“Untold Want, By Life and Land Ne’er Granted, Now, Voyager, Sail Thou Forth to Seek and Find.”
The Untold Want
“Suffering in mink went over very big in wartime.”
1942’s Now, Voyager is perfectly adequate high-society romantic drama. The film focuses on star Bette Davis’s character Charlotte Vale, a Cinderella-type black sheep of her aristocratic family who lives under and abides by the rule of her domineering mother, played wickedly by Gladys Cooper. After being sent away to a psychiatric sanitarium, her stay becomes something of a rumspringa and she emerges individualized and confident. Before returning home to her mother, Charlotte embarks on a cruise where she meets the goodly Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Heinreid). The two fall in love but are forced apart by cruel fate. Charlotte returns home and must reconcile her new independence with her mother’s smothering expectations. Intense angst ensues, the music swells, and the camera operator rubs Vaseline on the lens in preparation for Davis’s dramatic close-up.
Other critics have discussed the feminine themes throughout Now, Voyager. Charlotte’s distress stems from an intense pressure to conform to a rigid standard of behavior and dress set by an authority. At first timid and nonassertive, when she is able to escape her mother she gains agency and self-assurance. But Charlotte stands as one of those early half-measures in truly independent female leads. While true that her troubles stem from her awful mother, and she does learn to be independent, it is only through the guidance of psychiatrist-man Dr. Jaquith (Paul Rains) and love-at-first-sight-man Jeremiah Durrance that Charlotte is able to fully transform. There is a limited amount of strength she can attain on her own, because without the love of some guy, she can never be whole. This didn’t ruin the movie for me, though your mileage may vary.
Bette Davis owns this movie through her moody, broody performance, though it often verges on over-the-top, especially in her early scenes where her character’s mental instability is as heavy-handed as the Groucho Marx makeup they put her in to illustrate it. There’s little to say about the rest of the cast, except that they all do a fine job.
Coming in at 117 minutes and boasting a story worth 90, Now, Voyager overstays its welcome a little bit. The pace begins to lull during its mid-section but gets more interesting when the metamorphized Charlotte reunites with her mother. In those scenes, Davis’s acting is at its peak as her character struggles to use her new strength to withstand her mother, who immediately tries to undo all the strides her daughter has made. Cooper is only twenty years older than Davis, but she plays the character with a Mr. Burnsian decrepitness and cruelty. She really makes me hate her.
Now, Voyager is somewhat simplistic, but pulls off a certain level of maturity and seriousness. Sol Polito’s cinematography is skillfully understated and Rapper’s direction is smart. If you ask me in a year what I thought about this movie, I probably wouldn’t have much to say. It does its job and is entertaining, but it can border on unremarkable. If you want a showcase of Bette Davis’s loud emoting or an emotional story with a strong lead and plenty of sorrow, take a look at Now, Voyager.