Sometimes I feel as if I’m 26-going-on-62. The past few weeknights, I’ve wound down my hectic days with an episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Last week was an episode featuring Bette Davis from 1971, where she spoke about the art of acting and her new biographical book. Of course, her many films were brought up. At one point, Cavett, per usual, asked a brilliant question: “if there was a catastrophic fire and you could only save one of your movies, which one would it be?” Her answer was Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager. I couldn’t watch it fast enough.
The late Davis won’t have to worry, at least. In 2007, Rapper’s film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, deservedly so. This is brilliant melodrama, engagingly choreographed, with the ability to resonant thanks to its handling of complex emotional situations and flurry of effective performances.
Davis stars as Charlotte Vale, a Boston spinster who has been whittled down into a broken, neurotic mess of a woman thanks to her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Charlotte is a slave to her mother, who had three sons and didn’t much care to have another child when she was pregnant with her only daughter. As such, she barks orders and demands at Charlotte, eroding all her confidence and self-worth in the process. Charlotte’s sister (Ilka Chase) introduces her to Dr. Jasquith (an understated Claude Rains), a local therapist who believes it would behoove Charlotte to spend time in his sanitarium.
After successfully completing treatment in a matter of month, Charlotte is encouraged by Dr. Jasquith to embark on a pleasure cruise before returning home. On said cruise, she meets Jerry (Casablanca‘s Paul Henreid), and promptly falls in love with him. On one hand, Charlotte is happy to be treated like a human being for once, but falls for Jerry for his kindness and empathy. But Jerry is already stuck in a loveless marriage, and his daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson), suffers at the hands of a woman who treats her like a malcontent.
When Charlotte returns home, dramatically changed, with a new hairdo, wardrobe, and sense of self-worth, her mother is deeply disturbed when her daughter starts refusing orders and demands to live a life dictated on her terms. She gets engaged to a wealthy widow (John Loder), but can’t shake the feeling that her true love in life is Jerry.
Now, Voyager has the weight of three or four movies inside of it, but with Rapper’s deft direction tying many sequences together, it’s the full package in terms of having all the emotional heft a movie of this caliber needs to succeed. Davis’ transformation from mousy spinster to a more self-assured individual is gradual despite what the movie presents as an overnight transition. Her confidence can still operate on shaky ground, and even when she denies her mother’s requests, there’s a croak in her voice or a feeling of sorrow she conveys through body language that affirms her status as one of the greatest leading ladies of her generation. Gladys Cooper is phenomenally detestable as a mother whose shame knows no low. Henreid is more than a handsome face, but rather, a worthwhile and believable love interest for Charlotte.
Only one scene feels out of place, and that comes shortly after the cruise, when Charlotte and Jerry find themselves stranded on Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro following a car accident at the hands of their cab-driver. The Spanish-speaking driver reacts in horror at the crash, and following that is a ridiculous scene involving Jerry trying to communicate his desires through broken Spanglish. This breed of slapstick belongs in an entirely different movie. Maybe the Warner Bros. executives thought the film needed a light-hearted scene? Either way, it’s an entirely unnecessary aside in what is ultimately a deeply serious picture.
Rapper and popular B-movie screenwriter Casey Robinson — known for adaptations, working off of Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel of the same name — dutifully rescue Now, Voyager after that lackluster moment. Where the film really shines brightly is in the third act, which revolves around Charlotte being a comforting mother figure to Tina, giving her a break from the rigidity of her stone-cold stepmom. This is Charlotte getting the opportunity to pay forward her lessons and convey empathy to a little girl who is gridlocked on a track a lot like the one she was on before her stint with Dr. Jasquith. Tina’s moments of sheer happiness of eating ice cream and playing tennis with Charlotte — whom she calls “Camille,” an old childhood nickname — might be ephemeral, but we get the sense they’ll have a lasting impact on the woman she’d become.
Had Now, Voyager ever been at a slight risk of being lost to a fire, I’d likely try and save it myself.
NOTE: As of this writing, Now, Voyager is streaming on HBO Max.
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Davis, Gladys Cooper, John Loder, Janis Wilson, and Ilka Chase. Directed by: Irving Rapper.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!