, when she was only 20 and far from the spinster she’s become. But that momentary freedom and rebellion was quashed, once again putting Charlotte firmly back beneath her mother’s thumb. Jaquith insists that the girl, perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, should come at once with him to his sanitarium in the country. Soon enough, she’s regained a smidgen of her independence and self-esteem, determining to take an ocean voyage to finally spread her wings. And she’s been advised to take an interest in anything and everything.
Based on a famous novel, the film employs a strange editing technique that merges the imagery of the frame with flipping pages of that book, sometimes fluttering in reverse to designate a flashback. This gimmick appears regularly to reiterate commentary or to fill in the audience on missing details. But it’s thoroughly unnecessary; the poignancy of this tale is always in the present, not dependent on Charlotte’s trying past.
“You haven’t a very high opinion of yourself, have you?” The film is full of potent themes about confidence, judgment, familial oppression and guilt and control, relationship martyrdom, missed opportunities, and unfortunate choices. But these notions blossom into grand adventures and chances taken. Just as Charlotte believes her time for contentment has passed, so too does dispirited, formerly aspiring architect Jeremiah Durrance (Paul Henreid), assuming that he’s permanently trapped in an unfulfilling life with a selfish wife. But a spontaneous affair across a tropical South American paradise just might be the cure for lifelong despondency.
“I’m immune to happiness.” It may be a standard tale of forbidden romance, but it dwells on an uncommon twosome; these past-their-prime souls aren’t the typical fare for a melodramatic love yarn. Davis is exceptional, taking on a sympathetic “My Fair Lady” sort of role, but with decidedly more authenticity (“Now, Voyager” also bestows some concepts to “Pretty Woman,” what with its various transformations). She lends a convincing gravity to this battle of wills, this contest of liberation from a poisonous matriarch.
And aiding Davis’ expressive, large, moist eyes is a steady stream of terribly romantic dialogue, paired with the exquisite reuse of signature actions, such as the lighting of two cigarettes at the same time. What could have been an overly sentimental story (and, of course, at times it is) of two people struggling to connect amid a lifetime of mismatched unions becomes something far more impactful, especially as Charlotte discovers another wayward youth in need of special guidance and freedom from an overbearing mother. Charlotte finally finds her own personal way to cope with isolation and remorse and to give back for unexpected kindness; as she perfects a method for coming to terms with her repressed upbringing, she also redefines happiness altogether, creating one of the most powerful and singular of all romantic dramas. “I’m not afraid!”
– Mike Massie