Filmsite Movie Review
Now, Voyager (1942)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)

Now, Voyager (1942) is the quintessential, soap-opera or "woman's picture" ('weepie') and one of Bette Davis' best-acted and remembered films in the 40s, coming shortly after other early Davis classics including Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), All This, and Heaven Too (1940), and The Letter (1940). Her unglamorous portrayal of Charlotte Vale - a mousy, dowdy and overweight, frustrated, mother-hating virginal spinster early in the film is a remarkable acting achievement. The producer Hal B. Wallis had originally intended on having the lead role played by Irene Dunne, and then Norma Shearer or Ginger Rogers.

The title of the romantic melodrama film was taken from well-known American poet Walt Whitman's 1892 Leaves of Grass (from the section titled The Untold Want):

The Untold Want
By Life and Land Ne'er Granted
Now, Voyager
Sail Thou Forth to Seek and Find

In the film, the psychiatrist (Claude Rains) who aids the repressed woman's recovery and transformation (into a modern, attractive, and glamorous woman) as she fights to free herself from tyrannical shackles of her domineering mother, presents her with the quoted words when she is on the verge of breaking out with an ocean cruise/voyage.

Directed by Irving Rapper, its screenplay by Casey Robinson was based on the 1941 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty (who also wrote Stella Dallas). Max Steiner provides the lush, romanticized, Academy Award-winning score for the film that was nominated for a total of three Academy Awards, including Best Actress (Bette Davis) and Best Supporting Actress (Gladys Cooper), with Steiner's nomination as the sole win (his second Oscar).

The plot of the film is about the strident efforts of a neurotic child to be liberated from repressive, matriarchal domination. Treatment is successful, owing to care by a psychiatrist (therapy was coming into vogue in the early 40s) and a love affair with a charming, Euro-American married man who already has a wife and children. The film concludes with Charlotte's lavishing of attention on his young, emotionally-unstable teenage daughter Tina (caused by another domineering mother) (an uncredited Janis Wilson) - her motherly love serves as a remote substitute for the couple's own romantically-complicated love. And the film's last stirring line of romantic dialogue has become immortal: "Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars."

Plot Synopsis

The title credits appear above a background sketch/drawing of a great ocean liner. It is 4 pm and the setting is the home of the upper-class Boston family of the Vales, ruled by tyrannical Mrs. Henry Windle Vale (Dame Gladys Cooper). A late afternoon tea party has been arranged between Mrs. Vale, her concerned, kindly, sophisticated sister-in-law Lisa Vale (Ilka Chase), and a New York psychiatrist named Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), the "foremost psychiatrist of the whole country." A skeptical Mrs. Vale contends that she has been reluctantly included in the discussion of her middle-aged daughter Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) who, according to her "is no more ill than a moulting canary." Lisa has planned to have Charlotte "trapped...into an examination" without her knowing it.

In each successive section of the film as Charlotte's transformative metamorphosis is documented, she is introduced in the same fashion. The first view of Charlotte is a closeup of her hands laboring over an ivory box. She smokes forbidden cigarettes and hides the evidence in her desk drawer and waste basket. As she descends the stairs for the 4 o'clock summoning, the camera discloses her unchic black shoes, pale legs, and sexless, old-fashioned print dress with small polka-dots. Her oppressive mother discusses her born late, unwanted, "ugly duckling" daughter before she is actually seen:

Charlotte was a late child. There were three boys, and after a long time this girl - 'a child of my old age' I always called her...her father passed on soon after she was born, my ugly duckling...I've kept her close by me always. When she was young, foolish, I made decisions for her, always the right decisions. One would think a child would wish to repay her mother's love and kindness.

She is seen in a full-length frame as she enters the palatial parlor - a lonely-looking, repressed, dowdy, and unhappy spinster daughter with owlish librarian's spectacles, heavy eyebrows above pop-eyes, unattractive mousy hairdo, a white-powdered face, and a shapeless body. Charlotte appears neurotic, taut, fretful and inward. Mrs. Vale apologizes for her daughter's "bad manners", emphasizing (as she was explicitly instructed not to reveal) that Jaquith is a doctor. The camera shoots from over-the-shoulder of the domineering, tormenting mother as she issues cruel and disparaging words against Charlotte, and denies that her progeny is having a nervous breakdown:

I will not countenance deceit against one of my own flesh and blood, but neither will I countenance any more of Charlotte's nonsense. (To Charlotte) Lisa tells me that your latest peculiarities, your fits of crying, your secretiveness indicate that you're on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Is that what you're trying to achieve?...Dr. Jaquith has a sanitarium in Vermont, I believe. Probably one of those places with a high-wire fence and yowling inmates...The very word 'psychiatry,' Dr. Jaquith, doesn't it fill you with shame, my daughter, a member of our family?...

The kindly and wise Dr. Jaquith explains how he guides and helps confused people to find their way with 'signposts.' However, Charlotte's bulging eyes dart around as she tries to avoid her mother's gaze. Unable to endure any more torture, she rises and leaves the room heading up the stairs. To speak to the disturbed woman in private, Dr. Jaquith follows her up to her retreat - a third floor locked room, while commenting upon the Bostonian homes that reflect the personalities of their proud, stuffy and resistant owners:

Dr. Jaquith: You know, there's nothing like these old Boston homes see them standing in a row like bastions, firm, proud, resisting the new, houses turned in upon themselves hugging their pride.
Charlotte: Introverted, doctor.
Dr. Jaquith: Well, I wouldn't know about that. I don't put much faith in scientific terms. I leave that to the fakirs and writers of books.

The doctor compliments her professionally-done craft work of carving ivory boxes. Charlotte reveals the secret pleasures she must hide from her mother, who dictates what she must wear and books she must read:

...cigarettes and medicated sherry and books my mother won't allow me to read. A whole secret life hidden up here behind a locked door.

With a wild look from her eyes, she flips before him the pages of a scrapbook or old photo album that chronicles her past when she was young - and in love:

You know, you really should read it. It's a shame for you to come all the way up here and miss your amusement. Read it, doctor, the intimate journal of Miss Charlotte Vale - spinster....but you must pry. I insist that you do. There's really nothing to frighten you off - a few snapshots, a memento or two. It's a record of my last trip abroad with my mother. We were sailing up the coast of Africa. See - there's a picture of our ship, a...steamer. You wouldn't have known me then - I was twenty then.

Pages of a book flip backwards to an eras-gone-by flashback where twenty-year old Charlotte is on her first voyage of love - kissing handsome ship's officer Leslie Trotter (Charles Drake) on a sunny deck: "That was a scorcher," he tells her. "There's nothing like you to be found in all of Africa." In voice-over, Charlotte explains her statement to the officer: "I thought that men didn't like girls who were prudes":

I had read that part in novels, about men not liking girls to be prudes. That's all I had to go by - novels. Leslie told me he'd rather have me than any girl on board or any girl he'd ever known because I was so responsive. He said that the others were like silly schoolgirls compared to my lovemaking.

On shipboard, her cruel and haughty dowager mother insists that Charlotte wear her spectacles and not read unapproved books, and further criticizes her vibrant daughter for desiring to take a shore trip with other "typical American" tourists. The commentary continues - during a sequence in which the ship's Captain (Lester Matthews) - holding a flashlight - prowls the deck with Mrs. Vale and locates Charlotte in an amorous embrace with Leslie:

That night, I left her in her room with one of her headaches. I would go to the library and read, and later when she looked for me, I wasn't there. She couldn't know I was with Leslie, but she knew I hadn't gone ashore. She had checked on that. Leslie and I always had to be discreet. Not only because of mother but because of his position on the ship as well. One of our favorite trysting places was on the freight deck among the crates and canvas-covered automobiles. There was a particular limousine...

Discovered, Charlotte admits her delight that her mother has learned of her shipboard love affair, but it dooms her hopes of romance:

Charlotte: I don't care, I'm glad.
Mrs. Vale: Go to your cabin!
Leslie: I want to marry your daughter. We're engaged to be married.
Mrs. Vale: (to the captain) Do you allow what you call your officers to address a passenger in that manner?
Captain: You'll report to my quarters at once, Trotter.
Mrs. Vale: Go to your cabin.

(Charlotte, in voice-over) I had said I was glad, and I was glad. He had defied my mother and placed me on a throne - and before a witness too. It was the proudest moment of my life. My moment didn't last long, as you can see. My mother didn't think that Leslie was suitable for a Vale of Boston.

The film returns to the present, as the pages of the book flip forward. Charlotte (with her back to the camera) wrings her hands in front of a window where rain strikes the panes, speaking of her entire aborted life:

What man is suitable, doctor? She's never found one. What man would ever look at me and say, 'I want you.'? I'm fat. My mother doesn't approve of dieting. Look at my shoes. My mother approves of sensible shoes. Look at the books on my shelves. My mother approves of good solid books. I'm my mother's well-loved daughter. I'm her companion. I am my mother's servant. My mother says! My mother. My mother! MY MOTHER!

Charlotte's bottled-up nerves burst forth in convulsive sobs at the rainy window. In near collapse with her back turned, she begs the doctor to help her: "Dr. Jaquith, can you help me?...When you were talking downstairs, when you were talking about the fork in the road, there are other forks further along the road, so many."

His common-sense diagnosis to Charlotte's shrewish, blameworthy mother is that she is "most seriously ill...thanks to you."

Dr. Jaquith: My dear Mrs. Vale, if you had deliberately and maliciously planned to destroy your daughter's life, you couldn't have done it more completely.
Mrs. Vale: How? By having exercised a mother's rights?
Dr. Jaquith: A mother's rights, tawdle. A child has rights, a person has rights, to discover her own mistakes, to make her own way, to grow and blossom in her own particular soil.
Mrs. Vale: Are we getting into botany, doctor? Are we flowers?

Aunt Charlotte's bitchy, fashionable niece June Vale (Bonita Granville) arrives - Lisa's daughter. She makes conspicuous notice of the ivory box that Charlotte has given to the doctor - a highly-unusual gesture: "One of her own precious, private...Why Aunt Charlotte? Fess up a romance. Isn't this something to be discussed with the family?" When June goads her, Charlotte's tea-pouring hands visibly shake and tremble and then intensify into an hysteria. She grimaces and scurries from the room:

June: What's this? A hangover, I believe it is. Aunt Charlotte's got the shakes.
Charlotte: Go on, torture me. Go on, torture me. You like making fun of me, don't you? You think it's fun making fun of me, don't you?

An imperious Mrs. Vale cruelly comments after witnessing her daughter become emotionally shattered: "A nervous breakdown. No member of the Vale family has ever had a nervous breakdown." Dr. Jaquith confirms Lisa's fears for Charlotte's mental health and recommends immediate treatment at his sanitarium: "Well, there's one having one now. I suggest a few weeks at Cascade."

In the second (brief) section of the film, Charlotte is guided to health at the doctor's sanitarium-rest home where she undergoes analysis. She gains her mental and physical health in a few short months:

Better every week. In fact, she's almost well, but she doesn't believe it. The prospect still looks dark to her. Going through a sickness like hers is something like going through a tunnel. It's pretty dark right up the last few hundred yards. You'll find her feeling depressed today, because only this morning, I told her she's a fledgling now...well, it's time for her to get out of the nest and try her own wings. The contemplation of going home has struck her pretty hard. I haven't told her yet there's any alternative...Now don't expect to find her looking well. She's lost a lot of weight. She's a pretty sick girl.

As in the first section of the film, Charlotte is first discussed before being introduced. A closeup of her hands reveals that she is operating a weaving loom and that she has lost some weight and wears a less-severe hair-do. Dr. Jaquith removes Charlotte's unneeded glasses from her nose and snaps them in two:

Dr. Jaquith: The oculist told you you don't need these any more.
Charlotte: But I feel so undressed without them.
Dr. Jaquith: It's good for you to feel that way.

With her imminent release, Charlotte dreads returning home to her mother, and then feels guilty: "I know it's awful not to want to see Mother and it's wrong." But a "scheme" of Lisa's and the doctor's may forestall a confrontation. As the doctor leaves, he presents her with slip of paper that bears a typed-up Walt Whitman quotation. He sends his recuperated patient forth on a long ocean voyage, urged by Lisa's suggestion:

If old Walt didn't have you in mind when he wrote this, he had lots of others like you. He's put into words what I'd like to say to you now - and far better than I could ever express it. Read it. (Charlotte reads the verse) 'Untold Want, By Life and Land Ne'er Granted, Now, Voyager, Sail Thou Forth to Seek and Find.'

In the third section of the film, Max Steiner's score swells, as the churning ocean is parted by a large ship. The passengers discuss 'Miss Beauchamps' - one of the tourists on the ocean liner who is tardy arriving for her shore tour to Nassau. As the shore cruise manager Mr. Thompson (Franklin Pangborn) announces her arrival at the top of a gangplank: "Shhh, here she is," the camera introduces Charlotte with a panning closeup of her two-toned, high-heeled shoes, her stockinged legs, her handbag and white elbow-length gloves, trim body, and a face half-shadowed by a swoop-brimmed white hat with light veil. Transformed into a lovely swan from an ugly duckling, her pretty face is highlighted by lipstick, plucked eyebrows, and a styled hairdo.

During the shore cruise, she is introduced to a handsome and suave European, Jeremiah 'Jerry' D. Durrance (Paul Henreid). Hesitant about being a single traveler and having to share her horse carriage with him during the land tour, Charlotte remembers (as the pages of a book flip backwards) the advice of Dr. Jaquith as she boarded the ship in New York:

Now, pull your own weight. I've taught you the technique, now use it. Forget you're a hidebound New Englander. Unbend, take part, contribute. Be interested in everything - and everybody.

Charlotte becomes more self-assured, confident and attractive and she discovers life anew. The camera zooms in on the chic young woman's amused face as she converses with her fellow tourist - she recalls her mother's words of warning years ago:

Charlotte: I was thinking of my mother.
Jerry: Oh, your mother.
Mrs. Vale: (a superimposed flashback) Could we try to remember that we're hardly commercial travelers? It's bad enough to have to associate with these tourists on board.
Charlotte: (to Jerry) I'll be glad to see anything you like.

Onshore, Charlotte and Jerry dine together on an outdoor patio, where he becomes intrigued by her presence. In the first of many cigarette lightings in the film, Charlotte is impressed that he graciously lights her cigarette that she holds to her mouth:

Jerry: I wish I understood you.
Charlotte: Since we just met this morning, how could you possibly?...(after he leaves to send a cable to his wife Isabel) (rhetorically) He wishes he understood me. He wishes.

She peers at her own reflection in a window - contemplating the mysteries of her own self. He orders Cointreaus for them to drink. To prevent further confusion, she reveals that everyone mistakenly calls her Renee Beauchamps: "Renee is in Arizona somewhere...The head waiter and the deck steward - they all think I'm Miss Beauchamps. The purser knows I'm not. I took Renee's space at the last moment and it was too late for my name to go on the first passenger list." He innocently asks a profound question:

Do you intend to keep your identity a dark secret for the whole voyage?

She becomes better acquainted with the romantic stranger on a shopping trip that afternoon to buy gifts for his two daughters: sixteen year-old Beatrice and twelve year-old Tina. He requests her services as a guide: "I need a woman's help." Still self-deprecating after so many years of practice, Charlotte remarks: "Of course. A spinster Aunt is an ideal person to select presents for young girls." With only a picture of his family's "harem," Charlotte sees a resemblance between herself and Jerry's youngest 'unwanted' daughter Tina - another "ugly duckling." She is touched by his gift of perfume - Jolie Fleur: "I'll put some on my handkerchief tonight." They plan to meet for cocktails before dinner.

Next Page