Director: Irving Rapper
Production: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. black and white, 35mm; running time: 117 minutes. Released 1942.
Cast: Bette Davis (Charlotte Vale); Paul Henreid (Jerry Durrance); Claude Rains (Dr. Jaquith); Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Henry Windle Vale); Bonita Granville (June Vale); Ilka Chase (Lisa Vale); John Loder (Elliot Livingston); Lee Patrick (Deb McIntyre); Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Thompson); Katherine Alexander (Miss Trask); James Rennie (Frank McIntyre); Mary Wickes (Dora Pickford); Janis Wilson (Tina Durrance); Michael Ames (Dr. Dan Regan); Charles Drake (Leslie Trotter); Frank Puglia (Manoel); David Clyde (William).
Award: Oscar for Music—Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, 1942.
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* * *
Now Voyager is today one of the best remembered and best loved woman's films, or "weepies," of the 1930s and 1940s. Bette Davis remembers it as one of her most satisfying movies. But during its initial release in 1942, the film received a mixed critical response; the New York Times called the film a "prudish fantasy." The low esteem in which critics held the film seems in retrospect to be due to the low regard in which critics held the "woman's picture." Now Voyager succeeds, not because it explores any new thematic or formal areas within the genre of "woman's pictures," but because it utilizes generic conventions in a highly polished manner.
The "woman's film" is characterized by a central female protagonist whose concerns revolve around a romantic or maternal relationship. In the case of Now Voyager, the film weaves both into the narrative. The first half of the film documents Charlotte Vale's (Bette Davis) growth into a sexually mature and attractive woman who must overcome the repressive influence of her mother. In the first segment, Charlotte's mother, psychiatrist, and sister-in-law discuss Charlotte before she appears, making her the center of the story without necessitating her on-screen presence. The camera introduces Charlotte with a closeup of her hands working on an ivory box, then discloses her feet walking down the stairs, finally offering a long shot of her entering the parlor. In the second segment, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) and the sister-in-law discuss Charlotte before she is actually seen. The camera here introduces her with a closeup of her hands operating a loom. In the third segment, which takes place on an ocean liner, the passengers discuss Charlotte prior to the camera's introductory closeup panning from her feet up to her head. Upon Charlotte's return to New York City in the film's fourth segment, a discussion of Charlotte precedes the medium shot introducing her. Each discussion creates a sense of expectancy and interest about the character, while the introductions themselves follow a course that visually parallels Charlotte's character development from disjointed close-ups of fragmented body parts to the completely integrated portrait in one shot. It is only after an innocent shipboard romance with a married man has sexually awakened her that Charlotte achieves her sense of identity as a woman and a person. In the second half of the movie, Charlotte supplants her earlier womanly hobbies—carving ivory boxes, weaving and knitting—with socializing, mothering and philanthropy, completing her journey toward the assumption of her socially acceptabe roles.
Several motifs provide a symbolic continuity to the film. The most notable, Paul Henreid lighting Davis's cigarette, operates as a poetic visual sign that may be likened to the intricate musical dances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Only during the shared intimacies of the couple's "cigarette breaks" does the camera break from the almost continuous objective viewpoint to a series of subjective shot-reverse shots of Davis and Henreid. In this way, the camera forces the audience to shift from its fixation on Davis as an object-to-beconsumed to an alternating identification with her and Henreid. The audience vicariously participates as both parties in their fleeting and harmless romantic moments. Thus, the viewer retains a distance from Charlotte Vale that makes her problems seem as though they are happening to someone else, while fully identifying with her few moments of idealized romantic pleasure.
Max Steiner's Academy Award-winning score and the references to the relationship between Charlotte's life and the art of fiction reinforce an idealized discovery of sexuality. Steiner's melodramatic lover's theme song appears not only when Henreid and Davis get together, but also as the piece the orchestra plays when the two must sit next to each other without acknowledging their love; and after Jerry (Henreid) returns to his wife and family, it comes over the radio reminding Davis and the audience of her emotional ties to him while she chats with another man. The music helps set up a world that seems to exist only to underscore the poignancy of their situation. The ludicrousness of such an idea is overcome by equating how one acts and lives with the way that novels work. Charlotte repeatedly refers to her understanding of life, and especially her life, as having come from novels, and the dissolves into and out of the flashbacks are accomplished via the turning pages of a book. Charlotte's life and world fulfill one's expectations of the romance formula, and they are believable because she believes and acts as if life is a romance formula.
The credit for making Charlotte Vale's identity and life appear so attractive should go largely to Bette Davis for suggestively giving, through gestures, movements, rhythms, timing and articulation, an assertive and independent awareness to the role. Secondly, the film preserves much of the dialogue from Olive Higgins Prouty's 1941 novel on which it is based; its rhythms, tempo and the words themselves underscore a developing assertiveness, control and mastery in Charlotte Vale's speech.
In the end, Charlotte Vale may not be able to achieve complete fulfilment of her destined womanly role through marriage to the man she loves, but she hangs on to the independence, her own identity, while she captures the semblance of a nuclear family. The resolution allows Charlotte to become adoptive mother to Jerry's unhappy daughter while he remains faithful to his legal wife. In one of the great screen romance endings of all time, Charlotte Vale's compromised balance between self-sufficient independence and romantic longings provides an impossible illusory alternative to the unmasking of romance and the loss of independence that would result in daily married life with Jerry and his daughter.