Saturday, October 16

Now Voyager Review: Bette Davis’ Sexless, Sublime Act of Sublimation | Films

TThe imposing 1942 romantic melodrama Now, Voyager, starring Bette Davis and Paul Henreid has been reissued, and its audience will once again be swept away by the emotional tsunami created by Max Steiner’s orchestral score; The music’s almost outrageous bombast matches the film’s sheer passion and seriousness, and underscores Steiner’s reputation as the Tchaikovsky of Hollywood’s golden age. The film was a sensational success and its main scene in which Henreid gently lights two cigarettes at once – one for himself and one for Davis – was heavily copied by saucer-eyed fans. Clive James confessed that he tried while trying to impress a girl on a date, only for her to say he didn’t smoke, leaving him looking like a walrus.

Charlotte Vale (Davis) is a young woman from a wealthy Boston family who is bullied by her domineering widowed mother, played by Gladys Cooper. Under this tyranny, Charlotte has become a tearful, scruffy spinster, with glasses and tousled eyebrows, who lives at home and, in one of the most spectacular lines in the film, bitterly reveals her secret addictions: “Cigarettes, sherry Medicines and books that my mother does not want, let me read! “Her worried sister realizes Charlotte is having a nervous breakdown and insists that her mother let her stay in a sanitarium run by the kind and cunning Dr. Jaquith, an excellent unpretentious performance by Claude Rains.

Under his tutelage, Charlotte improves into an incredibly graceful and beautiful woman – one of the most glorious transformation scenes in Hollywood history. On a cruise ship, she meets the handsome, attentive (and unhappily married) architect Jerry Durrance, played by Henreid, and falls in love with him, though she knows full well that his honor and decency won’t allow for an affair. So Charlotte strives for redemption, or quasi-marriage, becoming something of a mother to Jerry’s unhappy youngest daughter, who is on the brink of collapse and sees so much of herself in her.

It is not vulgar or funny to note that, quite alone among the adult characters in the drama, Charlotte is the one destined to never have a sexual experience. (Unlike, say, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in Casablanca, released the same year, who has relationships with both Humphrey Bogart and Henreid without her romantic heroism being contested in the least.) Charlotte’s frustration and neurosis, and Davis quite brilliantly suggests the residue of both, even at their most magnificently glamorous moment, clearly owes something to that. She is compensating: her energies are diverted to a new destination, a new sense of mission to save Jerry’s daughter from the miseries that ruined her own life. But the scenes where Charlotte first returns to her mother after her triumph in the sanitarium, and it looks like she might relapse into her old, miserable existence, will leave you on the edge of your seat.

Charlotte’s plan will have to take the place of actually marrying Jerry, having his children, and yes, perhaps there is something absurd about it, examined in the cold light of day. But, as Charlotte tells Jerry, they shouldn’t ask for the moon when they have the stars; these are a possession superior to the moon. There is something quixotic about Charlotte’s sense of nobility and self-denial.

Perhaps the 1940s was the last period when this story would make sense. It was released during the war, and although there is nothing in it about the war (again, unlike Casablanca), the war makes relevant its themes of self-sacrifice and transcending one’s emotional unhappiness. At the same time, he’s almost ecstatic from the war: emotional rocket fuel. Davis’s performance is both pointy and angular, yet also soft, sensual, and vulnerable. The excellent Henreid is perfectly cast. This movie is exquisitely crafted and passionately acted.

Now, Voyager is in theaters as of August 6.

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