The film follows the life of a woman, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), who comes from a wealthy family in high society Boston. Having spent nearly all her life living under the strict rules of her mother (Gladys Cooper), she lives a life deprived of the things a young woman of her age should be doing, and as a result of that, becomes incredibly ill. Worried for her sister's health, Lisa (Ilka Chase) asks her psychiatrist friend Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) to meet and diagnose her sister. After speaking with her alone and witnessing the severe depression Charlotte is suffering, Dr. Jaquith decides to take her to his sanitarium in the countryside, where he helps her rest, build up confidence, and undergo a makeover. Once she has recovered, Dr. Jaquith and Lisa send Charlotte on a pleasure cruise where she can refine herself as a lady, make friends, and maybe even pursue a romance. On this cruise, she meets a charming Frenchman named Jerry (Paul Henreid), a married man with two children. The two are forced to accompany each other on the cruise, and end up falling in love with each other, and so the story continues on the journey of their romance, whether Charlotte can sustain her independence when she returns home and lives with her mother, and whether of course, the pair end up together.
The first time we see her is in that infamous moment where the entire cruise party is eager to see who the lady who never left her cabin is, and what she looks like when they make their first stop. They all turn their heads, the camera cuts to a shot of the someone's feet, most likely a woman's, in fancy heels, the camera pans up to head, revealing a smart, stylish outfit and a slim figure. Where the camera stops is a miraculous transformation - a beautiful woman with groomed brows, flawless skin, glamorous make-up, and an elegant hat, looks down at the crowd watching her, gives a little smile (knowing that she has made an impression), and finally gains the courage to strut her stuff down the plank and to the tour guide. We finally recognise Bette Davis, the movie star we all love, and I believe that moment is still one the top cinema makeover revelation there has ever been, beating Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954) and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990). I think Bette actually looks her best in this movie, every inch the movie star, with a poise and elegance that is not only captivating, but in a league of it's own. And the best thing about it, it doesn't detract from her incredible talent or her outstanding performance.
After this initial wariness on her part, the two bond and become very chummy on their visit to Rio. The fact that he tells her from the moment he meets her that he is married makes the romance even more touching, because both parties are just friends, they laugh and talk together, and enjoy each other's company - no strings attached, no hidden agenda. I think the scene where they are trapped in the mountains after their car crashes and they are forced to stay in a shack is particularly lovely, for both are sleeping close to each other but not in any kind of way that looks suspicious. Like a pair of children who are best friends and out camping, they sleep facing each other, close enough so as to keep warm, but no closer than that. Jerry watches her as she sleeps and makes sure she has enough blanket covering her. I must say the way Henreid acts here is beautiful, the way he stares at her isn't creepy at all, instead his eyes are full of affection, and of confusion too, for we know he is thinking about how he feels. The fact that he kisses her, I think is the perfect touch to the scene, because waking her up and making a declaration of love, or holding her would be too much. That momentary kiss is, again, the right balance of how he feels for Charlotte, whilst remembering his loyalty as a husband.
In fact, the entire cast of this film is stand-out. Gladys Cooper plays Charlotte's mother and she is the epitome of a harsh, snobbish old woman who looks down on everybody, including her daughter. She ruins Charlotte's life by making her dress ugly, which makes Charlotte not want to leave the house and therefore not make own way in the world. As much as her character is a horrible woman, you can't help but love Cooper in the film. She has some hilarious one-liners, and provides a good many laughs in the film. But her strictness and forceful control over everything in her house - the way she treats everything and everyone like her possession - makes her terrifying, and we can understand how Charlotte fell victim to her mother's demands. It is a wonderful moment, however, when Charlotte tells her mother, on her return from her pleasure cruise, that she isn't afraid of her anymore.
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find."
He tells her that it would seem Whitman wrote those words with her, or many like her, in mind. I think this is now one of my favourite quotes for personal reasons, but in regards to this film it is the most fitting description for Davis's character and her journey. She was never granted freedom or a life of her own, to make mistakes, but now she has the chance, and she embarks on the journey of a life time. She seeked a friend, and found a lover, and in so gained a child who resembled her so much in her early years, someone that now she could help.
Now, Voyager is not only an outstanding romance but a fantastic film that has not lost any of it's impact over the past decades. If you like romances and want to try an old, black and white film, then start here because it is excellent, and I believe many of us can relate to the character of Charlotte. It is one of my favourite films of all time. Davis and Henreid made a beautiful and wonderful couple together onscreen, and are immortalized as Charlotte and Jerry.