Release Date(s)1942 (November 26, 2019)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Criterion – Spine #1004)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A-
Now, Voyager, one of Bette Davis’ most famous Warner Bros. melodramas, achieved great popularity when it was released in 1942. This variation of the Cinderella story updates the fairy tale to contemporary New England.
Charlotte Vale (Davis) is the depressed and sexually repressed daughter of a domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Overweight and dowdy, she is insecure with low self esteem. At the sanitarium of psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), away from her mother’s control, she blossoms into a mature, attractive, confident woman and decides to take a cruise to Rio before returning home. On the ship, she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid) and they fall in love. But Jerry is married and can’t consider divorce. They part, and Charlotte returns home, where an argument results in her mother’s heart attack and death.
Guilty and distraught, Charlotte returns to the sanitarium. There, she meets Jerry’s lonely, unhappy 12-year-old daughter Tina. The girl reminds Charlotte of herself, and she takes her under her wing. Their relationship unintentionally provides a way back to Jerry.
The title of the movie is based on a line from a Walt Whitman poem that Dr. Jaquith gives to Charlotte: “Now, voyager, sail forth and seek and find.” Based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, the film was classified as a “woman’s picture” because it dealt with a female central character and appealed primarily to a female audience. This was a genre that Bette Davis dominated from the late 1930s through the early 1950s in such films as Jezebel, The Old Maid, Dark Victory, The Great Lie, and Mr. Skeffington.
In Now, Voyager, Davis gets to act up a storm as the frumpy Charlotte we see early in the movie, as the person in transition from scared and insecure child-woman to confident adult, and as the beautiful young woman in love. Davis’ rich and textured portrayal as Charlotte slowly emerges from her years of repression into a beauty with a mind of her own is a tour de force. This was Bette Davis’ seventh of eleven Best Actress nominations.
Gladys Cooper provides an icy portrayal of Mrs. Vale, who is perhaps one of the screen’s first examples of parental psychological and emotional abuse.
Psychiatry is portrayed as a process in which conversation initially wins the confidence of the patient and the patient is removed from circumstances that have caused the pain—in this case, Charlotte’s mother. Rains has an ease of performing and a reassuring voice. His Dr. Jaquith speaks to Charlotte not as a needy child but as an adult. Gradually, Charlotte is motivated to assert herself and embrace her new-found independence. Though the viewer might suspect that he and Charlotte would wind up living happily ever after together, the script happily avoids that cliché and deals with the complexities of a troubled life in repair.
Though decidedly melodramatic, Now, Voyager has stood the test of time because of Davis’ performance, the iconic image of Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes at once and handing one to Davis, and the often-quoted curtain line.
The Blu-ray release from Criterion is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner, primarily from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative. Some sequences were scanned from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master held by the Museum of Modern Art. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed. Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used to minimize jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise. Pristine visual details are apparent in raindrops hitting a puddle, wrinkles in close-ups of Mrs. Vale’s face, and the flowered pattern in Charlotte’s shapeless dress. The range of grays is nicely differentiated, with blacks deep and lustrous, and the nitrate print original gives the film an elegant silvery look. Overall quality is exceptional and typical of recent Criterion Collection releases of older black-and-white films.
The original English monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm nitrate fine-grain. Optional subtitles are included in English SDH. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout, with all actors speaking distinctly. Even in emotional scenes, Ms. Davis is easy to understand. Max Steiner’s score is interwoven throughout the film, contributing to the mood and underscoring the romantic relationship between Charlotte and Jerry.
Bonus materials on this Blu-ray release include an except from The Dick Cavett Show; an interview with actor Paul Henreid; selected-scene commentary on the film’s score; a making-of featurette; a look at the costumes; 2 radio adaptations of the film; and a booklet containing supplemental materials.
Farran Smith Nehme on the Making of the Film – Film critic Nehme discusses the genesis of the film and how it became Davis’ biggest box office hit of the 1940s. Many clips are shown. Davis represents a period in Hollywood when the woman’s picture was popular. “She was tops at the box office.” When she made the film, she was at the pinnacle of her stardom at Warner Bros.. She was initially signed by Universal in the early 1930s but there were few film roles for women and the studio was concerned about her looks, so she was cast in secondary, ingénue roles. She moved to Warner Bros. but even there didn’t get many good parts at first. When Warners loaned her out for Of Human Bondage, critics and audiences took note. This was her breakout film but better parts still didn’t come her way, so she went to England to make a picture. Warners sued because she was under contract. Davis lost the case but earned a new respect for Warners. Starting with Jezebel she got a series of excellent roles, mostly melodramas. Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of Now, Voyager, based the story on her own nervous breakdown and stay at a sanitarium. Davis petitioned the studio to star in the film. Davis was “keen on looking the right way” as Charlotte. Claude Rains originally turned down the role of the psychiatrist because it was small, so the writers “beefed up” his part. The movie “is about emerging as the person that you always knew you were capable of becoming.”
Bette Davis on The Dick Cavett Show – In a November 1971 appearance, Bette Davis speaks to admiring host Cavett about similarities between New England and Southern accents, the lawsuit when she went to England to make a film, and her role in Now, Voyager. She notes the passing—the night before her appearance—of Gladys Cooper, who co-starred as her mother.
Paul Henreid Interview – In this TV interview, Henreid speaks about the origin of the cigarette-lighting scene and discusses his work in Casablanca. Both films were made in 1942 and Casablanca went on to win the Best Picture Oscar.
The Costumes of Now, Voyager – Costume historian Larry McQueen discusses Bette Davis’ longtime collaboration with costume designer Orry-Kelly and the creative ways he found to dress her. Orry-Kelly was one of Hollywood’s top designers, having costumed over 300 movies. He was chief designer at Warner Bros. from 1932 to 1944. He designed for Dark Victory, Jezebel, The Little Foxes, and The Old Maid. Davis and Orry-Kelly worked as a team in realizing characterization. Director Irving Rapper recognized the importance of costumes in telling a story. Orry-Kelly made actresses look elegant without the design upstaging them.
Select-Scene Commentary – Film scholar Jeff Smith discusses Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning score. The following music selections and their functions are discussed: Opening Credits, Charlotte’s Theme, Dr. Jaquith’s Theme, The Love Theme, Charlotte’s Return, and Tina’s Theme.
Radio Adaptations – Now, Voyager was adapted twice for Lux Radio Theatre. The first broadcast aired on May 10, 1943 and starred Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid. The second aired on February 11, 1946 and starred Bette Davis and Gregory Peck.
Booklet – The 32-page insert booklet contains a complete listing of cast and credits; the critical essay We Have the Stars by Patricia White; The Actress Plays Her Part by Bette Davis; details about the new 4K transfer; and several production and behind-the-scenes photos from the movie.
– Dennis Seuling