Now, Voyager (1942)
“Today Her Greatest! For a woman there’s always an excuse . . .”
Director: Irving Rapper
Cast: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains
Synopsis: Boston spinster blossoms under therapy and finds impossible romance.
It’s difficult to understand why Bette Davis had to campaign to win the part of repressed spinster Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager, the movie which proved to be the most successful of her career. The idea of the movie wasn’t to transform an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan but to turn her, at best, into a wallflower whose confidence is boosted by a positive sense of self-worth which in turn gives her the confidence to overcome what she considers to be the limitations of her physical appearance. Having an actress with conventional good looks in the part of Charlotte — both Irene Dunne and Norma Shearer were attached to the movie at some point — would have seriously undermined the movie’s message and weakened its effectiveness. Davis wasn’t ugly, exactly, but she was also no beauty, that’s for sure. What attractiveness she possessed was a gift of her youth, and had largely gone by the time she hit early middle age, so this role was perfect for her.
At the start of Now, Voyager, Charlotte is living with her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper – Rebecca), an embittered but wealthy Boston matriarch who seems to revel in pouring scorn upon her daughter. Davis is barely recognisable as Charlotte; sporting a tight Marcel wave, ugly wire-frame spectacles, and beetle-like eyebrows, she wears prim dresses and flat, sensible shoes. She spends much of her time locked away in her room, secretly smoking cigarettes as she carves ornate patterns into ivory boxes.
One day, Charlotte’s sister-in-law, Lisa (Ilka Chase) invites eminent psychiatrist Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains — The Invisible Man, The Lost World) to visit their home to assess whether Charlotte is in need of psychiatric treatment. It doesn’t take long for Jaquith to confirm that she is only a whisper away from a complete mental breakdown, and he prescribes a lengthy stay at his clinic in the mountains. Under Jaquith’s nurturing care it’s only a matter of time before Charlotte starts to come out of her shell, and rather than return home she embarks on a South American cruise under Jaquith’s instructions in order to boost her self-confidence. It’s on this cruise, in the glamorous outfits borrowed from Lisa, that Charlotte meets Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid — Casablanca), an unhappily married architect, and they enjoy an idyllic romance, knowing that they must part forever when the cruise is over.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Now, Voyager is a chick flick — or woman’s picture as they were known back in the 1940s — but it is made with such style and professionalism that even if the story doesn’t draw you in, the unmistakable quality of a prestige picture produced at the height of Hollywood’s golden era will surely keep you entranced. Max Steiner’s lush score provides sumptuous accompaniment to Charlotte’s emotional awakening as Davis glides through the picture in an endless succession of fashionable outfits. The near two-hour running time allows Casey Robinson’s screenplay to fashion a believable scenario free of the melodramatic excesses which might have been unavoidable with a shorter running time. Davis’s performance is a perfectly measured delight, and while Paul Henreid gives a rather bland performance, the way in which his sporadic appearances following the cruise are carefully timed to achieve the greatest possible emotional resonance somehow manages to gloss over the deficiencies in his performance. Henreid might struggle to make an impression, but the same can’t be said of Gladys Cooper in the role of Charlotte’s monstrous mother, who outshines even Davis in the scenes they share together.
Henreid did make an impression of sorts, however, when he lit two cigarettes at once and passed one to Davis. It was an idea he claimed as his own, although it was a trick seen 10 years earlier in The Rich Are Always With Us, but no matter whose idea it was, that simple gesture captured the public’s imagination, and Henreid was consequently plagued by excitable women asking him to light a couple for them. Now, Voyager deserves to be remembered for more than just a neat little trick, however. It’s an intelligently written piece, and it offers a perspective that differs greatly from that generally offered by 1940s Hollywood. Not only that, it signs off with one of tinseltown’s all-time classic quotes…
(Reviewed 28th July 2014)