Review: Irving Rapper’s “Now, Voyager,” Starring Bette Davis

Paul Henreid and Bette Davis in “Now, Voyager”
Paul Henreid and Bette Davis in “Now, Voyager”

After the misfire of In This Our Life, Bette Davis rebounded with one of the most memorable roles of her career. The star fought hard for the lead in the adaptation of Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel Now, Voyager, a romantic melodrama that enabled her to showcase her tremendous range as an actress and brought her an Oscar nomination for the third year in a row.

Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the self-described “spinster aunt” of a wealthy Boston family. She lives at home with her controlling and manipulative mother (Oscar-nominated Gladys Cooper), whose domineering ways have led Charlotte to suffer extreme nervousness. Her insecurities are made only worse by an enforced ugliness: with glasses, heavy eyebrows, some extra weight (“mother doesn’t approve of dieting), and a hideous hairstyle, Davis is unrecognizable in the role. As the most cruel villain of the year, her mother openly refers to her clearly unwanted daughter as an “ugly duckling,” without any implication that she could blossom into a beautiful swan. Yet, when Charlotte is invited by the charming psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) to come stay at his Cascade sanitarium, that’s exactly what happens. Decked out in gorgeous gowns designed by Orry-Kelly, Charlotte (and Davis with her) transforms into a more confident and beautiful woman finally in control of her own life. Aboard a cruise she meets and falls in love with an unhappily married man (Paul Henreid), who she longs to be with even after they part ways and she returns home to her mother.

Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper in “Now, Voyager”
Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper in “Now, Voyager”

Davis would write that the film was “one of my favorite pictures,” claiming that she was heavily involved in the direction and that she redid the screenplay herself using the book as reference.1 True or not, the film did give Davis the actress the rare chance to deliver an outstandingly sympathetic performance. Her most iconic roles were always as antiheroes, women like Margo in All About Eve or Jane in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Here the actress convincingly pulls off both the meek, unattractive version of Charlotte and the strong, powerful woman she turns into—all the way aligning us with her completely.

Eclipsing even Davis’ performance to the public however was a small, simple action performed by Henreid. Throughout the film their characters take a moment to smoke together, but rather than sharing one cigarette or each lighting their own, Henreid places both in his mouth, lighting them and then passing one to Davis. That simple gesture manages to convey a surprising amount of intimateness and sexiness—so much so that it became iconic, the most memorable part of the film and one imitated by many a filmgoer. Consequently, every member of the production claimed to have devised it, though the most credible story comes from Henreid himself.

Least likely to have devised it is director Irving Rapper. Michael Curtiz had rejected the film2—instead he made Casablanca; not a bad call in hindsight—which left Davis stuck with the competent but dull Rapper, coming off of the thoroughly mediocre The Gay Sisters. He mostly stays out of the way, letting Davis—bolstered by Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning score—do the heavy lifting. But when Casey Robinson’s screenplay begins to drag, particularly in the last act with the introduction of Henreid’s character’s daughter, Rapper does little to help move things along. Even without a particularly strong vision, Now, Voyager still remains a sweeping romantic melodrama and a pivotal role for Davis.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Google Play

For More on Now, Voyager

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Bette Davis, The Lonely Life (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962), 259.
2. Charlotte Chandler, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone (New York: Applause, 2006), 156.