“Untold want, by life and land near granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.” (Walt Whitman)
Now, Voyager was actually the third book in a four-part saga of the Vales — a high-toned Boston family — penned by Olive Higgins Prouty over a 12-year period from 1936 to 1947. When Warner Brothers bought the film rights to the book, Prouty, who was also the author of the well-known “Stella Dallas,” wrote a lengthy letter to her literary agent setting out her ideas for mounting the production. She felt strongly that one way to effectively dramatize the flashbacks in the story would be to do them as short silent segments woven into the main sound narrative. Her letter made its way to producer Hal Wallis at Warners, but Prouty’s ideas were not taken up by the studio.
In early 1942, Wallis had just signed a new contract with WB calling for him to produce four films a year for the next four years, but a modification of the terms soon after resulted in him handling six pictures that first year. Now, Voyager would be one of those films. (The others were Casablanca, Desperate Journey, Air Force, Princess O’Rourke, and Watch on the Rhine — not a bad year’s work!) Edmund Goulding was first slated to direct and his choice to play the lead role of Charlotte Vale was Irene Dunne. Goulding fell ill, however, and Michael Curtiz was penciled in instead, with the lead then being offered to both Norma Shearer and Ginger Rogers. Meanwhile, Bette Davis had convinced Wallis that she was the ideal person to play Charlotte Vale; that let Michael Curtiz out, for Davis would not work with him. As a result, the direction of the film finally fell to Irving Rapper.
Principal shooting began on April 7, 1942 and ended on June 23, with some retakes in early July. The completed film was released at the end of October 1942. Critical reaction was mixed, but the filmgoing public — the only ones who really count — loved the film. At Academy Award time, the film would receive three nominations including Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Gladys Cooper), and Best Musical Score (Max Steiner), but would win only for the latter category.
WB has now released Now, Voyager in a stunning-looking DVD version.
Charlotte Vale is a repressed, ugly duckling of a woman living in the Boston home of her domineering mother. Charlotte’s sister-in-law brings noted psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith to see Charlotte and he prescribes a stay at his sanatorium. Away from her mother’s influence, Charlotte begins to make progress — losing weight and gaining confidence — and arrangements are made for her to take a sea cruise as a sort of coming-out in her new persona. While on the ship, she meets unhappily married architect Jerry Durrance and the two fall in love.
Upon her return to Boston, Charlotte exerts her new-found confidence to forge a stand-off between her own needs and her mother’s demands that she perform the expected duties of a daughter to her mother. Charlotte eventually agrees to marry a rather staid Boston millionaire, but then breaks off her engagement precipitating a series of events involving Charlotte’s mother, Jerry, and Jerry’s young daughter who also has suffered from lack of affection from her own mother.
Anyone who has taken the time to read my dossier elsewhere on the site will have seen that Now, Voyager is one of my top-ten favourite films. It would be on my ten best list, did I care to come up with one. I’m delighted to admit this, unlike many film reviewers who hearken to the party line when best-film lists are being considered. Richard Corliss, writing in Philip Nobile’s book “Favorite Movies: Critics’ Choice” says it best: “For far too long, respectable film critics approached the challenge of preparing a ‘ten best’ list with Kierkegaardian fear and Caligariesque trembling. The interior monologue went something like this: ‘What will my colleagues think? What will my intellectual readers think? How can I defend film as an art if I include any Hollywood produce among the perceived masterpieces? After all, Potemkin (which I admire but don’t really like) is the very stuff of cinema — but Now, Voyager (which I love but am afraid to admire) is only a movie!’ As a result, the typical ten best list wound up looking like screening selections for an undergraduate course in Seminal Cinema 101. And the Now, Voyagers of the film world were relegated to a mind-closet containing all the critic’s secret sins.”
Now, Voyager is perhaps the definitive woman’s picture. It is a deeply romantic picture that affirms the virtues of motherhood and love, but also recognizes the case for independence and happiness outside of marriage. Those who are content to see women as simply adjuncts to men can see in the film only what they want to — that if a woman really wants to get a man, why then, simply spruce up the body and wardrobe, and consult with a male doctor (in this case, a psychiatrist) as to how to reshape your life. Marriage and motherhood are the only goals. Now, Voyager offers so much more than that, though. The film shows us that a woman is capable of changing the path she seems to be on; she can head in a different direction and perhaps find an entirely new existence. Sex and love are possible outside of marriage, and a fulfilling life can be made without a husband and children of her own.
Many people point to 1939’s Dark Victory or 1950’s All About Eve as containing Bette Davis’s best work, but there is a strong case to be made for Now, Voyager. Davis gives a very sympathetic, almost touching performance that is free of the excesses of exaggerated facial gesture that sometimes have marred her work. Her transformation from unattractive, poorly dressed, and repressed Aunt Charlotte to the confident, sophisticated Charlotte is always a delight to see. This is not solely a case of clothes and make-up making the woman. Davis uses a combination of body language, posture, and vocal intonation to stunning effect. Events such as the meeting at the harbour at the end of the cruise and the welcoming of her family to the Vale mansion soon thereafter are memorable set-pieces that Davis as Charlotte dominates, much to our distinct pleasure. Davis is obviously enjoying herself, and we do too. The role was one of her favourite ones; she had one of her preferred directors; and Claude Rains, also one of her favourites, was around in support. What more could she or we ask?
Speaking of Claude Rains, he plays Dr. Jaquith and it’s important to have an actor of Rains’s stature and professionalism playing a psychiatrist at this time. It’s probably fair to say that in 1942, many moviegoers still viewed psychiatry with a measure of skepticism, much like Charlotte Vale’s mother’s view of the profession’s practitioners — “…my meager trust in the pack of you.” Of course, to modern ears, some of Jaquith’s lines come across as rather simplistic (“People…come to a fork in the road. They’re confused. They don’t know which way to take. I just put up a signpost — not that way, this way.”) Thus the necessity of someone such as Rains — his voice and demeanor could put across virtually any dialogue and make it sound convincing. (He would add a similar measure of class to another of the year’s film highlights from Warner Brothers — King’s Row.) Rains at first refused the Jaquith role, finding it too small, but the part was built up in the script and Rains was enticed with a tidy $5000 a week for six weeks work. Despite this, the part remains relatively small in terms of screen time, but references to Jaquith throughout the film keep the character in one’s mind so that the effect is of a role that is more weighty than a clocking of actual screen time would suggest.
Davis’s co-star is Paul Henreid, best known these days for his part in Casablanca. At the time of Now, Voyager, Henried was under contract to RKO and was borrowed by WB for the role of Jerry Durrance. More parts would follow with WB, but he would eventually become disenchanted with the sort of roles he got there, so Now, Voyager really represents his best work at the studio. He seems alive, fully engaged, and quite likeable playing Durrance, unlike some of his later efforts, such as the reuniting of Davis, Rains, and himself in 1946’s Deception. The lighting of two cigarettes together and then passing one to Davis is a bit of business that Henreid is forever identified with. He invented it for the film (in lieu of a more complicated procedure that the book’s author had suggested).
The rest of the cast is uniformly good, including Gladys Cooper as Charlotte’s domineering mother (the character’s death was apparently cheered by many audiences of the time); Bonita Granville as Charlotte’s niece, June Vale; Ilka Chase as Charlotte’s sister-in-law; Mary Wickes as nurse Dora “not Mary” Pickford; and Franklin Pangborn in a trademark role as the social director on the cruise ship.
Finally, one of the glories of Now, Voyager is Max Steiner’s score which won that year’s Academy Award. Steiner scored 18 of Bette Davis’s films including Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Old Maid, and The Letter. His music for Now, Voyager is lush and romantic and is such an integral part of the film that now, it immediately evokes the picture in the same fashion that the main themes of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Star Wars, and Gone with the Wind (also a Steiner score) evoke those films. In 1942, the main theme from Now, Voyager had lyrics set to it by Kim Gannon and became the popular song “It Can’t Be Wrong.”
Several months ago, when Warner Brothers announced the forthcoming release of Now, Voyager on DVD, I was delighted because of how much I love this film and also because it was such a surprise given the recent drought in classic releases from the company. Then, we became aware that the film had been given to Lowry Digital Images for a thorough clean-up à la North By Northwest, so my appetite was further whetted. Now with the disc in hand, it’s a pleasure to report that Now, Voyager looks dazzling. Presented full frame in the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, this is like a pristine print — completely blemish-free. The work done on this film has resulted in the best black and white DVD image transfer so far released. The blacks are deep and glossy; the whites are pure; and the range of grays in between reveals a wealth of shadow detail previously only hinted at in previous video incarnations. Normally, DVD only offers a small improvement over laserdisc for older black and white films. Here, the improvement is remarkable.
Fortunate too are we to have a substantially cleaned up sound track. Presented in the original mono, dialogue is crisp and clear with no age-related hiss or distortion. Max Steiner’s score sounds great, although perhaps not quite as majestic as on the laserdisc. Nor does the WB opening fanfare have quite the punch that one is used to with films of the era, but that’s a small quibble compared to the overall clarity that’s been achieved.
As I reported some time ago with respect to WB’s DVD release of Casablanca, it’s somewhat disappointing to report on a similar less-than-stellar effort on the supplementary content on the Now, Voyager disc. Yes, it’s great to be able to enjoy the Max Steiner music again through the inclusion on the disc of the scoring session music cues, but beyond that, we get only a theatrical trailer and cast career highlights. For a film as popular as Now, Voyager and as extensively written about, it’s annoying to me that WB didn’t see fit to arrange an audio commentary for the film when so much lesser fare is accorded one. We don’t even get some measly production notes.
Despite my concerns on supplementary content, this is a disc that no classic film fan should be without. The film is excellent. The image transfer is outstanding. Warner Brothers is to be congratulated for giving Now, Voyager the care it has. 1942 was a good year; now, how about fast tracking two other WB gems from that year — King’s Row and Yankee Doodle Dandy?