Now, Voyager, 1942, Columbia Pictures. Starting Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid, Claude Rains. Directed by Irving Rapper. B&W, 117 minutes.
The story of a plain and painfully shy young woman, held tightly under the grip of her abusive mother, Now, Voyager is a melodrama elevated to an unexpected level of quality by fine performances and a somewhat unpredictable plot. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) was a late-in-life child for her sharp-tongued mother (Gladys Cooper), and the overbearing woman has never let her forget what a burden that has been.
With the help of kind relatives, Charlotte is sent to a sanatorium (today known as a mental health facility). There, under the patient and loving care of Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), she evolves into a more confident young lady with style and panache.
The stay at the sanatorium isn’t all that helps cure her, however. She leaves the facility and goes on a cruise to South America, where she meets the dashing Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Heinreid), a married man whose charm and attention bring her more fully into her own.
But the trip ends, and Charlotte returns home. From there the story has both its predictable and surprising moments, with an ending only a melodrama of that era could pull off.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress for Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Cooper, and Best Music, Scoring for Max Steiner. It won the music award, as well it should have. Reviews were mixed, in fact, they tended to be more critical than praising. However, the movie did well, particularly with women, its intended audience. Melodramas (“weepies”) were popular with the female crowd at the time, and this one was better than most.
Producer Hal B. Wallis originally envisioned Irene Dunne in the lead, but when Davis heard about the film she vigorously campaigned for the part. She was under contract to Warner Bros., she argued, while it would cost the studio to borrow Dunne from Columbia. Also, as a native New Englander, she could understand Charlotte Vale and her lifestyle.
During production, Davis gained a reputation for fighting her own and her cast members’ battles with director Irving Rapper, who was said to go home every evening exhausted from the day’s work with his strong-willed star. Heinreid later said he appreciated her intervention on his behalf, including campaigning for a second screen test when his appearance on the first was “wrong in every way.”
Many women wrote to the studio saying they saw themselves in the homely Charlotte, and believed if that transformation could be made for her, it could for them, as well. As Davis was not a classic beauty, this was yet another reason choosing her for the part was wise. It did, indeed, show the power of confidence, self-worth, and some savvy style decisions.
Now, Voyager has staying power because of its solid performances and very human storytelling, as well as the sharp cinematography and feminist perspective. For Bette Davis fans it is a must-see, and should be on the list of movies to watch for all classic film fans.