In 1925, brought on by the inconsolable loss of her daughter, noted novelist, Olive Higgins Prouty suffered a complete emotional breakdown. Retreating to a sanitarium for convalescence, and encouraged by her psychiatrist to redouble her efforts to write – the catharsis of which would produce two enduring masterworks – Conflict (1927) and Now, Voyager (1941); Prouty emerged from her grief as one of the most prolific and successful authors of her generation. While her previous effort, 1923’s Stella Dallas, had been a runaway best seller, Now, Voyager – although successful in its own right – did not live up to her publisher’s expectations; Warner Bros. agreeing to pay the authoress $50,000 for the rights to produce it, but only if the novel sold more than 50,000 copies by May, 1941. It did not and the figure eventually settled upon was closer to $40,000. While Prouty derived inspiration from real life for the trials and tribulations of her fictional heroine, Charlotte Vale, she all but lifted the novel’s title from a Walt Whitman’s two-line poem ‘The Untold Want’ which read, “The untold want by life and land ne’er granted, Now voyager sail forth to seek and find.”
There are moments in Now, Voyager as great as any sonnet composed by Shakespeare or Shelley, as any overture to grand amour conducted under the auspices of Keats or Browning; Bette Davis as one of the unsurpassed grand dames of selfless altruism, superbly accompanied by her worldly – if platonic – paramour, Paul Henreid; the highs, lows and intricate orchestrations of their drama, pathos, simple joys and melancholia, wrapped in the enigma of Freudian psychoanalysis. If it all sounds rather over the top at a glance - it is; splendidly brought to fruition in all the fine trappings an A-list studio like Warner Bros. could lend to the cause during its heyday: Robert M. Haas’ superb art direction, Sol Polito’s glossy and luxuriating B&W cinematography, Orry-Kelly’s exquisite costuming, and Max Steiner’s superior scoring sessions. Now, Voyager raises the bar in so many ways, the finished product all but suggests its destiny as one of the all-time classic weepies as meticulously planned and preordained by kismet inside the studio’s front offices.
And yet, in Hollywood, the prospect of transposing Prouty’s latest ‘hit’ into an even bigger one for the silver screen proved somewhat elusive – at least, at first; what with imminent producer, Hal B. Wallis’ heart set on casting Ginger Rogers as the Bostonian recluse who emerges, as butterfly from under the stifling cocoon of her overbearing and spiteful mother. Alas, director, Edmund Goulding preferred Irene Dunne – in hindsight, a more likely choice to do the part justice. Of course, neither actress suited the likes of Bette Davis who, by 1942 had garnered enough clout at Warner Bros. to write her own ticket. Still, it must have sent Davis into a fury to read a squib in Louella Parson’s Herald-Examiner column, touting Dunne as the frontrunner. However, fate intervened; Goulding becoming suddenly ill and withdrawing from the project; replaced by caustic Hungarian genius, Michael Curtiz, who weighed his options between either Rogers or Norma Shearer. A formidable force of nature – not unlike Davis – Curtiz usually got his way; only, not this time.
Bette Davis campaigned with a tidal wave of rigor and passion that only complete acquiescence to her demands could quell. Curtiz withdrew from the fray rather than face down ‘the fifth Warner Bros. (Davis’ nickname on the backlot); some have suggested, because his previous encounters with Davis on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), had so completely soured him on working with the formidable star again. His replacement, Irving Rapper, a disciple of Curtiz, was also willing to fall into line with Davis’ edicts and temperament, but elected to cast the rest of the picture himself without help. To this end, Rapper hired Claude Rains to play the empathetic Dr. Jacquith; also, Gladys Cooper to portray the matriarchal gargoyle of the piece. For Charlotte’s lover, Rapper made an unlikely decision to cast Paul von Henreid (later shortened on the marquee to Paul Henreid). The Austrian-born Henreid was fast being shaped by the studio into a sort of intercontinental lover via Charles Boyer; curiously publicized in Warner’s PR as a cross between two of their most popular leading men, George Brent and Leslie Howard, to which the congenial and suave Henreid bore no earthly resemblance at all. Still, Henreid’s initial test for the part of architect, Jerry Durrance was all but ruined by the studio’s hair and makeup department; heavily pancaked, mascaraed, and, with enough pomade to slather a mountain goat. “He looks ghastly,” Davis shouted at Wallis, “Like a floorwalker in a department store!” It was perhaps kismet Henreid equally abhorred‘the Lothario look’ assigned to him, and thus, an instant and lifelong friendship was born between Henreid and Davis. The two would work together again as director and star on 1964’s Dead Ringer.
In a career chocked with artistic highlights, Now, Voyager (1942) remains the quintessential Bette Davis picture; a weepy par excellence, equally drawing on Prouty’s tear-stained novel as Davis’ towering realization of Charlotte Vale; this uni-browed spinster cum accomplished lady heir to the manor born. Davis is magnificent beyond all expectation in this – the most popular movie role of her entire career and the most profitable picture she would ever make at Warner Bros. What could have so easily devolved into maudlin treacle at a glance, acquires far more subtext, thanks to Casey Robinson; once so astutely described as “the master of the art – or craft – of adaptation.” According the source, Davis, Casey Robinson or Paul Henreid is responsible for the iconic – and unscripted – moment in which Henreid’s Jerry lights two cigarettes nestled between his lips, giving one to an emotional Charlotte, who acknowledges the gesture with the tears and gratitude of an old maid. Decades later, Robinson still clearly resented the implication anyone had a hand in reshaping his material. “…there was never – never – one word changed in any of the scripts I wrote for her – by Miss Davis, by a director, by anybody – and that is a flat statement, a true statement…and final!” By 1942, Davis had, in fact, profited handsomely from Robinson’s slick prose; her meteoric upswing at the studio in a series of well-chosen projects seeing her play everything from a fiery southern belle to a haughty socialite stricken by crippling blindness and death.
Initially, Jack Warner clashed with Davis over her choice of roles. At the outset, Jack saw Davis as a platinum dolly – his answer to MGM’s Jean Harlow. Davis, alas, had come to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a serious actress. She was mortified to play the slinky sex bomb in pictures like 1933’s Ex-Lady; further flush with embarrassment when overhearing director, Edmund Goulding mutter to a grip, “What do you think of these broads who think they can get anywhere by showing their legs and their chests?” Indeed, Davis’ virtues were not to be found in her physical assets, except ostensibly in those hard-boiled orbs that bulged, flashed and radiated volumes of kilowatt rage, temptation, sadness and that elusive spark of movie-land originality in tandem. Neither Warner nor Davis was willing to budge in the way they saw Davis’ career, and thus, an inevitable rift occurred in 1936 when Davis attempted to wrangle herself free from Warner’s grip by walking out on her studio contract. Warner sued for breach of contract. Davis did not win on appeal. But she did garner more than a modicum of instant respect from Jack, who was not readily known for such magnanimity, but who allowed Davis unprecedented autonomy to choose her roles thereafter; perhaps, assuming with enough creative freedom she would eventually hamstring her future prospects and once again fall under his scrutiny and control. Happy chance for both Davis and Warner the projects she went after were not only surefire box office – despite occasionally deriving from the most unlikely premises – equally, as artistically sound; elevating not only Davis’ prestige at the studio, but the studio’s reputation and drawing power with female audiences throughout the war years.
Now, Voyager is an atypical story of ‘ugly duckling’ transformation; Prouty’s own psychological liberation transplanted into the character of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) - a beleaguered Bostonian blue-blood whose overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper) has all but devastated her self-worth. Unafraid to play dowdy, Davis is made over as one of the most awesomely repugnant frumps, given clunky ‘sensible’ orthopedic shoes, a furry uni-brow, schoolmarm’s haircut and floral-printed housedresses, filled out with cotton batting to give her a boxy figure. Davis plays these early moments for all their pitiable strength; her heartrending fragility scoffed at by her imperious mum, and casually made the brunt of jokes by a callously cruel niece, June (Bonita Granville). Only Lisa (Ilka Chase), an empathetic sister-in-law, knows how severely close to the edge of a complete mental breakdown Charlotte is; her plan, to whisk Charlotte off to Cascade, a pastoral convalescence home for the mentally ill, overseen by the benevolent Dr. Jacquith, exactly what is needed to rejuvenate and restore the girl back to health – and beyond. The sanitarium, managed by the elegant and as kind, Miss Trask (Katherine Alexander) is quite unlike anything modern psychiatry might have imagined. Certainly, psychoanalysis was then, all the rage; its probative methods in the treatment of delusions of the mind, the subject of many a Hollywood classic, from Selznick’s Spellbound (1945) to Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948) and later, The Three Faces of Eve(1957).
To its credit and its storytelling strengths, Now, Voyager is not about the art and craft of psychoanalysis; nor, about investigating the inner workings of the human psyche, but a personalized tale of one woman’s navigation through its labyrinth with only marginal outside guidance and the power of her own self-reliance. After imposing himself for a brief tête-à-tête with Charlotte, at which time she nervously reveals how her mother’s overbearing presence throughout her impressionable youth not only ruined a burgeoning shipboard romance with a luxury liner’s first mate, but also has since made her a veritable prisoner in her own home – isolated in her compulsive hand-carving ivory and hiding cigarettes behind the bookcases – Jacquith astutely surmises Charlotte is on the brink of total emotional collapse. He confronts Mrs. Vale in the library, unapologetically puncturing holes in the balloons of her hypocrisies about a daughter’s place – a child’s place. Twaddle! A person has rights – the most fundamental, to pursue happiness on her own terms with a mother’s unconditional love, without her meddling, but moreover, without fear of reprisals. While vehemently disagreeing with him, Mrs. Vale bitterly allows Jacquith to usher Charlotte away to Cascade, though merely to spare herself the embarrassment of having to face Charlotte’s malady. After an undisclosed period of rest, Jacquith allows Lisa to bestow a lavish respite aboard a luxury liner, far away from both the sanitarium and her mother’s detrimental influences.
Almost immediately, the cruise leaves a more lasting impression; the ship’s organizer, Mr. Thompson (Franklin Pangborn), pairing the mysterious Renee Beauchamp with the only other tourist travelling alone, Jeramiah Duveaux Durrance – Jerry, for short. At first, Charlotte is quite uncomfortable with this arrangement. But Jerry is so utterly forgiving of her early resistances to even his most basic kindness; so completely willing to accept her on whatever limited terms she may permit, that she cannot help but gracefully fall for his charms. He confesses to being married and having two daughters; Tina (Janis Wilson), the younger, unloved by her mother just as Charlotte has been overlooked by her own, thus setting up an immediate kinship with this girl she has never met. Determined to take Dr. Jacquith’s advice, to be interested in everything and everyone, partake and contribute, Charlotte embarks upon a friendship with Jerry, bolstered by the confidences of his good friends, Frank (James Rennie) and Deb McIntyre (Lee Patrick). Deb confides in Charlotte the real unhappiness of Jerry’s marriage to Isobel; her martyrdom holding the noble man true to his vows, even as there is precious little else to keep them together.
Jerry and Charlotte spend a few days in Brazil; she taking the clipper from Buenos Aires after each agrees to never meet again, thus preserving their passion and memories of this brief and perfectly flawed rendezvous. Regrettably, Jerry is the first to break these terms, sending Charlotte a corsage of camellias to mark her arrival in Boston. Earlier, a bottle of Jolie Fleur perfume stirred Charlotte’s heart to inner warmth she thought quite unattainable. Now, the camellias strengthen her resolve to withstand the unabated cruelties of her mother, who has already decided Charlotte’s ‘transformation’ is a disaster. In readiness for her return home, Mrs. Vale has had Charlotte’s things moved downstairs to the room opposite her own, presumably to be closer and look after her needs. In reality, Mrs. Vale is desperate to keep a watchful eye on her daughter’s development – or rather, regression back to her former self. Having summoned the family for a social gathering this very evening, Mrs. Vale further informs her daughter she is to have her hair and makeup redone in the style befitting her former self, having already taken the liberty of hiring a seamstress to alter all of Charlotte’s unsightly old frocks to fit her trimmer figure. Miraculously, Charlotte playfully resists both requests and her own fragile temptation to succumb to the past; declaring a newfound independence by informing her mother she has no intension of retreating into her former self.
Deliberately falling down a flight of stairs to inflict maternal guilt upon this ‘ungrateful’ offspring, Mrs. Vale is defeated in her insidious plan; confined with a sprained ankle via Dora Pickford’s (Mary Wickes) street savvy nurse’s care. The rest of the family are agog at Charlotte’s transformation, but most willing to ‘accept’ her now as one of their own instead of ostracizing her as a social outcast. In the interim, Charlotte begins a blossoming romance with affluent divorcee, Elliot Livingston (John Loder, the ever-popular second string leading man who rarely got the girl in the movies). Elliot is smitten with Charlotte, but strangely unable to embrace her terms for a passionate affair. He makes engagement plans but is actually taken aback when she suggests an exotic vacation together where he can ‘make violent love to her’. The would-be romance cools, before being irrevocably dismantled when Jerry inadvertently resurfaces at the house party of a mutual friend. Believing Charlotte engaged to Elliot, Jerry nobly bows out, hurrying to the train depot. But Charlotte has broken off the engagement, hurrying to Jerry’s side to beg for his understanding. This given, only a short while later, Charlotte incurs her mother’s disgust. “I should think you’d be ashamed to spend the rest of your days as Charlotte Vale…Miss Charlotte Vale!” Things reach a fevered pitch as Charlotte unleashes her own long-overdue contempt for her mother, explaining “Dr. Jasquith says that tyranny is sometimes expression of the maternal instinct. If that's a mother's love, I want no part of it,”concluding with bitter remorse, “I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides.” The truth sets Charlotte free – for just a moment; but it also causes Mrs. Vale to suffer a fatal heart attack.
Blaming herself, and believing she might suffer a relapse and another breakdown, Charlotte retreats to Cascade, where she discovers Tina is already a patient. However, Dr. Jacquith and Miss Trask’s methods seem to be failing the neurotic child and Charlotte quietly elects to become Tina’s guardian. Needy and craving a mother’s love, Tina is lulled into Charlotte’s cure by her sincere kindness. Charlotte makes Tina promise to keep their friendship a secret from her father. But Jerry soon discovers the truth, and, fearing Tina will ruin Charlotte’s chances to procure a happy life apart from her responsibilities to the girl, soon is determined to separate the pair. But by now, Charlotte has already decided upon her latter day course and purpose in life. She will transform her mother’s estate into a respite for needy children like Tina and serve in the capacity as a board member to help Cascade grow and prosper under Dr. Jacquith’s inspiration. Jacquith is both bewildered and impressed by Charlotte’s total transformation. But Jerry confronts Charlotte, hoping to learn the real reason for her devotion to Tina, suspecting she is merely clinging onto the girl to maintain a toehold in his life. The mood in this penultimate scene effortlessly shifts from dismay to confrontation, finally elevated by the sudden appearance of Tina, looking happier and healthier than ever. Jerry realizes Charlotte’s love for Tina is real. Moreover, she will not ask him to abandon Isobel or his other daughter for her, but rather, remain contented in the knowledge Tina will always remain a link between them. Asked if she can ever be truly happy with only this, Charlotte willing confesses, “Oh Jerry, let’s not ask for the moon…we have the stars.”
Buoyed by Max Steiner’s quixotic underscore, one of his finest in a peerless career, Now, Voyager is the quintessential ‘woman’s picture’; a shameless tearjerker that retains its ability to moisten the eye, even as it perennially warms the heart. Director, Irving Rapper illustrates a deft eloquence in both of Bette Davis’ ‘big reveals’; the first, as the grotesquely unattractive Aunt Charlotte, the second, Charlotte, as reimagined in haut couture a la a bona fide movie star; Davis playing it straight as the emotionally fragile heir-apparent, masquerading under an assumed name: Camille Beauchamp; the accomplished – and marginally guarded – woman of the world to whom Jerry will briefly devote himself. Owing to a convention of the time, Charlotte and Jerry are never seen sharing anything beyond a chaste kiss and those now famously lit cigarettes, presumably smoked without any afterthought for a freshly unearthed sexual liaison. But the clues are there for the audience to infer. Jerry, although caught in a loveless marriage to Isobel, is nevertheless devoted to their daughter, Tina in whom Charlotte can sense elements of her own sad childhood. Casey Robinson’s screenplay is neither particularly concerned with Charlotte’s rehabilitation, nor the specific path by which Charlotte and Tina establish their bond, only after a preamble of night terrors and crying fits has subsided.
At its core, Now, Voyager is undeniably, and unabashedly melodramatic, so purposefully understated and supremely executed by the entire cast, it never fails to elicit more than a few moist handkerchiefs brought out to dab away well-intended tears. “Let us not as for the moon, Charlotte’s quiet ‘moon/stars’ declaration is perhaps, the ultimate expression of self-sacrifice brought forth from this particular ilk of complicated screen heroines. Produced under a then ‘new agreement’ between producer, Hal B. Wallis and Warner Bros., Now, Voyager became one of the biggest money makers of 1942, and, in retrospect, the highest-grossing movie in Bette Davis’ long and illustrious canon of films. Somewhere along the way director, Irving Rapper quickly realized only one person was truly in charge of this production - and it decidedly was not him. Although Davis was cordial to Rapper, their artistic differences occasionally boiled over to delay the shoot, effectively leaving Rapper with nothing to do but acquiesce to his star's 'suggestions' in order to get the film in the can. He could have done worse, as Davis’ uncanny ability to make martyred females of classicist chic the epitome of this sort of classless and very classy self-pity, never maudlin or debilitating, but strangely attractive to both women and men, ranks her among a very rare party of one – effectively drawing strength and clarity from these ‘sad tears’ of ‘an old maid’, though never in a harsh, unflattering or manipulative way. Thus, Charlotte Vale emerges as a very rare butterfly from this psychoanalytic cocoon; one to whom the prospect of an enduring unrequited affair de Coeur is not simply ‘the best she can hope for’ but rather an exalted place of worship where such blessed virginal atonement for any past – and future – indiscretions may be considered on their own merit of forgiveness.
In all regards, Now, Voyager remains a superior entertainment - overtly sentimental, though never schmaltzy - and superbly played by all concerned. Davis delivers one of her most memorable performances with an uncharacteristic quiet, tender grace. Paul Henreid shows why, for a time, he was considered the most elegant of the intercontinental lovers. Claude Rains is charming, suave and uber-witty as always. Like most films from this vintage in Warner Bros. studio history, Now, Voyager comes on strong and never lets up. Casey Robinson's screenplay is a miracle of concision. In a little under two hours he manages an intricate balancing act between narrative threads of self-discovery, self-sacrifice and vainglorious flawed romance. Max Steiner's score is complimented by Sol Polito's sumptuous cinematography. It is frankly, amazing how many times we have seen the same staircase featured in the Vale family home in countless other Warner Bros. product from this vintage (The Big Sleep, Mr. Skeffington, Humoresque, just three examples that immediately come to mind) and yet, looking remarkably fresh and inviting. Like all studios then, the Warner assembly line for making movie art was masterful at changing up the variables just enough to make us believe in the magic behind its’ craftsmanship, as well as our own suspension of disbelief for the proverbial ‘happy ending’. Many years have passed, but Now, Voyager lives on as only the truly great romances of celluloid can. It doesn’t get any better than this, folks. It is highly unlikely it ever will.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is almost reference quality. The benefactor of a complete digital restoration some years ago that continues to hold up (mostly) under very close scrutiny, the gray scale herein is perfectly contrasted. Whites are clean and vibrant. Blacks are deep and rich. Fine detail is evident throughout. The image is crisp and free of age-related artifacts. Film grain is perhaps a tad smoother than anticipated, but nevertheless indigenous to its source. Not so good: there is a rather obvious amount of edge enhancement during several key sequences – particularly in the plaids, florals and spotted prints of Charlotte’s dresses. Warner has hinted Now, Voyager might be coming to Blu-ray very soon and one can only hope that if the rumors are true, corrections will be dully made to ensure these digital anomalies have been eradicated. The audio has also been nicely cleaned up with one curious exception. The main title music appears to suffer from a slight muffled characteristic. Extras include an isolated score (something Warner Home Video no longer does on its releases but should…a genuine pity) and the original theatrical trailer. One wishes Warner had committed to at least an audio commentary on this deep catalog title, but there it is. None forthcoming. As the film's 1948 reissue tag fittingly proclaims, “…for now, for always; Now Voyager!” Very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)