Now, Voyager (1942)
Now, Voyager is one of the classic “woman’s films,” a genre popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Woman’s films, also called melodramas or even “weepies,” featured woman-centered narratives revolving around female protagonists, and dealt with “women’s issues” like motherhood, marriage, domestic life, romance, and a (un)healthy dose of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.
For those reasons, some of these films, especially the more melodramatic ones, can seem a little dated.
Fun fact: the idea of the “woman’s film” was a hot topic in film scholarship in the 1980s, and it continues to be explored. Do these films qualify as a separate genre? Are they subversive? Patriarchal? Anti/Feminist? Repressive? Liberating? And what about the name? Is the term “woman’s film” positive or negative?
We won’t delve into that too much, but it’s worth noting the complications that accompany these films.
To the movie! It’s based on Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1941 novel of the same name. She wrote a series of four novels about the wealthy Vale family of Boston, and Now, Voyager is the third. Fun fact: Prouty’s novel Stella Dallas was adapted for the screen in 1925 and 1937, and both are quintessential entries in the woman’s film canon.
Production on this film started in April, 1942 at Warner Bros., led by producer Hal Wallis. It stars Bette Davis, who was at the height of her career after several huge hits and four consecutive Best Actress Oscar nominations.
But Davis wasn’t Wallis’ first choice to play Charlotte Vale; Irene Dunne was Wallis’ pick, but Norma Shearer was also in the running. When Dunne and Shearer became involved in other projects, Wallis thought about Ginger Rogers for the role. But Davis heard about the project, campaigned for it, and eventually was cast.
Opposite Davis is Paul Henreid, an Austrian actor whom you might know as Victor Lazslo in Casablanca (1942). Now, Voyager was Henreid’s first big role in Hollywood, and it established him as a romantic leading man.
Fun fact: Henreid was born Paul Georg Julius Freiherr von Hernried Ritter von Wassel-Waldingau, but he went by Paul von Hernried as an actor in Europe. When he emigrated to the United States and got a contract with RKO, the studio recommended that he drop the “von” and change the spelling in his last name, which is how he got to Paul Henreid.
The movie opens in a stuffy Boston mansion. A noted psychiatrist named Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) has come to visit Charlotte Vale at the request of Charlotte’s sister-in-law, Lisa (Ilka Chase). Lisa is afraid that Charlotte is about to suffer a massive nervous breakdown, but Charlotte’s mother (Gladys Cooper) thinks the whole thing is ridiculous. Her daughter is fine, thank you very much, and she doesn’t appreciate Dr. Jaquith’s interference.
Mrs. Vale is a scary, tyrannical woman who has run Charlotte’s life (into the ground.) She is an exaggerated, Freudian example of “Momism,” a term coined that year in Philip Wylie’s book A Generation of Vipers. Wylie nastily claims that mothers who exert too much power, and make their children too dependent upon them, turn their kids into immature, utterly dependent losers. Like Charlotte.
Mrs. Vale is terrifying, but Dr. Jaquith holds his own. She tells him that Charlotte was a “late child” who arrived years after her brothers were born, and wasn’t super “wanted.” She has not been kind nor supportive to her shy, sensitive daughter. Speaking of whom…
Charlotte is summoned from her room, where she was carving ivory boxes and smoking cigarettes on the sly. We first see her sensible, dowdy shoe on the stairs before we get a shock.
Is that really Bette Davis in that frumpy old dress, glasses, and old-fashioned hairstyle? It’s an especially effective look next to sharp Lisa in her trim suit.
Fun fact: Davis got really into this role and was extremely meticulous about her performance. She worked closely with costume designer Orry-Kelly and her hair and makeup personnel to get the right look for Charlotte.
To simulate the addition of about twenty-five pounds, Davis asked Orry-Kelly to add padding to her costumes, and besides the dowdy hairstyle, she asked makeup artist Perc Westmore to thicken her eyebrows into furry caterpillars.
Although it’s a pretty extreme alteration, what appears in the film was actually a compromise. Davis had wanted to go even further, but Wallis thought it was too grotesque and pulled things back.
We see immediately how Mrs. Vale orders Charlotte around, refuses to accept that anything might be wrong, and generally acts like a cruel, overbearing parent. Charlotte becomes more and more agitated until she leaves the room. Notice how Mrs. Vale looms large in the frame, just as she looms large in Charlotte’s life. You can watch the scene here.
Dr. Jaquith follows and asks if she might show him around the house. They end up in her room, where she shows him her ivory boxes and he sees the hidden cigarette butts in her trash can. She gets more and more upset as she explains how her mother picks out her clothes, glasses, and hair style, the books she reads, and the food she eats, exclaiming “I’m fat; my mother doesn’t approve of dieting!”
She shows Dr. Jaquith a photo album of the last trip she took, a cruise with her mother when Charlotte was twenty-years old. And…flashback!
A pretty young Charlotte fell in love with one of the ship’s officers, and they engaged in a steamy, secret romance. But then they were discovered inside a car on the ship (Titanic, anyone?).
And despite their protestations that they wanted to get married, Mrs. Vale took charge and ended things, since the officer wasn’t suitable for a “Vale of Boston.”
And that was the last trip, and probably the last fun, that Charlotte had. Fun fact: Author Prouty suggested that the film be shot in color with the flashbacks in black and white, but Warner Bros. didn’t go for that idea.
Dr. Jaquith is deeply concerned, and he returns to the parlor to tell Mrs. Vale that Charlotte is seriously ill: “If you had deliberately and maliciously planned to destroy your daughter’s life, you couldn’t have done it more completely.” He’s a brave man.
Charlotte returns to the parlor. But things get worse when Lisa’s pretty blonde daughter June (Bonita Granville) arrives and begins teasing and mocking Charlotte.
It’s rather merciless and mean, and I’m always struck by the fact that Lisa doesn’t stop her daughter. After all, Lisa genuinely cares about Charlotte, and she has brought a famous doctor to help, and he just announced that Charlotte is very sick. So why does she let her daughter be so cruel? It’s weird.
June teases until poor Charlotte can’t take it anymore. Out comes an anguished burst:
And she runs back to her room. Mrs. Vale says, stupidly and in denial: “No member of the Vale family has ever had a nervous breakdown.” Dr. Jaquith, who has been watching it all, answers simply: “Well, there’s one having one now.”
Fun fact: In Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice, author David Skal writes that at first, Rains wasn’t crazy about making this movie because the part of Dr. Jaquith was very small. He actually turned it down until screenwriter Casey Robinson re-wrote it, boosting the psychiatrist’s role and tailoring it to Rains. Rains was paid $5,000 a week for six weeks, though the shooting went badly over schedule and almost kept Rains from his next movie, a little film called Casablanca (115).
Next thing we know, Charlotte is at Cascades, Dr. Jaquith’s retreat/facility. She’s been there for almost three months, and Dr. Jaquith thinks that she is ready to re-enter the world. But she disagrees. Also, her eyes have somehow improved and she doesn’t wear glasses anymore.
To help her venture out into the world, Dr. Jaquith gives her a poem by Walt Whitman:
And that’s where the title comes from! Walt Whitman’s two line poem “The Untold Want.” You can watch the scene at Cascades here.
Charlotte doesn’t want to go home, so Lisa helps her arrange passage on a South American cruise to gently ease Charlotte back into the world. Fun fact: Prouty’s novel includes a Mediterranean cruise and time spent in Italy, but since WWII was raging, the film changed Charlotte’s journey to South America. There was a concerted effort made in the 1940s to court the South American audience and make that continent look great (for more, see my reviews of Bathing Beauty, Nancy Goes to Rio, and Easy to Wed), so the alteration wasn’t a hardship.
Cut to the ship where cruise director Franklin Pangborn is making final arrangements for the day’s shore excursion.
Passengers are impatiently waiting for Charlotte to arrive so they can depart. No one has seen her yet, and they’re curious.
In a lovely repetition of the first time we saw Charlotte, it is her shoe that introduces the new Charlotte before the camera gives us a look at her face and form.
The difference is striking:
No more padded clothes, bushy eyebrows, and sensible shoes! Besides the thrill of a makeover, it’s a very poignant moment, as you can imagine Charlotte being terrified to meet people, and cautiously emerging from her cabin in her new clothes and elegant hat, self-conscious and nervous.
She sits by herself until Pangborn introduces her to a fellow traveler, Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) and asks if Jerry could accompany her on the excursion, as they are the only lone travelers. Charlotte doesn’t have much choice in the matter, but Jerry is very nice and non-threatening. And Dr. Jaquith told her to try to “unbend” and be more open to new people and opportunities (a scene we see in a brief flashback at this very moment). So she agrees.
Here they are filming this scene:
Jerry and Charlotte chat and have lunch, and it’s all going nicely. There are a few odd moments, though, as when Jerry says something that is the exact opposite of what Mrs. Vale often told Charlotte. Mrs. Vale’s face appears superimposed on top of Charlotte’s in an eerie effect as she hears her mother’s voice:
Charlotte can’t believe that handsome Jerry is being so kind to her. She still feels like dumpy, awkward Charlotte despite her transformation and newfound but fragile confidence.
She catches her reflection in a window and looks surprised to find herself in this moment. You can watch the scene here.
After lunch, Jerry asks Charlotte to help him shop for presents for his wife and two daughters. Yes, alas, Jerry is married. He shows her a photograph of his wife Isabelle and two daughters when they return to the ship. Charlotte is intrigued to learn that the younger daughter, Tina, was also a “late child” who wasn’t very “wanted” by Jerry’s wife. And Tina wears glasses and thinks she is an ugly duckling. Hmm, ain’t that a coincidence!
To thank her for helping him shop that afternoon, Jerry gives Charlotte a bottle of perfume, and asks if she’d like to dine with him that evening. She rushes to her room and pulls out an evening gown with attached instructions:
Lisa and Charlotte have thought of everything to ensure an easy, stylish sailing!
Charlotte puts on the pretty white dress and embellished cape, and meets Jerry in the dining room, though she is petrified.
But he is all charm and consideration, and they have a pleasant evening, though she wants to disappear into the floor when he plucks another note off the back of her cape! (Renee is the woman who gave up her spot on the ship, and also apparently her wardrobe, for Charlotte).
Charlotte is mortified when Jerry sees the note, (can you even imagine her embarrassment? She’s already way outside of her comfort zone, she barely made it to dinner at all, and she can’t even fathom the idea of someone being kind to her!)
But Jerry is sweet about it, and, after all, it’s not the first odd thing he’s noticed about Charlotte. She calls herself a spinster aunt and acts prickly and unused to positive attention.
Plus, she admits that she is traveling under a friend’s name, and confesses that she is really Charlotte Vale. Jerry says he’d like to call her Camille, as she is something of a chameleon. He likes her. Here they are between takes:
Eventually, as all couples must when onboard ship, they make their way outside to stand close together in the moonlight. That shimmering cape does indeed make an impression!
As they talk, Jerry picks up on some more not-so-subtle hints, which lead him to ask, tenderly:
Charlotte just shakes her head as she fights tears. She tells him that she’s been ill and maybe isn’t quite well yet, and shows him a picture of her family. He points out the “fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair,” not realizing it’s Charlotte. She sets him straight.
And then it all makes more sense. That evening, he writes Tina a letter:
The next day, and for many days after, Jerry and Charlotte spend time together. Charlotte meets his buddies, one of whom sits beside her on deck and tells her that Jerry’s wife is a terror who makes his life miserable. But Jerry stays with her because of the kids, especially Tina. That’s good to know.
When they arrive in Rio, Jerry and Charlotte hire a car to take them up the mountain, but there is a crash. Everyone is killed.
Just kidding, everyone is fine. But the car is stuck at the bottom of the gully, so Jerry and Charlotte are forced to spend the night together in a hut. They snuggle, but just for the warmth…Charlotte is sound asleep when Jerry kisses her tenderly on the cheek and wraps her more firmly in his arms. It’s very sweet and romantic. He’s in love with her.
The next morning, Charlotte has a choice to make. Jerry is staying in Rio on business, but Charlotte was supposed to continue to Buenos Aires, though she missed the boat because of the car accident. Now, she can either catch a plane to Buenos Aires that day or wait to catch the flight in five days, which would enable her to spend that time with Jerry.
Obviously, she decides to spend some extra time in Rio. She’s no dummy.
They have a wonderful time together full of platonic, appropriate friendship on the surface and forbidden love just underneath. But the night before her plane leaves, Jerry climbs onto her balcony to tell her how he feels. Ready for some romantic melodrama? And a very famous cigarette lighting scene?
As composer Max Steiner‘s love theme surges in the background, Jerry puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them, and hands one to Charlotte. It’s sexy but also quite perfect because remember how Charlotte used to hide her smoking? Now a handsome man who is in love with her is helping her smoke! She’s come a long way!
This cigarette lighting ritual was a sensation and became a trademark for Henreid and Davis. The two stars claimed that they came up with the routine while rehearsing, based on how Henreid and his wife lit their cigarettes. The director, Irving Rapper, claimed he invented it to cover an awkward moment in the script. And screenwriter Casey Robinson said that it was always in the screenplay, which is true–it is in early drafts.
But it goes even further back than that, as the whole thing had appeared in a scene with Ruth Chatterton and George Brent in The Rich Are Always With Us (1932), which was one of Davis’ first films at Warner Bros.! So it’s got a complicated history, but it became indelibly linked to this film and these stars.
Meanwhile, things get real with a passionate declaration from Jerry and stunned tears from Charlotte:
You might wish Charlotte would just kiss him or something rather than play the “old maid” and “crumbs” card, but she’s still slightly stuck in old Charlotte mode.
As tears fill her eyes, she tells him “You see, no one ever called me darling before!” And they kiss, finally. And we all tear up.
But their love for each other doesn’t trump his (horrible) marriage, so they decide it’s better if they part and try to move on.
The next day Jerry accompanies Charlotte to the airport. They gaze in each other’s eyes, and Jerry does the cigarette thing again:
Then off she flies to catch her ship. Sigh.
Guess what? We’re barely halfway through! But things speed up. Cut to the dock in New York where Lisa and June wait for Charlotte. They’re shocked, shocked! to see chic, popular Charlotte stroll down the gangplank. It’s a great rhyme with the first gangplank scene at the beginning of her cruise. That time she was insecure and self-conscious, but now she owns that stroll!
June is shocked to see her spinster aunt surrounded by adoring men carrying her bags, and she’s even more disoriented when Charlotte dishes out some teasing of her own.
Fun fact: Bonita Granville played Nancy Drew in four films in 1938-1939. Another fun fact: Davis later said that Granville was the only actor who was rude to her when they were making this movie. Which is pretty ironic, and pretty stupid on Granville’s part.
Everyone is trying to catch up with Charlotte to say goodbye, and the cruise director even has this surprising news.
If June and Lisa didn’t see it with their own eyes, they would never have believed it! You can watch Charlotte’s triumphant arrival here.
Things don’t go as smoothly when Charlotte gets home, though. Her mother liked having submissive Charlotte at her beck and call, and she isn’t happy about confident, self-assured Charlotte. She even threatens to cut her off if Charlotte refuses to abide by her rules. You can watch the scene here.
Charlotte is deflated after her chat with her monstrous mother. How can she maintain her newfound mental health and habits if her mother insists on treating her as she always has? Just when she really, really needs a boost, one arrives in a plain box. Inside is a trio of glorious camellias (a reference to her pet name Camille) from Jerry. And Charlotte is reminded that she is loved and wanted.
She pins the camellias to her new black dress and goes to set some new rules with her mother. Their conversation is tense but Charlotte holds her own. Then Mrs. Vale falls down the stairs and hurts her ankle, leaving Charlotte to play hostess at a dinner party for her family.
Charlotte’s brothers are shocked to see their sister:
But she rolls with their utter confusion, flitting about like the charming, confident woman she has become. She even dares to light a fire in the parlor’s fireplace, something her mother has never allowed. Go, symbolism, go! The camera even lingers on the flickering flames in the long dormant fireplace to make sure we get it.
After the party, Charlotte and her mother reach an uneasy truce.
But Charlotte and Dora (Mary Wickes) her mother’s nurse, are fast friends. Dora intuitively senses what’s going on, and she is absolutely on Charlotte’s side.
With Dora’s help, Charlotte and her mother maintain a fragile equilibrium over the next months. It’s assisted by Charlotte’s budding relationship with eligible widower Elliot Livingston (John Loder, who also plays Bette Davis’ love interest in Old Acquaintance).
Elliot is a major catch, and Mrs. Vale really wants Charlotte to land him. And Charlotte is into it. They even get engaged!
But she still wears Jerry’s camellias, and leaves the roses that Elliot sends her at home.
It’s all going pretty well for Miss Vale, but that can’t last. We need more melodrama! So at a party one evening, guess who Charlotte sees across the room?
She and Jerry chat as though they are the merest of acquaintances, but they’re still in love, darn it. You can watch the scene here.
To his credit, when Jerry learns of Charlotte’s engagement, he cancels their late-night rendezvous and takes a train out of town. He doesn’t want to mess up Charlotte’s life. But she runs to the train station to catch him before he goes. Every melodrama needs an intense parting scene at a train station!
When Jerry says he feels bad for saddling Charlotte with an impossible love, Charlotte jumps in with all the reasons that she doesn’t regret her love for Jerry:
On that very first day, a little bottle of perfume made me feel important. You were my first friend, and then when you fell in love with me, I was so proud. And when I came home I needed something to make me feel proud. And your camellias arrived, and I knew you were thinking about me. Oh, I could have walked into a den of lions. Matter of fact, I did, and the lions didn’t hurt me.
It’s brilliantly delivered in Davis’ intense way–magic!
Then Jerry boards his train, and Charlotte watches him go, mascara smudged and camellias smooshed.
And yet the movie continues!
Charlotte realizes that she can’t marry Elliot while loving Jerry, so she breaks off their engagement. It’s about the friendliest breakup you’ll ever see.
And how interesting that Charlotte is wearing a dress reminiscent of the one she wore in her first scene of the film, though the situations are far removed.
Mrs. Vale is furious when Charlotte tells her that the engagement is off. They say some nasty things to one another, including this gem that Charlotte hurls at her mom: “I didn’t want to be born. You didn’t want me to be born. It’s been a calamity on both sides.”
And in the midst of their fight, Mrs. Vale dies. You can watch it here.
How fitting that Charlotte’s similar dresses bookmark the first and last scenes with Mrs. Vale, too.
Although Charlotte is now free and very wealthy, (she has inherited the massive Vale estate), she feels terrible guilt over her mother’s death.
So she returns to Cascades to stave off a breakdown. When she arrives, guess who she sees working on a puzzle? Why, ’tis Jerry’s daughter Tina (Janis Wilson)!
After meeting Charlotte, Jerry realized that he had to get Tina away from her mother, so he sent her to Cascades. Charlotte knows who Tina is, but Tina has no idea. Charlotte tells Tina that she can call her Camille if she’d like, and of course Tina loves that idea!
Charlotte decides to cheer up miserable Tina. They get ice cream together, and Charlotte lets Tina call her dad. She tells him that a lady named Camille is being her friend…and Jerry knows.
That night, Charlotte holds Tina as she weeps about how she’s ugly and no one likes her and no one wants her. And Charlotte decides to help Jerry’s daughter. The pair are inseparable, and under Charlotte’s care, Tina begins to blossom. At first, Dr. Jaquith isn’t sure that this is such a good idea, but Charlotte convinces him to let her be Tina’s nurse.
Charlotte even convinces Dr. Jaquith to let her take Tina away from Cascades on a big camping trip. Because that’s totally fine, liability-wise, to let one patient take another patient off into the wilderness.
Rains and Davis are great together. This was their second film; they’d worked together in Juarez (1939), and would be re-teamed in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Deception (1946). Davis would later say that Rains was her favorite co-star.
Fun fact: Davis also really liked Janis Wilson, and chose her to be her daughter in Watch on the Rhine (1943).
Tina’s confidence skyrockets, and Charlotte feels fulfilled while mothering Tina. Each feels loved, plus Tina gets the mother she’s always wanted, and Charlotte gets to be the mother she always wanted. Perfect!
Oddly enough, Tina’s parents give the okay for Charlotte to take Tina back to Boston with her. She’s essentially adopted the kid, and they’re having a great time in that huge mansion, which is now filled with people and laughter.
Jerry stops by one evening to see Tina, you know, like a dad. He’s amazed at the change in his daughter:
And he still loves Charlotte. In fact, when he’s hugging Tina, he says “I love you,” while staring straight at Charlotte. Tina assumes it’s for her, and Charlotte knows it’s for her. It’s not as creepy as it sounds.
That evening, Jerry and Charlotte find a quiet room for a chat. But first, they need their cigs!
Divorce somehow remains utterly out of the question, but the two re-pledge their love to one another. They discuss what to do about Tina, and Charlotte says she wants her to stay in Boston. At first Jerry protests against Charlotte sacrificing her own life like this for Tina, but then he agrees to the plan.
He even calls Tina “our child,” as in his and Charlotte’s. He can’t divorce Isabelle but he can adopt out their daughter and create another family with Charlotte? What?
So it’s settled. Tina will stay with Charlotte, and Jerry will stop by once in a while. Which leads us to the final, famous lines spoken as Steiner’s love theme cascades beneath them:
I don’t know, I think they could reach a little higher. But that’s that, and it’s melodramatic and romantic and poignant. You can watch it here.
When the film was first released, Davis said in interviews that she thought Charlotte and Jerry would eventually get together. But years later, Davis would change her mind and say she thought Charlotte and Dr. Jaquith probably got married, and she helped him run Cascades. So lots of options.
This was Bette Davis’ biggest hit at Warner Bros., raking in $2.38 million in profit. It also did well critically, garnering Oscar nominations for Gladys Cooper, Max Steiner, and Bette Davis, giving Davis her fifth consecutive Best Actress nomination, matched only by Greer Garson. Steiner’s Best Score was the only winner, as Mrs. Miniver cleaned up that year, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright) and Best Actress (Greer Garson).
Fun fact: due to bad weather on location, illness, and Davis’ meticulous pace, the film ran over schedule. This forced changes in Casablanca‘s shooting schedule, as that film was waiting on Henreid and Rains to finish Now, Voyager.
Another fun fact: this was the first of four films that Davis would make with director Irving Rapper. After Now, Voyager, Rapper directed Davis in The Corn Is Green (1945), Deception (1946) and Another Man’s Poison (1951).
As for that smoking ritual…for the rest of his life, Henreid’s fans would ask him to light their cigarettes, and he used a picture of himself with two cigarettes in his mouth for the cover of his autobiography!
Davis’ fans were also forever asking if they could light her cigarettes the way Henreid did. And when Henreid directed Davis over twenty years later in Dead Ringer (1964), they re-staged the cigarette scene for promotional photos.