Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) is the repressed and depressed daughter of an imperious mother (Gladys Cooper), head of a wealthy and socially prominent Boston family. Miserably unhappy and insecure, she spends much of her time in her room, making carved boxes and sneaking forbidden cigarettes. A sympathetic sister-in-law introduces her to Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), an understanding psychiatrist. Under his care, at his sanitarium, she begins to develop some sense of herself as worthy, but is still terribly insecure when she departs on a cruise ship, for a rest, before returning home.
On the ship, she meets Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), an architect. At first awkward and self-deprecating, she begins to bloom under his attention, and they fall in love. But Jerry is married to a woman whose health is too fragile to consider divorce. They say goodbye, and Charlotte returns home. Her mother is as tyrannical as ever, insisting that Charlotte must do as she says or she will refuse to support her. Charlotte meets Elliott Livingston (John Loder), a kind businessman, who wants to marry her, and her mother approves. But when she sees Jerry again, she knows it is impossible for her to marry Elliott, and turns him down. This so infuriates her mother that she has a heart attack and dies.
Overcome with guilt, Charlotte returns to Dr. Jaquith. But at the sanitarium, she meets a troubled young girl, Tina, Jerry’s daughter. In reaching out to Tina, she finds her own strength and sense of purpose. When Charlotte goes home, Tina moves in with her. Jerry at first wants to take Tina away, thinking it is too much of an imposition, but Charlotte persuades him that it is a way for them to be close, telling him, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon; we have the stars.”
This movie has a lot of appeal for highly romantic teenagers of both sexes, and for those who are interested in the dynamics and impact of dysfunctional families. Charlotte’s mother is completely self-obsessed, consumed with power, incapable of compassion, much less love, for her daughter. As Dr. Jaquith says, “Sometimes tyranny masquerades as mother love.” Never hesitating to make it clear that Charlotte was unwanted, she demands that Charlotte make up for the burden she inflicted by being born by giving in to her every demand. But it is also clear that there is no way for Charlotte to be successful in pleasing her mother.
Dependent and fearful at the beginning, she has her mother’s contempt. But, as we see at the end, her independence and self-respect are much more threatening to her mother, who literally cannot survive Charlotte’s assertion of her right to her own life.
In one sense, Mrs. Vale as ogre disappears like the Wicked Witch of the West doused with water or the Queen of Hearts when Alice tells her she is only a card. In another sense, Mrs. Vale’s attack is the ultimate booby- trap for Charlotte, who must then grapple with the guilt she feels for “causing” her mother’s death. Both Mrs. Vale and Jerry’s off-screen wife assert what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the tyranny of sickness” or what Dr. Jaquith might call passive-agressive behavior, using powelessness as the ultimate method of exercising power. This is a very important form of emotional blackmail to be able to identify.
The title of the movie is from a line by Walt Whitman that Dr. Jaquith gives to Charlotte: “Now voyager, sail forth to seek and find.” Charlotte learns not to be afraid of what she will find, to risk getting hurt, to risk allowing herself to be known, to risk caring about someone else.
It is also worthwhile for kids to see that Charlotte must love herself before she is able to love someone else, and that just as Jerry’s love helps her to bloom, she is able to do the same for Tina. Charlotte tells Jerry, “When you told me that you loved me, I was so proud, I could have walked into a den of lions; in fact I did, and the lion didn’t hurt me.” Just as important, helping Tina is the most enduring “cure” for her sense of being powerless and without purpose, and far better than marrying the man she did not love.
These days, the decision made by Charlotte and Jerry not to stay together seems almost quaint; we tend to think that everyone should have both the moon and the stars. Their sense of sacrifice and duty is worth talking about as well.
Families who see this movie should talk about these questions: Why did Charlotte have such a hard time feeling good about herself? Why did Jerry and Charlotte decide not to see each other any more? Why did seeing Jerry make Charlotte change her mind about marrying Elliott? What did Charlotte’s mother want from Charlotte? Was that fair? What should Charlotte have said to her mother? Why did helping Tina make Charlotte feel better?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Three Faces of Eve.” They might also like to see Bette Davis and Claude Rains in another movie about love, sacrifice and lessons learned, “Mr. Skeffington.” Davis plays a self-centered and flighty woman who marries a man she does not love in order to protect her brother, discovering decades later how much she cares for her husband.