NOW, VOYAGER (1942) 

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Bette Davis
Paul Henreid
Claude Rains
Gladys Cooper
Ilka Chase
John Loder
Bonita Granville
Lee Patrick
Janis Wilson

Irving Rapper



About Davis

Time: 117 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Drama/Romance

Won Academy Award for Best Score. Nominations for Best Actress (Davis) and Best Supporting Actress (Cooper).

This film takes the ugly duckling turning into a swan scenario to melodramatic heights one has to see to believe. Like Davis's transformation from dowdy to delightful, the story attempts to coerce you into believing it has more substance and beauty than it really does. VOYAGER is a modest tale that mostly works due to the performances of Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper. It's pure fantasy aimed at all those homely young girls who dream of one day finding their prince charming. Unfortunately for Davis, her character, Charlotte – a spinster constantly berated and beleaguered by her widowed mother (Cooper) – finally gains her freedom and a new sense of self only to fall in love with a married man (Henreid). Since Jerry's the first one to show her any attention in over a decade, it's no wonder she develops feelings for him. That he's totally unworthy of her current fabulous persona never occurs to her. She's waited all her life for another chance at true love and Henreid's honorable, yet wimpy suitor is all fate can come up with?

One can hardly blame her for her flirting with him while they're cruising the high seas, but once back on dry land his spineless behavior is unacceptable. Granted he has two children to consider, but if he truly loved her, he'd find a way out of his loveless and bitter marriage. Of course, they are forced to part and Charlotte must return to reality and face her cold, bitchy mother without him. Though they have no future together, her experience with Jerry and the help of Dr. Jaquith (Rains) have given Charlotte a new lease on life. Not only has she acquired a personality and fashion sense, she is now able to stand up for herself when faced with the wraith of her mother, a woman who constantly uses the promise of her wealth to try to control her daughter. Surprisingly, Charlotte finds herself pursued by an outstanding gentleman (Loder) that her mum actually approves of.

"Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars."

The film tries to convince us that Charlotte has finally found the path to happiness, but we all know that her new flirtation is going nowhere. After all, how can she be happy without Jerry? Therein lies the filmmaker's dilemma. They can't have their star be a home-wrecker (adultery and divorce were big no-nos at the time), so they turn her into a martyr instead. Not exactly a role Davis is highly suited for, but she manages to pull off this sudden turn of personality well enough. So, Charlotte chooses to be alone rather then settle for a man she doesn't truly love, which would actually be a powerful statement if it weren't for the lackluster performance of Henreid. There's no discernable spark between the two of them, making their connection seem to be one of plotting rather than passion. That being said, when the film focuses on the empowerment aspect of the story it works quite well. Considering the material, Davis gives a convincing and controlled turn as a subdued and shattered soul who finally finds her voice.

Her relationship with Cooper, who plays one of the meanest mothers I've ever seen onscreen, is layered and complex, giving the film emotional depth and dynamic energy. If she and Henreid had half the vitality of that relationship, her choice to sacrifice the possibility of having her own family to save his would be a bit more heartfelt. The story gets severely heavy-handed in the final act by paralleling his daughter's miserable, unattractive youth with Charlotte's. By "saving" Tina, she supposedly gains redemption for her wicked ways (i.e. sleeping with a married man) and discovers her life's mission. While she does help Tina, her friendly devotion is a bit tainted by her undying love for the girl's father and her desire to be near him at any cost. Sure, it's a win-win situation for both – Tina doesn't have to suffer the pain of being ugly and unwanted and Charlotte gets a surrogate daughter to dote on – but I have to say the whole set-up left me feeling a bit disappointed and queasy.

I should have been happy that Charlotte was happy, but frankly I wanted her to have it all – wealth, beauty and the love of a good man. Isn't that how Hollywood romances are supposed to end? Apparently not when there's a war on. NOW, VOYAGER is typical of the films made in the World War 2 era that stressed self-sacrifice over love. The best of the period is CASABLANCA and though they both star Henreid there's really no comparison in quality. This film tells a more personal story, but the message of denying one's personal desires for the betterment of others comes through loud and clear. I'm not always in favor of the happy ending, but the one concocted here just doesn't ring true. The rigid morality of the Production Code made films that try to tackle real world issues, such as divorce and abandonment, into ridiculous, high-minded charades about honor and propriety. Just because Henreid stays married to his bitter shrew of a wife doesn't make him a good human being, especially since he's carrying on with another woman. Though I guess the morality police don't really see it that way. While Davis's tour-de-force performance makes this film worth at least one viewing, it's not a film that captured my heart the way I expected it to.

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