One of the ultimate early weepies, Now, Voyager is classic melodrama that sees Hal B. Wallis with two big pictures in 1942 (alongside, of course, Casablanca). My guess is that Paul Henreid and Claude Rains were both under contract with Warner Bros., because they appear in both films.
Here, Henreid is Jerry Durrance who meets Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) on a cruise and falls for her. It’s Charlotte who’s the main character of Now, Voyager though, and director Irving Rapper charts her evolution from psychologically fragile spinster-
-to desirable woman. Yes, that’s Davis under a lot of makeup.
I was lucky enough to get to a screening of Far From Heaven followed by a Q&A with Todd Haynes last night. In addition to Haynes coming off as really intelligent and affable he dropped a few gems to the audience. One was in response to a question of his melodramatic blueprint. After explaining how he got to Sirk via Fassbinder, Haynes said that, in his estimation, the lead character of your classic 1940s and 1950s melodrama doesn’t really grow by the end. They actually, he said, end up smaller than how they started. There’s no finger-wagging or life lesson that they come to terms with [my words here].
I like that idea a lot, and it’s entirely applicable to Now, Voyager, which also fits squarely into the melodrama category by wearing its emotions on its sleeves and by preferring big emotional moments to small character development.
There are two such good moments worth looking at, both of which also include some nice classic blocking by Rapper. Here’s the first. Vale and fiance Elliot Livingston (John Loder) begin to see their relationship crumble. Rapper starts in a simple wide 2-shot, cutting to shot-reverse:
Aside from the classy sets, one thing I noticed a lot in Rapper’s wide-shots here is that he prefers to leave a lot of headroom to emphasize the decor. See that first shot above. Vale and Livingston are pushed lower in the frame to really get the vertical lines of those windows prominently in frame.
Rapper cuts behind Livingston as Vale stands and approaches him-
-cut to get Livingston’s reaction shot-
-and then to a new setup as Vale walks away and to the desk.
Rapper’s blocking reflects the little tug of war going on here. Vale is trying to get out of a trip with Livingston. She’s realized she doesn’t love him. As she turns and he stands, he starts to realize the same thing:
Livingston walks closer to her and finally they’re together, on the same plane, and still. It’s the moment when both admit that the relationship isn’t working:
Rapper’s blocking here not only plays up the aforementioned tug of war, but also falls squarely into a melodramatic style of blocking and not just plot. Were this another classic director at the time (think Hawks, Wyler, etc), or were this not as much of a sob story as Now, Voyager is, Vale’s movements would probably involve fewer dramatic flourishes (that back turn by the desk, for example). It’s kind of like a small chase scene.
The narrative melodrama comes in how quickly, and actually tearlessly, both parties accept the dissolution of their engagement. In the way many melodramas are unintentionally funny, this moment is as well. No wedding? Okay. Let’s call it a day.
Here’s another great moment. Charlotte goes to see her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Rapper here starts with a crane shot that backs up as Charlotte walks into the room. Look at that second shot below. Again, Rapper favors a lot of headroom in the wide 2-shot. This time, instead of the windows, it’s the verticals of the curtains, bedposts and doors. He’s emphasizing the height of the space, i.e. the size of the space, i.e. the wealth:
The great thing about that crane shot? When we get the reverse shot, we can see that it’s an impossible crane shot. The window is too close to the mother and that flower. It’d be impossible to actually move the camera back that far – the limitations and manipulation of the set are revealed:
Rapper goes into shot-reverse, with the latter being a dolly into Charlotte’s mother as she gets angry upon hearing about the broken engagement:
Here’s your melodrama. Charlotte leaves and the camera pushes in after her (look at the curtain and flower to get a good feel for how the camera moves):
And at that exact moment, her mother has a heart attack:
In a span of about 10 minutes Charlotte breaks up with Livingston and her mother dies. There are little repercussions seen for either. In fact, the narrative moves swiftly past both events to move onto yet another dramatic, and in this case, fortuitous moment. The dramatic camera movements here – the crane as Charlotte enters, the push into her mother, the dolly after Charlotte as she enters – would be antithetical to some other classic directors of the time, but mirrors the sweeping scope of the film, the histrionic movements and plot developments, and the opulence of the entire production.