Now, Voyager(1942) At Eighty

Eighty years ago, Now, Voyager received its premiere in New York on the 22nd of October, 1942. The film went on general release in America on the 31st of October and wouldn’t be released here in the UK until November of 1943. It is based upon the 1941 novel of the same name, which was written by the American author, Olive Higgins Prouty. Now, Voyager was the third in a series of five novels written by Prouty, all of which focus upon the Vale family of Boston. The events of the third novel are inspired by Prouty’s own experiences of receiving psychotherapy treatment in a sanitarium in 1925 following her breakdown after the death of her daughter. 

The film adaptation of the novel was originally set to be directed by Edmund Goulding(Dark Victory, Nightmare Alley). Goulding had the actress Irene Dunne in mind for the role of Charlotte Vale, but unfortunately Goulding fell ill and had to withdraw from the project.

Bette Davis and Paul Henreid on set during filming.

Michael Curtiz(The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce) was then assigned to the film as the new director. Curtiz considered both Norma Shearer and Ginger Rogers for the role of Charlotte Vale. Bette Davis really wanted the role and campaigned to persuade producer Hal B. Wallis that she should be the one to play Charlotte. Bette would soon get her wish.

Michael Curtiz and Bette sadly didn’t get along that well and he soon left the project. Michael Curtiz was out of the director’s chair and Irving Rapper(Deception, Marjorie Morningstar) was quickly sitting in his place as the new (and final) director of the film. 

Joining Bette in the cast were the Austrian born Paul Henreid (absolutely superb in his first major Hollywood film role) as Jerry; the ever brilliant Claude Rains as Jaquith(accepting the role of the kindly doctor after the part had been rewritten); and Gladys Cooper(ice cold and despicable) as Mrs. Vale( also known as the ultimate mother from Hell.) 

More than anything the film serves as a showcase for the acting talents of Bette Davis as she plays a character undergoing quite the emotional and physical transformation before our eyes. Bette at first starts off totally convincing us that Charlotte Vale is a deeply damaged, dejected, shy and introverted woman, and makes us feel great sympathy towards her and her plight. Bette looks so vulnerable, so on edge, so worn out, and so worn down at the start of this film. This isn’t a case of an actress going for an Oscar simply by hiding beneath and relying upon layers of makeup, but rather a prime example of a very gifted actress completely inhabiting her character.

Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale.

In the next half of the film both actress and character transform before our very eyes into a far more open, strong and confident woman. By this stage Charlotte is now comfortable being herself and is also is finally breaking free of her mother’s control for the first time in her life. We know that Charlotte is going to be okay as her life goes on from this point.

Bette put a lot of effort into this performance and it shows. She also also worked quite closely with the makeup artist and costume designer throughout the production to decide what Charlotte should look like in the first section of the film.

Although the film is described as a romantic drama and is best remembered today for the love story at the very heart of its plot, it is actually so much more than your average love story. It is quite an unusual and bold film in many ways, and that is a major reason why I love this one so much. The film focuses upon the rights of the individual, upon mental health, and on the dangers of abusive and emotionally absent parents. The ending of the film is also about as far away from the typical romantic ending as it is possible to get in a film of this era. More than anything else Now, Voyager is really about Charlotte learning to love herself and be comfortable in her own skin.

I especially love how mental illness is depicted in this film. In an era when mental health still had a tremendous stigma attached to it, its attitudes towards mental health come across as being quite enlightened and modern in my opinion. Mentally ill people are all too often depicted as being incurable and frightening individuals who have to be thrown into psychiatric units and asylums to keep them away from the rest of society. So many mental health patients have been treated appallingly in asylums and hospitals throughout the centuries. Is it any wonder then that mental illness became something so frightening that people hated to admit they or their loved ones were suffering with it?

Refreshingly Now, Voyager shows us that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. Sometimes our minds simply need a little rest and some support.Receiving help with your mental health doesn’t mean you are weak or dangerous, if anything it makes you stronger because you realise you need help and you open up about what you’re going through. The film also shows us that there are kind and compassionate staff out there supporting those who are mentally ill.  Charlotte isn’t locked away and subjected to shock therapy or drugs, instead she becomes a patient of psychotherapy and is placed into a relaxing and quiet environment – an environment where she isn’t treated like a leper by those looking after her, but instead is treated with understanding, consideration and immense patience.

The Snake Pit(1948).

Just a few years later The Snake Pit was released. This film has become one of the most famous to focus upon mental illness/mental health, but it is also one which depicts mental illness as a terrifying and alarming thing.

The lead character in The Snake Pit is treated very distressingly. If you were struggling with your mental health and saw that film at the time, then I doubt it would make you very eager to go and seek help for what you were going through. It’s a far cry from the more enlightened treatments and attitudes we see in Now, Voyager. Thankfully attitudes toward mental illness have become much more positive. Treatments for mental illness have become much more humane too. 

Now, Voyager is all about Charlotte Vale(Bette Davis), a repressed, overweight and deeply unhappy heiress who is emotionally abused and dominated by her cold mother(Gladys Cooper). Her mother’s bullying and excessive control leads Charlotte to edge ever closer to a nervous breakdown.Charlotte is teased and neglected by all her family, all except her kind sister-in-law Lisa( Ilka Chase), who has always cared about Charlotte.Lisa is really worried about Charlotte and can see that she is becoming quite ill, so she asks her psychiatrist friend Dr. Jaquith(Claude Rains)to come and see Charlotte and make a judgement about the state of her mental health.

Gladys Cooper as the odious Mrs. Vale. Booing and hissing to commence whenever she’s on screen.

Jaquith meets with Charlotte and is very worried about her. He tells Mrs.Vale that her daughter is having a nervous breakdown. We also see that Jaquith is appalled by Mrs. Vale’s attitude and her treatment of her daughter. I love the scene where he has a go at Mrs. Vale for her terrible treatment of Charlotte. I find that scene to be very unusual for the time because Jaquith is calling out and acknowledging parental abuse/excessive control in a time when parents word was law and nobody really thought twice about the harm they could be doing to their children. Yet here we have Jaquith telling audiences that children shouldn’t be controlled and beaten because not only does it do great harm, but that they too have rights as individuals. Jaquith makes it very clear that Charlotte has been damaged so much by her mother’s treatment of her. Jaquith arranges for Charlotte to come and stay at his sanitarium called Cascade. Under his care, and away from her mother, Charlotte slowly gets well and begins to come out of her shell and gain new confidence.  

When she is well enough to leave Cascade, Charlotte goes off on a cruise. She is still a little fragile, but Jaquith and Lisa both hope that Charlotte can enjoy her independence on the cruise and that her confidence will increase while she travels. When we next see her she is emerging from a doorway on the cruise ship. Charlotte looks beautiful and glamorous. Thanks to her new found self confidence, and a significant makeover, Charlotte looks like a completely different woman when we see her on the ship.

Charlotte has a lovely time on the cruise. She makes loads of friends on board the ship. Charlotte is still quite shy and hesitant at times, but she slowly comes out of her shell even more than she has done before. Charlotte enjoys a passionate love affair with the charming and lonely architect, Jerry Durrance(Paul Henreid), a fellow passenger who she befriends when they go ashore on a day trip together.

Jerry is a very kind man who is genuinely interested in Charlotte. The pair emotionally connect and quickly develop a strong romantic desire for one another too. I love how Paul Henreid plays the role of Jerry. He makes the character so gentle, so fun, so attentive and kind. Paul also lets us see that Jerry is slowly starting to fall in love with Charlotte due to the way he is looking at her when they are together, and it’s clear to me that he falls for Charlotte before she falls for him. Paul and Bette have a lovely chemistry together and really make me believe in their growing bond. Off- screen, Paul would soon join co-star Claude Rains in becoming one of Bette’s closest lifelong male friends. 

Jerry brings light(in more ways than one) into Charlotte’s life.

I like how the character of Jerry starts off being this sort of fantasy romantic figure, someone who (to me anyway)seems slightly too good to be true at first. But the more we get to know him, the more we see that he genuinely does care for Charlotte and is who he seems to be.

I especially love how Jerry still wants to be with her after she has told him about her illness and past. The pair are very happy together and Jerry gives her the romantic love and kindness that she has so longed for all her life. He brings some light into her life which is something that has been missing for so long. They each find in the other the special person they’ve been longing for for so long and both finally feel wanted and happy. Charlotte and Jerry’s happiness is short lived though once Charlotte discovers he is married, even though the marriage is a deeply unhappy one.

Jerry also tells Charlotte that his youngest daughter Tina is a very troubled child. When Jerry shows Charlotte a photo of his daughter Tina, she can see something of herself in that depressed and awkward looking little girl. The pair decide not to meet again when they leave the ship at the end of the cruise, but neither can stop loving the other or forget about their happy times on the ship.

Charlotte returns home to see her family and Dr. Jaquith. Her mother is visibly shocked and appalled when she sees her daughter is now strong and can stand up for herself. Charlotte takes charge at home and stands up to her mother, while never stooping to her mother’s low level of cruelty or maliciousness, something which irks her mother a great deal. After her mother dies of a heart attack(something of an irony as she never appears to possess a heart), Charlotte returns to Cascade feeling that her mother’s death is her fault. While she is staying there she discovers that Jerry has sent his daughter Tina there as a patient. Charlotte befriends Tina and once she does so, she soon finds that looking after this little girl takes her mind off her own issues. Jerry is so grateful to Charlotte for all the help she has given his daughter. He still loves Charlotte very much, but is romance what Charlotte still wants though? She still cares about Jerry, but at the end of the film she wants to leave things the way they are between them. “Jerry, don’t lets ask for the moon. We have the stars”.

Jerry and Charlotte will always share an unbreakable bond and be there for one another.

I have always felt this ending is quite similar to the one in The Apartment. Both end with their respective couples not getting together in the typical romantic ending of a kiss and a fade out. Charlotte is happy with the way things are between them at present and doesn’t see herself as part of such an ending.

Charlotte and Jerry may well get back together romantically at some point, but for now she wants them to enjoy what they have and not to try and change anything. Even if they don’t get back together as a romantic couple, the audience is left secure in the knowledge that they will always remain friends who share an incredibly strong and unbreakable emotional bond.

By the end of the film Charlotte has finally found her purpose in life. She will do all she can to help others who have gone through the traumas that she has endured. For now she is enjoying her newfound independence and desire to help and be useful.

I do have quite a big issue with one aspect of the film, mainly in regards to what happens to Charlotte after her makeover. With that makeover the film basically tells us that physical beauty is what brings happiness and grants our deepest wishes. It’s like we’re being told that we won’t find happiness, friendship, or love, unless we look gorgeous and are stick thin. In a time when so many struggle with low self-esteem and pressure to look a certain way, this film sends out a very bad message in my opinion.

Charlotte also doesn’t have any friends until she sets foot on that cruise ship after her makeover, yet all of a sudden her wish to be loved and accepted comes true. People want to know her because she fits in and looks lovely. Her other family members who teased her before suddenly decide to treat her nicely, what does that say about all of these people? Would any of Charlotte’s new friends have looked twice at her if they had met her before? Would Jerry have wanted to be her lover if he had met her before? Sadly we all know that the answer to those two questions is most likely no.

Charlotte’s new found happiness after the makeover gives the impression that beauty and glamour are what you need to be accepted and happy. It’s just not true. You can find friends and love no matter what you look like on the outside. Sadly we are still so very obsessed with looks and body image today. Young girls especially feel the pressure to look a certain way. Why should it matter what we look like on the outside? It’s what is on the inside that counts. Plenty of people who are deemed beautiful are ugly on the inside, and plenty of people who are deemed ugly are the most beautiful souls you could ever wish to meet. 

Dr. Jacquith and Charlotte. I love them so much!

As much as I love Jerry and Charlotte and their relationship, I have to confess to having never quite cared about their relationship as much as the one between Charlotte and Jaquith.

I have always felt that Charlotte and Jaquith should have got together romantically at the end, even though I really dig them as friends and think it’s great to see a close, non sexual friendship between a man and woman on screen. But I’m afraid I just can’t help it. I ship them so much! 🙂 Also Jaquith is the one who sees her at her most low and it doesn’t phase him, I know that considering he is a doctor you wouldn’t expect it to phase him, but he is the first person to be truly kind and helpful to her outside of one relative. He always treats her as an equal and they both come to care about each other so much. After she has recovered he is so encouraging and genuinely cares what happens to her as she rejoins the world.  For me their relationship is the true heart of the film.

For the longest time I felt as though I was really odd in wanting Charlotte and Jaquith to get together, that is until I saw that Bette herself had thought the same way. Bette said in a TV interview with Dick Cavett that she thought those two characters ended up together and that Charlotte went on to work with Jaquith at Cascade. If Bette ships it, then I ship it proudly too!

Who cares if a relationship between them would most likely break the rules of what can and can’t happen between patient and doctor? The way that Claude plays Jaquith it becomes very clear to us that he cares about Charlotte and considers her to be more than a patient. He is overjoyed to receive letters from her and lights up when he is around her. She lights up around him and cares about him so much too. I love the playful banter and conversations between them and how they end up being able to read each other like a book. I only wish there were more scenes between them.

Bette Davis is without a doubt the star of this film. Her performance is extraordinary and remains one of her best. Bette has fine support from Paul Henreid, Gladys Cooper, Claude Rains, Mary Wickes(hilarious and scene stealing as ever as Mrs. Vale’s nurse) and the rest of the cast. For me it is Gladys Cooper who stands out the most from the supporting cast. Gladys makes this woman so hateful and cruel, that you want to reach through the screen and slap her. I think this is one of the best performances she ever gave on screen.

Four years after making this film, Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and director Irving Rapper, would all reunite together to make Deception. This later film has Claude and Paul as two very different men vying for the love of Bette’s character.   

For years after this film was released Paul Henreid would constantly be asked by his fans to light two cigarettes at once for them whenever they met him. The photo on the cover of Paul’s autobiography even features him with two cigarettes in his mouth. Those famous cigarette scenes have become unforgettable for anyone who has ever watched this film. 

Now, Voyager is every inch a classic. Its characters, issues and themes are still extremely relevant and affecting today. Charlotte Vale in particular is a character who I think offers hope and comfort to those who are going through tough times. Charlotte’s process of healing and transformation into a happier person shows us that many dark times can indeed improve and pass by, and that we can find happiness and the freedom to be ourselves in the process of recovery. 

What do you think of this film?

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2 thoughts on “Now, Voyager(1942) At Eighty

  1. Great review. Really makes me want to (finally) watch this classic film. I’m a huge fan of vintage Hollywood (I even sought out Bette in “Of Human Bondage” — on videotape, no less — when I was still a teenager), but I’ve never seen “Now Voyager.” I just looked it up in my well-thumbed Leonard Maltin paperback and see he gives it 3.5 out of 4 stars, noting as well that Max Steiner won an Oscar for the score. This is on my short list now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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