Crystal over at In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood is holding this blogathon to honour the legendary Bette Davis. Be sure to visit her site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.
For this blogathon I’ve decided to write about Bette’s most iconic film, the 1942 classic Now, Voyager. Her remarkable performance in this film would go on to earn Bette her sixth nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.
Bette starts off totally convincing us that her character, Charlotte Vale, is a deeply damaged and introverted woman. Bette makes us feel great sympathy towards Charlotte. She makes us want to stand up to Charlotte’s mother on her behalf and tell her to leave her daughter alone. Bette looks so vulnerable, so on edge, so worn out, and so worn down at the start of this film. We feel for this character because of how well Bette conveys her pain to us.
In the next half of the film, Bette slowly begins to change before our very eyes into a far more strong and confident woman. She makes us believe that Charlotte is now comfortable being herself, and that she is also finally breaking free of her mother’s control. We know that Charlotte is going to be okay as her life goes on. Bette put a lot of effort into this performance and it shows. Bette also worked quite closely with the makeup artist and costume designer to decide what Charlotte should look like in the first half of the film.
The two faces of Charlotte Vale. Screenshots by me.
The film is described as a romantic drama and is best remembered today for the love story at the very heart of its plot. This film is so much more than just a love story though. It is quite an unusual and bold film in many ways, and that is a major reason why I love this one so much. The film focuses upon the rights of the individual; on mental illness; on mental health; and upon dominating and abusive parents. The ending of the film is also about as far away from the typical romantic ending as it is possible to get. The film is really about Charlotte learning to love herself, as well as being about her realising that not every human being out there is cruel and bad.
I especially love how this film depicts mental illness. In an era when mental health had a great stigma attached to it, this film and its attitudes towards mental health come across as being quite enlightened and modern in my opinion. Mentally ill people are all too often depicted as being incurable and frightening individuals who have to be thrown into asylums to keep them away from the rest of society. So many mental health patients have been treated appallingly in asylums and hospitals throughout the centuries. Is it any wonder then that mental illness became something frightening that people hated to admit they were suffering from?
Now, Voyager shows us that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of; it’s just that sometimes our minds need a little rest and some help.
Receiving help with your mental health doesn’t mean you are weak or dangerous. The film also shows us that there are kind and compassionate staff out there supporting those who are mentally ill.
Charlotte isn’t locked away and subjected to shock therapy or drugs. Charlotte is placed into a relaxing and quiet environment, an environment where she isn’t treated like a leper by those looking after her.
Just a few years after this film came out The Snake Pit was released. This later film has become one of the most famous films about mental illness, but it is also a film which once again depicts mental illness as a terrifying and alarming thing. The lead character in The Snake Pit is treated very distressingly. If you were struggling with your mental health and saw that film, then I doubt it would make you very eager to go and seek help for what you were going through. It’s a far cry from the more enlightened treatments and attitudes we see in Now, Voyager. Thankfully attitudes toward mental illness have become much more positive. Treatments for mental illness have become much more humane too.
Now, Voyager is based upon the 1941 novel of the same name, which was written by the American author Olive Higgins Prouty. Now, Voyager is the third in a series of five novels written by Prouty, all of which focus upon the Vale family. The events of the third novel are inspired by Prouty’s experiences of therapy following her own breakdown. The film adaptation of the novel was originally going to be directed by Edmund Goulding(Dark Victory, Nightmare Alley). Goulding had the actress Irene Dunne in mind for the role of Charlotte Vale, but unfortunately Goulding fell ill and had to withdraw from the project.
Michael Curtiz(The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce) was then assigned to the film as the new director. Curtiz considered both Norma Shearer and Ginger Rogers for the role of Charlotte Vale. Bette Davis really wanted the role, and she managed to persuade producer Hal B. Wallis that she should be the one to play Charlotte. Bette was eventually given the role. Michael Curtiz and Bette sadly didn’t get along that well, and so he soon left the project. Michael Curtiz was out of the directors chair and Irving Rapper(Deception, Marjorie Morningstar) was quickly sitting in his place as the new (and final) director of the film.
Joining Bette in the cast were the Austrian born Paul Henreid (absolutely superb in his first major Hollywood film role) as Jerry; the ever brilliant Claude Rains as Jaquith(accepting the role after the part had been rewritten); Gladys Cooper(ice cold and despicable) as Mrs. Vale, the ultimate mother from Hell.
Now, Voyager is all about Charlotte Vale(Bette Davis), a repressed, overweight and deeply unhappy heiress who is emotionally abused and dominated by her cold mother(Gladys Cooper). Her mother’s bullying and excessive control leads Charlotte to edge ever closer to a nervous breakdown.
Charlotte is teased and neglected by all her family, all except her kind sister-in-law Lisa( Ilka Chase).Lisa is really worried about Charlotte and can see that she is becoming quite ill. Lisa asks her psychiatrist friend Dr. Jaquith(Claude Rains)to come and see Charlotte and make a judgement about her state of mental health.
Jaquith meets with Charlotte and is very worried about her. He tells Mrs.Vale that her daughter is having a nervous breakdown. We also see that Jaquith is appalled by Mrs. Vales treatment of her daughter. I love the scene where he has a go at Mrs. Vale for her terrible treatment of Charlotte. I find that scene to be very unusual for the time, because Jaquith is calling out and acknowledging parental abuse/excessive control. In a time when parents word was law, here is Jaquith telling audiences that children shouldn’t be controlled because they have rights and are individuals. Jaquith makes it very clear that Charlotte has been damaged so much by her mother’s treatment of her. Jaquith arranges for Charlotte to come and stay at his sanitarium called Cascade. Under his care, and away from her mother, Charlotte slowly gets well and begins to come out of her shell and gain new confidence.
When she is well enough to leave Cascade, Charlotte goes off on a cruise. She is still a little fragile, but Jaquith and Lisa both hope that Charlotte can enjoy her independence on the cruise and that her confidence will increase while she travels.
When we next see Charlotte Vale, she is emerging from a doorway on the cruise ship. Charlotte looks beautiful and glamorous. Thanks to her new found self confidence, and a significant makeover, Charlotte looks like a completely different woman when we see her on the ship.
Charlotte has a lovely time on the cruise. She makes loads of friends on board the ship. Charlotte is still quite shy and hesitant at times, but she slowly comes out of her shell even more than she has done before. Charlotte enjoys a passionate love affair with the charming architect, Jerry Durrance(Paul Henreid), a fellow passenger who she befriends when they go ashore on a day trip together.
Jerry is a very kind man who is genuinely interested in Charlotte. The pair emotionally connect and quickly develop a strong romantic desire for one another too. I love how Paul Henreid plays the role of Jerry. He makes the character so gentle, so fun, so attentive and kind. Paul also lets us see that Jerry is slowly starting to fall in love with Charlotte due to the way he is looking at her when they are together; it’s clear to me that he falls for Charlotte before she falls for him. Paul and Bette have a lovely chemistry together and really make me believe in their growing bond. Off the screen, Paul would soon join co-star Claude Rains in becoming one of Bette’s closest male friends.
I like how the character of Jerry starts off being this sort of fantasy romantic figure, someone who (to me anyway)seems slightly too good to be true at first. But the more we get to know him, the more we see that he genuinely does care for Charlotte, and that he is what he seems to be. I especially love how Jerry still wants to be with her after she has told him about her illness and past.
The pair are very happy together. Jerry gives her the romantic love and kindness that she has so longed for all her life. She finally feels wanted and happy. Charlotte and Jerry’s happiness is short lived though once Charlotte discovers he is married. Jerry explains that he has an unhappy marriage.
Jerry also tells Charlotte that his youngest daughter Tina is a very troubled child. When Jerry shows Charlotte a photo of his daughter Tina, she can see something of herself in that depressed and awkward looking little girl. The pair decide not to meet again when they leave the ship at the end of the cruise, but neither can stop loving the other or forget about their happy times on the ship.
Charlotte returns home to see her family and Dr. Jaquith. Her mother is visibly shocked and appalled when she sees her daughter is now strong and can stand up for herself. Charlotte takes charge at home and stands up to her mother, while never stooping to her mother’s low level of cruelty or maliciousness, something which irks her mother a great deal.
After her mother dies of a heart attack(something of an irony as she never appears to possess a heart), Charlotte returns to Cascade feeling that her mother’s death is her fault. While she is staying there she discovers that Jerry has sent his daughter Tina there as a patient. Charlotte befriends Tina; once she does so, she soon finds that looking after this little girl takes her mind off her own issues. Charlotte finally feels a sense of purpose.
Jerry is so grateful to Charlotte for all the help she has given his daughter. He still loves Charlotte very much, but is romance what Charlotte still wants though? She still cares about Jerry, but at the end of the film she wants to leave things the way they are between them. “Jerry, don’t lets ask for the moon. We have the stars”.
I have always felt this ending is similar to the one in The Apartment; both films end with their romantic couples not getting together in the typical romantic ending of a kiss and a fade out. Charlotte is happy with the way things are between them at present. Charlotte and Jerry may well get back together romantically at some point, but for now she wants them to enjoy what they have and not to try and change anything. Even if they don’t get back together as a romantic couple, they will always remain friends who have an incredibly strong emotional bond. By the end of the film Charlotte has finally found her purpose in life; her purpose is to help others who have gone through the traumas that she has endured. For now she is enjoying her newfound independence and desire to help and be useful. That’s how I read this famous film ending.
As much as I love this film, I do however have quite a big issue with it. My issue concerns what happens to Charlotte after her makeover. With that makeover the film basically tells us that physical beauty bring happiness and grant our deepest wishes. It’s like we’re being told that we won’t find happiness, friendship, or love, unless we look gorgeous and are stick thin. In a time when so many struggle with low self esteem and pressure to look a certain way, this film sends out a very bad message in my opinion.
Charlotte doesn’t have any friends until she sets foot on that cruise ship after her makeover. All of sudden her wish to be loved and accepted comes true. People want to know her because she suddenly fits in and looks lovely. Her other family members who teased her before suddenly decide to treat her nicely, what does that say about all of these people? Would any of Charlotte’s new friends have looked twice at her if they had met her before? Would Jerry have wanted to be her lover if he had met her before? Sadly we all know that the answer to those two questions is no.
Our first glimpse of Charlotte after her makeover. Screenshots by me.
Charlotte’s new found happiness after the makeover gives the impression that beauty and glamour are what you need to be accepted and happy. It’s just not true. You can find friends and love no matter what you look like on the outside. Sadly we are still so very obsessed with looks and body image today. Young girls especially feel the pressure to look a certain way. Why should it matter what we look like on the outside? It’s what is on the inside that counts. Plenty of beautiful people are ugly on the inside, and plenty of people who are deemed ugly are the most beautiful souls you could ever wish to meet.
There’s another thing that bothers me about this film. As much as I love Jerry and Charlotte’s relationship, I have to confess to having never quite cared about their relationship as much as the one between Charlotte and Jaquith. I have always felt that Charlotte and Jaquith should have got together romantically. I really dig them as friends and think it’s great to see a close, non sexual, male and female screen pairing. But I can’t help it, I ship them so much. 🙂 Also Jaquith is the one who sees her at her most low and it doesn’t phase him. He is the first person to be truly kind and helpful to her. He treats her as an equal, and they both care about each other so much.
I thought I was really odd in wanting Charlotte and Jaquith to get together, that is until I saw that Bette herself had thought the same way! Bette said in a TV interview with Dick Cavett that she thought those two characters ended up together, and that Charlotte went on to work with Jaquith. If Bette ships it, then I ship it proudly too! 🙂
Who cares if a relationship between them would most likely break the rules of what can and can’t happen between patient and doctor? The way that Claude plays Jaquith, it becomes very clear to us that he cares about Charlotte and considers her to be more than a patient once she leaves Cascade for the first time. He is overjoyed to receive letters from her and lights up when he is around her. She lights up around him and cares about him very much too. I love the playful banter and conversations between them. I only wish there were more scenes between Charlotte and Jaquith in the film!
Bette Davis is without a doubt the star of this film. Her performance is extraordinary and remains one of her best and most iconic. Bette has fine support from Paul Henreid, Gladys Cooper, Claude Rains, Mary Wickes(hilarious and scene stealing as ever) and the rest of the cast. For me it is Gladys Cooper who stands out the most from the rest of the cast. Gladys makes Mrs. Vale so hateful and cruel, that you want to reach the screen and slap her. I think this is one of the best performances Gladys ever gave on screen.
Four years after making this film, Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, and director Irving Rapper, would all reunite together to make Deception. This later film has Claude and Paul as two very different men, who each have one thing in common, their love and desire for Bette’s character.
For years after this film was released, Paul Henreid would constantly be asked by his fans to light two cigarettes at once for them. This was because in this film he famously lights two cigarettes in his mouth at once and hands one to Bette. The photo on the cover of Paul’s autobiography even features him with two cigarettes in his mouth. Those famous cigarette scenes have become unforgettable to anyone who has ever watched this film.
Now, Voyager is every inch a classic. Its characters, issues and themes are still extremely relevant and affecting today. Charlotte Vale is a character who I think offers hope and comfort to people who are going through tough times. Charlotte’s transformation into a happier person shows us that dark times can pass by, that we can find happiness and the freedom to be ourselves.
What do you think of this film?