We have the stars

Now, Voyager

(This article was written on Sep. 20th while visiting family in Lake Tahoe, and scheduled to post on Sep. 21. It was scuttled by a server malfunction and is here revisited in the spirit of “better late than never.”)

The etymology of “smother” is based on old German and Dutch words for “smolder,” and are connected to evocations of thick and suffocating smoke. But for those watching Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) tomorrow on TCM, there will probably be more than just a few viewers who might think the etymological root really comes from simply adding the letter “s” to “mother.” This thanks to the performance by Gladys Cooper as the tyrannical matriarch lording over every detail in her daughter’s life. The performance earned Cooper a nomination for Supporting Oscar.

Now, Voyager stars Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale, an unhappy Boston spinster who manages to blossom under the guidance of Dr. Jaquith, a sympathetic psychiatrist played by Claude Rains. Important elements aiding her along on the road to recovery include a love affair with Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), an unhappily married man, and the new found freedom Vale gets from being out from under her mother’s iron grip. It’s a classic “women’s picture,” as it might have been referred to back in the day, along with “weepers” and “soapers.” Today I guess it’d be referred to under the similarly condescending category of the chick-flick, but let’s stick to a nicer and more elegant description that remains timeless: the Hollywood melodrama.

I only recently started watching melodramas – and here a tip of the hat to the intoxicating brews put together by Douglas Sirk – but I have to admit to putting Now, Voyager at the head of the queue due to getting sucked into some of the rabbit-hole theories behind The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). Specifically, those relating to all references of celestial objects that are packed into the seminal horror film.

Stephen King’s title for the book was inspired by a line from John Lennon’s Instant Karma song (“Well we all shine on…”). Kubrick, some bloggers are convinced, decided to invert/subvert everything King did in the book as a continuous riff off of the moment where the true meaning behind the word “redrum” gets its reveal thanks to its mirror image. Indeed, Kubrick did seem to deride a perverse pleasure in splitting everything he could from King’s novel into reflections, doublings, and opposites – going so far as to invert the essence of King’s work from a spiritual work (which posits real ghosts behind the mischief, which belies a belief in the after-life) into a psychological horror thriller where the ghosts are only inside the head of humans, which disposes of the spirit realm in favor of something altogether more atheistic.

The lyrics to Lennon’s song, “Well we all shine on” hang above the next line: “Like the moon and the stars and the sun.” Kubrick’s film starts out with title cards for The Shining and ends with a song by Al Bowlly (watch those double “LL’s” in the credits – Duvall, 2 Lloyd’s, Hallorann, Ullman, Billie, Bill, Burnell – which highlight twinning and reflections as well), and listen to the lyrics of Bowlly’s most popular song, released in 1934, as he croons on about “Midnight with the stars and you.”

Before I lose too many readers who were hoping for good bits regarding Now, Voyager, let me ask those paying attention: What is the movie that Danny is watching on his unplugged TV during The Shining? The easy answer: Summer of ’42 (Robert Mulligan, 1971). Kubrick rather liked his melodramas too, and studied such early masters such as Max Ophüls. For it’s part; Summer of ’42 is a surprisingly good, naturalistic, and heart-felt movie based on the memoirs of screenwriter Herman Raucher.

Follow-up question: What is the easter egg movie-within-the-movie in Summer of ’42? Answer: Now, Voyager. It’s not a moment you’ll see in The Shining, but for those who watch Summer of ’42 all the way through you’ll see our protagonists watching Now, Voyager at their local theater. What’s the moment of Now, Voyager that gets screened in Summer of ’42? It’s the final scene, a very famous one in cinema history, where Bette Davis looks up into the sky and says: “Oh, Jerry, Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.

What does it all mean? As I’ve posted before, I think Kubrick, a master chess player, was moves ahead of everyone else, and he purposefully created a psychological maze full of dead-ends to entertain his legion of fans for decades to come (mission accomplished!)… Or, perhaps, those even more serious speculators who will watch The Shining backwards-and-forwards in the reflection of a mirror are still uncovering clues that will yet cast a yet brighter light in years to come (these are the same folks who might castigate me for omitting that perhaps the hidden existence of Now, Voyager in The Shining was some kind of secret code Kubrick used as a nod to NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, and which is carrying sounds and images from Earth into deep interstellar space). Who am I to say? From where I sit, I can barely see the stars through the smoke being produced by the King Fire in Nevada.

King Fire


4 Responses We have the stars
Posted By Martha C. : October 6, 2014 3:16 am

Thanks for such a great thought-provoking post on two of my favorite subjects: Now, Voyager and Stanley Kubrick!

The King Fire sounds like something out of Stephen King..was just reading the Wiki entry about it. So horrible, hope your family is well away from the fire.

Posted By kjolseth : October 6, 2014 5:00 am

Thanks for you concern. My family was fine. For roughly two days the place where we were was directly in the plume of smoke from the fire, dropping visibility around the house to a few feet from the door, and making it necessary to seal all windows and doors. Being trapped with family inside a house is not the worst thing that might happen to you, unless you were consigned to a basement room with two children in the bunk room. At which point, the words “cabin fever” do come to mind.

Posted By kingrat : October 7, 2014 5:46 pm

A movie buddy chastised me for using the term “women’s films,” saying that more men will watch them if you call them “domestic melodramas.” I’m glad that you’ve discovered the delights of NOW, VOYAGER, and will continue to explore more women’s films–dang it, “domestic melodramas.”

Posted By george : October 7, 2014 7:58 pm

Men will watch as long as you don’t call them “chick flicks.” That label is toxic.

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