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Now, Voyager

by Glenn Erickson Nov 23, 2019

This must be an official Bette Davis month… Criterion has two vintage Davis pictures on offer, and TCM is devoted to a roundup of the actress’s work as well. This one qualifies as the all-time champion Women’s Weepie, but one that holds up as a great picture on all levels. Director Irving Rapper guided this best-ever drama, in which a put-upon Ugly Duckling throws off oppressive familial chains and blossoms into a woman of the world. She then makes choices of personal nobility and selflessness, that will challenge anybody’s notions of saint-like deportment. It’s the kind of show normally gets discussed over coffee, not by film critics, so the extras on this one are especially interesting.


Now, Voyager
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 10004
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 117 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date November 26, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville.
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editor: Warren Low
Original Music: Max Steiner
Written by Casey Robinson from a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by
Irving Rapper

 

Now, Voyager is ground zero for the women’s picture. It has everything to appeal to the presumed romance-craved female mind: a condensation of the Ugly Duckling story, a tale of empowerment wherein a persecuted woman overcomes abusive family members, and a sexy-sexless account of sublimated passion that pays off in those elusive rewards that are supposed to be superior to physical gratification. (Whew!)

Even better, Bette’s character is idealized in an attractive way. Davis tried everything but mostly played flawed women — a self-centered ditz (Mrs. Skeffington), a deluded ex-celebrity (The Star), a spoiled heiress (Dark Victory) and a femme fatale (The Letter). Charlotte Vale starts off as a neurotic mess, a potential ‘Norma’ Bates. But she blossoms into an exemplary female role model.

Repressed and abused as the ‘property’ of a mother (Gladys Cooper) who expects her to be a combination servant and nurse, horrid ‘aunt’ Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) lives a life locked in her room, sneaking cigarettes and growing fat. Older sister Lisa (Ilka Chase) comes to the rescue by consulting the sympathetic psychologist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). He effects a cure in one fell swoop, mainly by liberating Charlotte from maternal tyranny and allowing her to simply be herself. The new Ms. Vale takes a cruise to South America, where she meets and falls in love with Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), an unhappy man married to a reportedly horrible and domineering wife. They part as friends; the ‘new’ Charlotte returns to the nightmare of her mother, who demands to continue to dictate her dress, manners, behavior and associates. Elliot Livingston (John Loder) proposes marriage, but Charlotte drops that idea when she finds Jerry again. She learns more about his unhappy daughter Tina (Janis Wilson), who is a repressed child very much like Charlotte was. Jerry’s wife puts a relationship out of the question, but Charlotte has a secondary plan to find love.

— to ‘rescue’ Tina and become a second ‘ghost wife’ to him.

Not until Psycho did the movies invent a horror-mother as chilling as old Mrs. Vale; had the Vale family run a motel, it would be easy to see Charlotte in the Norman Bates role. There are laws against imprisoning and torturing strangers, but the exact same thing happens all the time to family members. The domineering Mrs. Vale has driven Charlotte halfway to the madhouse.

 

I can see many modern women dismissing Now, Voyager, for the wrong reasons — rejecting the social norms of earlier times, with earlier values, is not encouraging. As in many Women’s Films, all the drama plays out in a comfortable financial bubble — the Vales of Boston are clearly loaded, and Charlotte can go on a NYC fashion splurge, and a South American cruise, without thinking about money. Charlotte Vale’s transformation is not subtle. She starts out with two caterpillars for eyebrows, and wearing shapeless bags instead of dresses; a brief visit to the country transforms her into a woman of the world in both looks and personality. It may be laughable on a realistic level, but there’s no denying that a change of psychological environment can produce effects that feel like the transformation that Charlotte undergoes; the emotions ring true even if the images are exaggerated.

The real fantasy takes place in Warners’ vision of South America. Charlotte meets the perfect matinee lover, a hands-off gentleman with perfect manners, a faint foreign accent, and a sad story that isn’t a con-job for money or a green card. In any other American film of 1942 Jerry would be an axis spy (Henreid had already played at least one in England. Jerry doesn’t want to trouble Charlotte with his family problems, or at least he says so after sweeping her off her feet every way except sexually. For sexual intimacy, Now, Voyager substitutes a cigarette-swapping trick that many women have doubtless found equally satisfying. It’s the film’s signature moment, a recurring ritual with looks exchanged, etc.. It was once a clip repeated ad infinitum in Golden-Age Hollywood montages; modern anti-smoking political correctness might ban it from a montage today.

 

Everyone loves the scenes in which Charlotte employs gentle passive resistance to stand up to nasty mumsy. Gladys Cooper’s formidable battle-ax tries every ploy to bring daughter to heel, but Charlotte stands her ground. (spoiler) Cynical viewers mentally rewriting the movie will note that all it takes to shock mom into a heart attack are a few negative responses from Charlotte. Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson couldn’t do better a better job of dispatching an inconvenient relative. And the old bat didn’t even have time to change her will!  It would be fun to invent a noir Now, Voyager where we ‘follow the money’ – all that Vale cash going to the Jacquith institute – and invert the good characters with the bad.

A great many shows classified as Women’s Pictures invent some kind of impossibly selfless noble sacrifice, to make the heroine qualify for feminine sainthood. The classic is Stella Dallas, which was also written by Olive Higgins Prouty. It’s driving theme says class differences can’t be overcome, but compared to Now, Voyager it feels like a rigged game, all engineered to reach an emotionally wrenching ending where the Barbara Stanwyck’s mother is both devastated and overjoyed that she’s been shut out her daughter’s life forever. No weak-tea emotions there.

Does the Women’s Film subgenre need to be buried for the crime of promotin outdated (male-invented) rules? These women achieve heaven by keeping the faith, deferring personal rewards and abstaining from personal pleasures. It’s true that a great many women do that all the time in real life, their selfless sacrifices unrecognized. Charlotte Vale’s personal bargain with sexual frustration is as classy as they come. After walking through emotional fire, Charlotte is no longer looking for a standard marriage. She throws over a suitable applicant, opts to dedicate her money to Dr. Jacquith’s clinic and dedicates her personal attention to Jerry’s unloved daughter. In other words, Charlotte turns her personal drama into a grand charity. It works with Bette Davis, but this wrinkle must have appealed to well-off society women that attend luncheons and receive awards for charity — efforts that are just as often inspired by a desire to dodge taxes.

 

Times have changed — in our suspicious, litigious era, plenty of details in Now, Voyager now seem strange. It doesn’t seem appropriate for an ordinary clinic staffer to allow one disturbed patient (a minor, no less) to be escorted off the sanitarium grounds in the care of an ex-disturbed patient with no proven supervisory experience. They aren’t even related — does Tina’s mother know about any of this?  If Tina Durrance had so much as skinned a knee, the lawsuits and indictments could shut down the whole hospital. Today, the media would presume something even kinkier was going on, especially if the hidden Vale-Durrance relationship got out. We also might wonder why we we’re supposed to take Jerry Durrance’s word that his wife is the guilty party in their marriage. Like many ‘other woman’ stories, the villainous Bad Wife must remain mostly off screen for the story to function.

But all turns out for the good, of course. Now, Voyager doesn’t concoct a truly fantastic ending where the unseen Mrs. Durrance gets hit by a bus, leaving marriage and happiness open to the two chaste lovers. The film instead goes slightly cosmic at the finale, choosing an impossible idealism represented by a starry visual that seems influenced by Things to Come. Now, Voyager is the perfect distillation of narrative themes and romantic elements to attract the female audience in 1942. Passion so sublime that it transcends sex!  What’s the biological word for sexless procreation?

Bette Davis glows in this super-vehicle, directed by the invisible but obviously more than competent Irving Rapper. The reborn Charlotte Vale’s contrast with her former doormouse self might be extreme, but the character certainly looks great in her revised edition. If viewers are flexible enough to accept some value changes from nearly eighty years ago, they’ll find this women’s fantasy to be an emotional powerhouse. Paul Henreid demonstrates the proper continental smoothness, and Claude Rains is perhaps underused in a ‘dependable guy’ role. We note that there are no ‘bad’ men at all in Charlotte Vale’s life, a quality that for matinee attendees likely made Now, Voyager seem a happy vacation from mundane reality.

← The formidable Gladys Cooper must have needed some stiff drinks to unwind after a long day playing such an uptight monster. She won quite a few memorable parts, not all of them villainous: The Song of Bernadette, The Pirate, Separate Tables. When looking up some facts a few weeks back I found out that Hollywood for Ms. Cooper was a second or third career. Born in 1888, she was an incredible beauty and a celebrated stage actress since WW1 days.

Ilka Chase is bright and cheerful as the sister who doesn’t get enough credit — Charlotte at least had one relative who believed in her. Bonita Granville is the thoughtless snip of a niece and Mary Wickes is a happy, sassy nurse. The rest of the support is seamless, with Janis Wilson unaccountably unbilled in her important role as Tina Durrance. In a dialogue exchange, Tina sorts through some possible nicknames for Charlotte. She finally settles on Camille. Why not Hush Hush Sweet?


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Now, Voyager knocks us out with its perfect restored (4K) rendition of this polished Warners production. Everything in this picture is to be admired — maybe Irving Rapper isn’t a ‘name’ director, and perhaps cameraman Sol Polito took control of the visuals, but the direction is as smooth and focused as that of any star auteur. Especially punchy is Max Steiner’s active score, which follows moods rather then enforces them — it’s as if the music’s emotions are wired directly to Charlotte Vale’s heart. The main theme no doubt brought out handkerchiefs by the hundreds.

I was planning to sample the extras but watched and listened to most of them all the way through. Bette Davis is on her best behavior talking with Dick Cavett in 1971, even if her outfit doesn’t seem quite right (like I’m an expert). A little NBC news bit with Paul Henried shows him to be a pleasant, funny guy. Paul von Hernreid was a Hitler refugee. He jokes that he might not have taken his role in Casablanca seriously at first — why is a desperate fugitive resistance fighter wearing a slick white suit?  Well, the answer is that Paul Henried made that particular resistance refugee look perfectly natural dressed that way.

Jeff Smith’s select-scene commentary on the score shows how the music is tailored to Now, Voyager’s narrative themes, and Larry McQueen gives us a full appreciation of the film’s costumes, aided by a battery of impressive photos. Farran Smith Nehme seems always to have distinctive, memorable things to say and her half-hour talk about Bette Davis’s career is the best introduction to the actress I’ve yet seen. This may be Davis’s best picture at Warners, and she likely called most of the shots for it, on and off camera.

The insert booklet has a fine Patricia White essay, and a piece written in 1937 by Bette Davis. The disc’s art direction is especially attractive — artist Sam Hadley’s image on the cover is an improvement on the film’s original poster art.

A couple of years back I was informed that the South American cliffside café where Charlotte and Jerry have their first date in Now, Voyager was filmed at a restaurant I’ve been going to for years. It’s now called Las Brisas and it still looks the same, except the view of Laguna Beach in the background is more developed. Extra Note: contrary to rumor, the title Now, V’ger was not the original title of Robert Wise’s 1979 Star Trek, The Motion Picture.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Now, Voyager
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 60 minute episode of The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 with Bette Davis; brief interview with Paul Henreid from 1980; selected-scene commentary on the film’s score by scholar Jeff Smith; video overview of Davis and the film with Farran Smith Nehme; interview with costume historian Larry McQueen; two radio adaptations from 1943 and 1946. Illustrated booklet with an essay by scholar Patricia White and a 1937 reflection on acting by Davis.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 20, 2019
(6136now)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.