On Jan. 31, the Carsey-Wolf Center hosted a screening of the 1942 classic “Now, Voyager,” followed by a discussion led by professor E. Ann Kaplan of Stony Brook University about the film’s historical context. This event has been years in the making, initially discussed and planned before the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was ultimately postponed to this year as a part of the Carsey-Wolf Center’s “Big Screen” series, finally giving it a chance to shine.
Kaplan is a jack of all trades as a scholar of trauma studies and feminist film theory as well as a professor of English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “Now, Voyager” mixes many of these disciplines and continues to be dissected in academic circles years after its initial release. The audience — made up of Santa Barbara locals and community members — expressed surprise, recognition and amusement throughout the screening. Their eyes were glued to the screen from the moment the lights dimmed in the Pollock Theater to the moment the words “The End” appeared on the screen, which garnered massive applause.
“Now, Voyager” was adapted from a book of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty. The book and film tell the captivating story of a young woman, Charlotte Vale, who attends a psychiatric care facility to overcome her deep-seated trauma.
The film follows Charlotte through her metamorphosis of overcoming self-doubt, as she decides to live life to the fullest and sets off on a cruise. It is there that she falls in love with a married man, Jerry, who has family complications of his own. Much of the film focuses on the intricate relationship between Charlotte and her disapproving mother, as well as Charlotte’s relationship with Jerry and his struggling daughter. At its heart, the movie is about healing, breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma and paving a new path.
Following the screening, Carsey-Wolf Center Director Patrice Petro sat down with Kaplan to offer insight into the historical underpinnings of “Now, Voyager.” Kaplan explained that despite the movie being decades old, it features a “very modern idea of a therapist.”
In the film, psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith has a professional relationship with Charlotte — he never appears to cross boundaries and treats her with kindness. According to Kaplan, “he is very practical; he is very self-assured but humble.” Charlotte is initially reluctant to undergo therapy, but later in the film she is often the one to call and ask for help. This is in contrast to many other movies, where therapy seems forced upon the patient. By the end of the movie, the doctor and the patient have a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.
Kaplan also discussed the depiction of the psychiatric facility where Charlotte stays. It is shown to be a very beautiful and warm place, filled with sunshine, enjoyable activities and an amiable staff. The patients are not punished or treated as a danger — as is often shown in similar institutions in cinema. This reflects the experience of Prouty, who endured mental health struggles and received treatment for them. Dr. Jaquith and his sanatorium are said to be based on Prouty’s own experiences.
Not only does “Now, Voyager” reflect ideas of mental health, but it also reveals ideas of feminism and women’s roles at the time. The movie was made while the United States was at war, and women were leaving home to work in factories.
Kaplan described ideas of womanhood that were circling at the time and the conflict between new and old, which is reflected through Charlotte’s home. In the beginning of the movie, the Vale house is always shown under a cover of rain and clouds, representing the “repression, hostility and discipline” that Charlotte’s mother believes in. As Charlotte brings in new ideas of self-sufficiency and independence, the house transforms into a place of warmth and love, with the fireplace on and guests abounding.
“Now, Voyager” also explores issues around domesticity and motherhood. Many mother-daughter relationships appear in the film, most notably between Charlotte and her abusive mother.
Kaplan explained that because of Charlotte’s experiences as a victim of emotional trauma, she uses her psychological knowledge from Dr. Jaquith to help Jerry’s daughter with her own struggles. Charlotte attempts to break the pattern of intergenerational trauma by offering psychological support to a young girl that needs it, just like Charlotte had needed. She is able to overcome her past and become a confident woman determined to help others.
“Now, Voyager” may be labeled as a romance film, but according to Kaplan, that is just a surface-level reading. When you look deeper at how women are treated in culture, society and the private domestic scene, the film is much more nuanced and complicated than a simple romance.
The Carsey-Wolf Center will be hosting two more “Big Screen” events in early March of this year. Seeing movies on the silver screen is becoming a rarity — the series opts to give movies a chance to be seen in a theater. Tickets are free, and it’s a great opportunity to live life to the fullest, like this 1942 classic insists we all do.
This appeared in the February 16th Daily Nexus printed edition.