I succeeded in getting one of my twin daughters to watch a classic film with me, Now Voyager. I had filled her in as to what some of the plot was about. I didn’t reveal much of the film’s love story, but I certainly did tell my daughter, “Just wait until you meet the mother in this movie! With a mom like this, who’d need enemies!!!” My daughter did like the film, and agreed that the mother was awful. That is why the villainess I am focusing on for The Great Villain Blogathon 2017 is Mrs. Henry Vale, deliciously played by British character actress, Gladys Cooper.
Cooper, in her native England, was a child actress on the stage, a model noted for her beauty. As an adult, she continued as a stage actress, and eventually made it into the movies, often playing rich women who were extremely cranky about something that their children were doing, or cranky at the adults around her not doing her bidding because, after all, she’s the richest woman in town;that’s her character’s m.o. in another great film, The Bishop’s Wife, but she doesn’t stay villainous in that film.
In Now Voyager, we only know a bit about her character. She is Helen Vale, 70-something(80, perhaps?) matriarch of the Vales of Boston, living in a fab house on Beacon Hill. She has 3 adult sons, all married and prosperous in their own careers, and they dote on her. Then there is a daughter, Charlotte, her youngest child and a “surprise” baby, or as my mom would say, a “change of life” baby. Charlotte is at least 15 years younger than her brothers and was a baby when her father died. This death of her husband has turned Helen bitter. She is bitter that her husband is gone, and it’s as if she had decided that Charlotte’s only purpose in life was to be her constant companion. We see a flashback of a 20-something Charlotte(wonderfully played by Bette Davis) on a cruise ship falling in love with a young officer, who stands up to Helen and declares he is going to marry Charlotte. We see Helen severly scolding Charlotte for being caught making out with the officer and Charlotte trying to act as if she doesn’t care that she was caught. The film then jumps to present day, and Charlotte, now in her thirties and still living at home with Helen. Charlotte is very plain, wears old-fashioned dresses, sensible shoes, glasses, no make-up, and a dull, dowdy hairdo. Helen approves of Charlotte’s looks. Charlotte tries to rebel by secretly smoking!
One of Helen’s daughter in law’s, Lisa,(Ilka Chase) knows that Charlotte could be facing a nervous breakdown and that something must be done to help her. Lisa has a friend, a psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith(Wonderful Claude Rains) who agrees to come to the Vale home to meet Charlotte and give her an evaluation, to see if she should come to his sanitarium in Vermont for a rest and for help. Lisa is honest with Helen, and tells her why Dr. Jaquith has come, and all Helen can care about is the fact that no Vale has EVER needed to seek out mental help! That one should feel shame for seeking out such help!
Fortunately, Charlotte has a nervous breakdown in front of her mother, sister-in-law Lisa, Dr. Jaquith, and her niece, June(Bonita Granville). It is a fortunate event because it forces Charlotte to admit she needs help, and she goes to Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium for that help, despite her nasty mother’s unending grumblings!
I won’t give away anymore of the plot, but in her way, Charlotte is able to kick Helen’s will to the curb and develop her own! Yeah, Charlotte!
Gladys Cooper is so good at playing this horrid mother. She is wrapped up in her own self, her own will as to how her family should function, and anyone who defies her had better be ready to run for the hills! We don’t learn much about her husband, other than he was from the honorable Bostonian family, the Vales. He was obviously wise at money-management as Helen and their daughter, Charlotte, don’t want for anything materially. Helen’s sons, we only see in the movie once, are very polite to their mother and seem to fear her. Lisa seems to be the only in-law who knows how to deal with Helen without a hint of fear; granddaughter June, Lisa’s daughter, also seems to have no fear of her grandmother. The key to Helen is when she recites to Dr. Jaquith how put upon she has been with Charlotte being born to her later in life, her husband dying when Charlotte was a baby, and one expects her to lash out at the doctor that Charlotte has a life of ease, that it is “Me, me, me!” who should be pitied! Dr. Jaquith disdainfully lets Helen know that she is entirely at fault for turning her daughter into a scared frump of a woman! Go, Dr. Jaquith, go!!
To only give a bit of the plot away in order to showcase Helen at her most manipulative, Charlotte has indeed gotten a lot better under Dr. Jaquith’s care and with his help and Lisa’s, Charlotte departs the sanitarium to try her new life via a lovely cruise vacation. Charlotte returns to Boston with a new look: new hairdo, makeup, clothes, gorgeous shoes, jewelry, perfumes….and Helen is not happy! She is so shocked and horrified by this new and improved Charlotte that she demands Charlotte put on one of her former dowdy dresses for the family dinner being held to welcome Charlotte home. Charlotte starts to quaver, then resolutely tells Helen, “No” and off she goes downstairs in a lovely gown to oversee the dinner preparations. Helen is incensed! She goes to the head of the stairs and throws herself down them in order to give herself an injury to draw the family’s attention to her!!! Her plan doesn’t work, as she’s put to bed, seen by the doctor, and is sedated by the nurse’s hot toddies with the secret ingredient of rum. It’s funny seeing Helen ranting about the lack of concern for her as she could hear the family’s laughter from downstairs and then she starts to mumble as the toddies take their affect! Mary Wickes had a fun role as the in home nurse the family has hired to care for Helen.
For a great study in an evil mom character, check out Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Helen Vale in Now, Voyager, and don’t ever ask her for any fashion advice!!!! Here is a great clip from the film, courtesy of TCM. Now, Voyager will also be shown by TCM this weekend, April 28th at 4:15 a.m. Eastern time/3:15 a.m. Central time.
This post has been for The Great Villain Blogathon 2017, hosted by 3 wonderful classic movie bloggers: Kristina at Speakeasy, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Please visit their blogs to read other great posts about movie villains!