The title of the movie was taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. He had his weaker moments but Walt must have turned over in his grave when he discovered the slop his existential and rebellious poetry had inspired. Now Voyager is preposterous tosh but it has become famous for the effect that the movie had on cinema audiences and for being well made and a box office success. In the final scene Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes for him and Bette Davis to take a puff. The romantic implication may be nonsense but the gesture is also a subtle emotional crescendo perfectly pitched. Davis and Henreid have inspired more than one premature death from lung cancer.
Now Voyager is not the greatest film in which Bette Davis appeared but more than any this movie made her a star. Today there are moments when her acting style appears theatrical but Davis was a great performer. Davis was not beautiful but she had a pair of eyes that appeared to have the strength to search the cosmos. Those eyes could look through any man. Davis was one of those actors that proved glamour was not just about beauty. In Now Voyager she wears a low cut white dress and scarf that anticipates the costumes of Elvis in Vegas. As we do with the acting of James Cagney, we relish a performance of Davis for its own sake. Later we remember her achievements as more authentic than they appeared at the time. We realise they contain characterisation that touched genuine insights. This may sound overblown but watch Bette Davis blast a handgun into her victim in The Letter. No tough guy ever did it better. Look at her also sway across a room in that white dress in Now Voyager. Many, including glamorous women, have worn mock-ups of the Elvis stage suit but Davis in that dress had prescience. She anticipated the drama and glamour that was subsequent rock and roll.
In Now Voyager Davis plays a spinster dominated and damaged by an overbearing mother. She needs psychiatric treatment and is handed over to psychiatrist Claude Rains who lets her stay in the sanatorium he manages. After being cured of her ailment Davis boards a cruise around South America where she meets less than fulfilled Paul Henreid. His wife does not appear in the movie but we discover that she is a good match for the mother Davis has left back in Boston. A couple of complications follow including nonsense about the emotionally damaged daughter of Paul Henreid and the transformation of Davis into a psychiatric care worker. The movie finishes with the idea that Davis and Henreid, two people who really love each other, will stay apart but sort of somehow share a life. As Davis says, ‘We may not have the moon but we have the stars.’ And there are always the fags, so there is no excuse for feeling low or needing to see a psychiatrist.
Mainstream Hollywood has not been great at dealing with psychiatric illness. Now Voyager has similarities to Marnie the compelling but flawed Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock added crime and sexual fetishism. Underneath her various aliases Marnie is a working class girl but, like Davis in Now Voyager, she enjoys the comfort of an upper-class home and the attention of a well-heeled and attractive male. The neurosis that afflicts Marnie is more serious than the psychological problems of Charlotte Vale the character played by Davis in Now Voyager. Those who do not understand the significance of the name should read Whitman or something.
Marnie is a compulsive thief and averse to sex. The woman is not even tempted by Sean Connery, and, as he was James Bond back in Britain, there was not much hope for anyone else. The psychological illness of Charlotte Vale is defined as no more than timidity, excess weight, aversion to contact lenses and bad taste in clothes. Marnie is distraught, and Vale is inhibited. Money, though, for neither is a problem. Charlotte Vale buys great outfits, indulges in an expensive cruise and meets the urbane Henreid. Marnie has to relive a murder, discover that her mother was a prostitute and, most important of all, say no to all the banknotes in the family safe. Both women prevail and return to comfortable surroundings. They may not have the moon but they can settle for the stars.
Theresa May has stated that she is concerned about the treatment of mental health in the UK. It is possible that she would like the afflicted to have the breaks that came the way of Marnie and Charlotte Vale. Hollywood struggled to appreciate the reality of lives afflicted by mental ill health but then so did the audiences who watched its films. May is married to a hedge fund billionaire. She has an extravagant taste in clothes and perhaps she imagines a decent wardrobe as the cure for psychiatric disorder. Today mental ill health is exaggerated by old age and the incidence of dementia. Its treatment is compromised by the constricted expenditure on both social and psychiatric care. While she was a Cabinet minister May nodded approval to cuts in the two budgets. Between 1977 and 2005 the expenditure on social care trebled. Since then it has fallen. This is not because we are feeling better. The rate of suicide is like the price of petrol. It varies but does not go down. Last year over 6000 people in the UK committed suicide. Three quarters of these were men. Few were reacting to being disappointed at not meeting Paul Henreid.
The Mental Health Foundation estimates that 75% of those who endure a psychiatric disorder are not receiving treatment. Most victims keep their mouths shut and suffer. The Foundation estimates that 20% of the British population has suffered from depression. Those figures and estimates produce huge numbers, around a gloomy 8 million souls. And three quarters of the men who have committed suicide have never reported a mental health problem. A common feeling amongst suicidal people is that they feel alone in the world. For some this condition is clinical, it is how their brains work. Others have swallowed too much Western individualism. Whatever its faults Now Voyager did not romanticise the single individual. Charlotte Vale only looked at the stars when she had a cigarette and Paul Henreid to light the match. This may be fantasy for females but escapism for males often means dreams of competitive triumph and a lonely sunset. Perhaps the sense of romance in men has always been skewed but whatever the initial dream the subsequent brainwashing of men by popular culture has been persistent and relentless.
All of which leads to Theresa May and the supposedly heartfelt messages from the doorstep at her front door. This far from stable person has acquired a neat trick. She mentions obvious problems because she knows that any pending budget adjustment or gesture previously negotiated by executives and administrators can be heralded as a heartfelt initiative. A mental health task force has been established but funding for Mental Health Trusts has in the last three years fallen by just under 2%. Mental ill health peaked in the UK in the last century during the depression, and right now poverty and homelessness is increasing and the economy is struggling. Not all people who have a psychiatric disorder live in poverty but poor mental health is the largest cause of disability, and the benefits of the disabled have been reduced. For those who think increasing the number of suicides is a good idea this is almost a virtuous circle. Poverty, disability and mental ill heath are all mixed with the compound interest that accrues from a lopsided economic system.
Social care and psychiatric care have separate budgets but the overlap is obvious, and the anticipated £2.6bn shortfall in social care funding by 2020 will not have positive implications for those who have mental ill health. Remembering the link between disability and psychiatric disorder it is sobering to read that the UN has criticised the British Government for its treatment of the disabled and mentally ill. The UN has claimed that what happens in Britain is a breach of human rights.
David Davis is one of three ministers negotiating the terms of Brexit. Not that many years ago he spoke to a meeting of Conservative members during a Party Conference week. The meeting and his speech took place outside of the main Conference. He stated to an attentive audience that what united Conservatives was the belief that people should not be prevented from falling to whatever was the level that awaited them. His remarks produced enthusiastic cheers in his audience. It makes sense in a way. What is the point of having winners if there are not real losers? There would be no fun for the glamorous and successful if there were not people who could be seen to be suffering. The UN views the lives of human beings in different terms but so far the British Government has kept the UN at length. And, like Hollywood, Theresa May and her not really united followers do worry about the mental health of some people, those who are their friends and have the requisite wealth and glamour. Bette Davis and Tippy Hedren can apply for sympathy. The rest have had their benefits cut and endure waiting times for treatment that exceed thirty days. There are a lot or people out there right now hoping for an appointment and feeling very alone and thinking thoughts that they should not, which, of course, is why Paul Henreid lit the cigarettes in the first place.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.