Sunday, 15 April 2012

Now, Voyager: Beyond the realms of romance

Irving Rapper's Now, Voyager (1942) is a timeless classic of a romance that has been a firm favourite with romance-movie fans since it's release. At the age of 14 - long before I had any knowledge about Hollywood, I caught it accidentally on television one afternoon. I can't really remember much about my first reaction to the film, but what I do remember, is that I was intrigued from the moment I started watching it, and ended up falling in love with the film by the end.

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 physical transformation that Charlotte undergoes is really quite remarkable, and I must applaud Davis on agreeing to look so unattractive at the beginning of the movie. She starts the film as a little overweight, with frizzy hair in a Victorian style bun. She wears thick, heavy glasses that cover up her face more than anything, and her eye brows have not been groomed, so she has thick, bushy, dark brows. I don't know whether these eye brows are fake, or whether Davis just grew hers naturally - either way, this was very brave of her, and not many Hollywood actresses at the time would have agreed to make themselves look so unattractive, but Davis has always been known for putting the part before her vanity. This allowance made by Davis makes her character of Charlotte appear like an elderly woman, but once she has her makeover, we see that she is actually in her mid-to-late twenties.

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.

If you haven't seen the film, then please don't read further. The romance in this movie is one of the best Hollywood has to offer. It is one of such pure love, of such mutual affection that it really goes beyond the realms of your normal movie romance. The first time Charlotte and Jerry meet, he is very charming, and although she is quite unresponsive at first, he gently pulls her out of her shell, not forcefully or overbearingly like most men in these films. Even though it seems that he is attracted to her because he cannot take his eyes off her face, it seems more like he is completely spellbound with her mystery and shyness: it's as if he can see the woman underneath who is dying to come out, a woman who is holding back. He waits patiently, asks her questions, but talks of himself as well in order to make her feel comfortable and like they are getting to know each other. This is what is so remarkable, it would seem as though he knew her already, he knew exactly how to approach her, and it is he who helps her find herself.

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.

And that is the one thing that ruins everything, he's married. It is so heartbreaking in films when two people seem so alike, and who believe that they will be the happiest they could ever be if married to one another, are unable to. Now, Voyager is no different. Both Charlotte and Jerry are miserable, she at home with her mother, and he with his wife. He cannot leave her because she depends on him so much, but treats him terribly. It is this situation that provides the single obstacle that stops him from marrying her. They attempt to end their affair at the airport in Buenos Aires. This scene is set up brilliantly, with the aeroplane in the background, we know they only have minutes before being out of each other's lives. Charlotte is dressed in an outfit that looks slightly bridal, and even wears a hat with a netted veil attached to it. Looking at her we feel that yes, she should be his bride, and they should both be catching that plane to enjoy their honeymoon. But no. Instead that net provides a barrier between them, one that cannot be broken. It also represents the prison lifestyle Charlotte's mother enforces on her at home. They are both trapped, and even though they share a kiss through the netting, it is not full contact with each other, it is not togetherness.

Paul Henreid really shone for me in this film, more so than he did in Casablanca (1942) even though he was very good in that too. But what I found so much more admirable in his performance is that he made us feel sorry for him, and not judge him for loving another woman when he was married. There have been many romances in films involving married people, and although they are all very moving, most of them do feel like the man or the woman is acting wrongly, and unfairly to their spouse. But I never felt that with Jerry. Henreid plays him with great charm, and he does seem to keep pulling Charlotte back to him, but the way he looks at her, talks to her is full of love, and affection, and pain at not being able to carry out what he most wants to do  - marry her. At least Charlotte can hope to fall in love with someone else, she free to go and love/marry who she chooses, but Jerry is trapped in his own loveless marriage, to a woman who mistreats him and his beloved daughter, who is forced to leave home. I must also add that the cigarette manoeuvre Jerry performs several times throughout the film is incredibly sexy, and carried out with such smoothness and ease, that no one else will match him.

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.

Another exceptional performance in this already glowing film is from Claude Rains playing Dr. Jaquith. Claude Rains never lets you down, no matter what picture he is in, he always gives a stellar performance, and here he is no different. He seems very wise but very alert too, and the moment he steps foot in the Vale household, he knows the kind of woman Mrs. Vale (Cooper) will be. Rains plays him so well that we actually believe he is a psychologist, the way he talks, and watches Charlotte's outbursts, how he understands them, and how he tries to manage the situation are all admirable, and we adore him from the beginning. Everybody talks about Richard Burton's beautiful speaking voice, but nobody gives Rains any credit. His voice is so soothing, and he speaks so clearly, eloquently, and softly, that he completely captivates you as you watch. He delivers his lines at the perfect pitch, pace, and with the perfect timing, comic or not. You take him seriously when he speaks, but he also possesses the ability to make us laugh. He is an all-round excellent actor, and was in fact, Bette Davis's favourite actor to work with. He makes his mark on this film, and I don't think it would be the same without him, just as much as it wouldn't be the same without either of the other cast members.

Aside from these exceptional actors who really bring this film to life, as well as the superb score from Max Steiner which one the Oscar that year, the star of the film is the romance. At the end of the picture, Charlotte tells Jerry that if she becomes the guardian of his daughter, loves her, brings her up, and takes care of her, it will be as if she was their own child, and they could bring her up together. By working together, loving each other and loving the child, it will be the greatest gift they have. They cannot marry and they cannot be together as a couple, but this is what they can have, a child. This purity of love is what is so touching about the film, and even though the do not end up marrying, it is still a satisfying ending and the only ending that could do justice to their romance and their journey. Dr. Jaquith gives Charlotte a piece of paper before she goes on her pleasure cruise, with a quote from the Walt Whitman poem, 'Songs of Parting,' it reads: "The untold want, by life and land ne'er granted,
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.


  1. I have to say I've never seen this movie. But I love any movie that has a makeover in it!! Thanks for the great in-depth review. :) Have a lovely day!

    1. Why thank you! It's a brilliant movie, and the make over, in my opinion, is the best in movies. Have a lovely day yourself :)

  2. love your review and I'm sorry I've only responded to your post now. I read it whenever I need inspiration or I feel down. I just got it back from a friend on DVD, so I'll be watching it again this weekend! I haven't got an easy relationship with my mother (still tries to control me) but I'm working on it and this film still touches a chord with me. I always cry when Bette Davis says to Paul "I'm ill" or "I'm sick" and she just breaks down powerless and ashamed. It's a line that could have been overplayed and over-dramatic but with Bette's genius, it's a deep sorrowful cry from the heart and a need to be loved! I start getting teary there and then I'm all over sobbing like a baby, accompagnied by my Haagen Dazs Macadamia Nut Brittle icecream, lol! Great review and can't wait to see more of these wonderful reviews! xoxo and tons of love!