Salvation through the Vales

JMJ

WHO GETS SAVED HERE? Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and then Tina Durrance How is this salvation accomplished? Charlotte falls in love and directs that love to something good, sacrificing herself to save Tina as well.

There’s a lot here that can be worked with. Charlotte’s relationship with her mother (Gladys Cooper) seems to be beyond rescuing, although it comes close as she works through her own issues at the Cascade Sanitarium. What happens there is she comes into her own: she manages to be someone other than her Mother’s daughter/servant.

I found the plot line disturbing in a number of ways. The only way out for Davis is through. Mom has to die here for the thing to work. There is even the one spooky voice over “remember ‘honor thy parents’ is still a good idea.” but even that bow to tradition is unworkable here when the only way for Davis to honor her mother is to kill her. That’s a symbol of course. Good Freudian psychology talks of the domineering mother and the absent father. That’s what’s going on here. Of course, Freud usually talks about men in this role, but here it’s a woman. Davis is destroyed, nearly, by her mother’s controlling nature. No man is good enough. No clothing is mean enough. No shoes are sensible enough. Any attempt at looking pretty is frowned upon. Any attempt to “have fun” is decried as “common”.

All of these should, from an “ultra-traditional” Orthodox view, be perfectly fine. From an “Orthodox Taliban” mode, these should all be required. (I’ve seen the “Ortho-burkha” on women who veil their head by wrapping up most of their body.) The only thing missing is fasting and Mrs. Vale frowns on dieting so I doubt that would happen.

So, the plot carries an odd double message to me, one side is good, the other bad. How do you live within a tradition that destroys you? So much of this movie made me stumble… the question must be why do I love it so much?

Then there is the relationship with Charlotte and Jerry (Paul Henreid): it is, from the get-go, right on the dividing line between moral and immoral. It is nearly – but not quite – adultery. They love each other, this is evident even from the meeting on the boat going ashore. They take only a few days to realize it and then, suddenly, just when in a modern movie they would have been “doing it” they are parted. They only see each other three more times in the rest of the movie. But it must be said that Jerry is staying married because he must and that neither he nor Charlotte will cross that line – as much as they desperately want – because of their honor for Jerry’s honoring of that vow.

Is there such a thing as “unfaithful in heart”? Jerry is that… he sends flowers daily to Charlotte. But his love and honor for the vow he made his wife means that he will stay with her, care for her until death do they part.

Every time Jerry and Charlotte see each other, there is torture. There is temptation. There is heartbreak. Until finally, there is no more. And there is, here as well, healing.

And last, there is Charlotte’s relationship with Jerry’s daughter, Tina Durrance (Janis Wilson). Seeing in Tina no small part of herself, she takes it upon herself to care and protect Tina. She shows Tina the love she never had shown to her. In that love the very things that her own mother did to her are healed: yes, she tells Tina how to dress and even how to walk. But she does it in love and in care and with an eye towards Tina’s growth – rather than stunting the same. Charlotte becomes what she had never known by virtue of her willingness to sacrifice herself. She becomes what she is-not by giving up what she has become…

And there the whole thing either falls apart or else transforms into something else.

As mentioned, I was disturbed when I first saw this movie because it seemed to say “deny your family, have illicit affairs and everything will come out right.”

But last night (writing this in 2004) an offhanded line that I had always taken to be sort of Freudian blasphemy suddenly struck me as the key to another level of this movie: a level whereby it all weaves together to tell a very different story, a very Christian one.

Charlotte has a private meeting with Dr Jaquith. She asks to help – or more directly to take over – Tina’s care. After that scene, as Charlotte is running off, this little coda takes place:

Jaquith: But you’re only on probation. Remember what it says in the Bible, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Charlotte: How does it feel to be the Lord?
Jaquith: Not so very wonderful since the free will bill got passed: too little power!

And therein I hit on a sort of skeleton key that unlocks a whole new corridor of meanings for this movie.

Forget Freud. Jaquith is God. (Jaquith is the family name version of the French Jaques – Jacob. Meaning “God has protected”.) Forget mother: Mrs Vale is the evil one, the destroyer of souls. The only time her name is used, she is introduced as “Mrs Henry Windle Vale”. Henry means “home ruler” or “home power”. Windle means a “winch”. Vale… well it’s not the kind you wear on your face, yes. But it is, at least phonetically, the same. And the tie-in is made once in the movie too when Tina says it quite clearly. Mother’s name could mean “The Home Power which ropes you in, covering your eyes to the world”. Or even it could mean, “The one who rules the home covers you up and ties you down.”

Jerry comes from “Jeremiah” and it means “God has uplifted”

Tina, of course, comes from the name Christina and it has the obvious meaning: Christian, little Christ.

Durrance – to endure.

Finally, the telling name is Charlotte: it comes from the Germanic Karl (via the French) and it means, simply, man. Charlotte is Everyman.

Her story is played out quite clearly thus:

In this world, in the hands of destroyer of souls, we lose, gradually, ourselves. We loose, gradually, our own sanity as we pattern ourself after the Ruler of the Home (the evil one) who has usurped the place of a loving Father. So much of our life is spent fighting him (or her) off on our own. We never notice that even in the fighting we only play into his strength. We never note that, without help, we must surely fall.

Help comes from repentance, from metanoia – herein symbolized by confession and admitting the fall.

Confession: the disturbing scene between Charlotte and the Doctor in her bedroom returns one to paradise that is Cascade: a name meaning “fall”. One has confession and moves up to the Cascade – paradise.

God protects one if one is willing to go through rather than around or away.

God sends one on a journey. The ship is baptism – and the Church. Charlotte is booked on the ship as “Renee” a name which means “born again”. Jerry gives Charlotte, the Born again Everyman, a new name: Camille – which name is the French version (both feminine and masculine) of Camillus, a Latin name meaning “attendant at a religious service”. It don’t get much easier to read than this Folks, sorry. I had no idea it would ride this far.

On the ship they sail into Rio de Janeiro – the River of Janus, the god who looks both ways and watches over new birth. They ascend to the Christus Statue (eventually).

And then she returns home… where, like John in Pilgrims Regress she must slay the dragon and eventually she does.

Thus, in slaying the dragon (her Mom dies) she finally claims what is hers by right: she must return to paradise, although now it is really the Church. We don’t see so much of Dr Jaquith save to confirm her in her new work: that of raising up a Christian.

In this new work, she must build a community – a family of sorts – one that is crafted not on “home rule” but rather on love. She does this in her own home, supporting the Christian that is growing there. She must fend off temptation as she finally does in the last scene. She must learn to love chastely and to use that love to, if I may be forgiven the obvious pun on Jerry’s last name, endure to the end so that she may be saved.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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