Travel – broadening the mind, personal horizons and a lonely woman’s perceptions of self – is one of many tonics taken by an irrepressible Bette Davis as the traumatised Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager. Irving Rapper’s 1942 film, shining in crisp, crystalline monochrome, after a 2K digital restoration by Warner Brothers, returns to UK screens this month thanks to the BFI. A remarkably forward-thinking motion picture, it tackles mental health and well-being with a frankness and compassion uncommon for the time of its production.
Though it must be said that some extraneous elements of the plot are rather over the top and frankly a little ridiculous in places, the treatment of its core issues, and an enlightened examination of non-traditional family dynamics and motherhood, remain pertinent and affecting eighty years hence. Charlotte, who begins the film as the spinster aunt of a wealthy Boston family, is oppressed, manipulated and emotionally abused by a domineering matriarch (Gladys Cooper, who, along with Davis, would receive an Oscar nomination for her performance).
“Firm, proud and resisting the new,” says a characteristically impudent Claude Rains, as pre-eminent psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith, admiring the Vale family home. Taking an interest in Charlotte in order to gain her trust, his thinly veiled jibe takes issue with the old battle-axe’s backward, callous assertion that her daughter’s nervous breakdown would bring shame on the great family name. Echoing, no doubt, the prevailing belief of a certain generation, though Now, Voyager examines the psychological well-being of a grown woman – and later, a young girl – it would not be long before many young men would return to America in dire need of such help; a need which William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives would treat so devastatingly four years later.
A time spent in his Vermont ‘sanatorium’ and a plan concocted for Charlotte to set sail on a South America pleasure cruise works wonders. Outrageously bushy eyebrows are trimmed and elegantly shaped, hair is coiffed, weight is lost, and dowdy clothes are replaced by gowns and an array of splendid hats. Wholeheartedly believing this jaw-dropping transformation takes a considerable leap of faith, but Davis pulls off the metamorphosis with consummate ease, stepping into high heels as she disembarks. From a chrysalis emerges the most beautiful butterfly. But one that remains deeply troubled, internally. In this conflict between inner and outer beauty, loving oneself without the affirmation of others, altruism, self-truth vs societal expectation and discovering that happiness comes from within, Now, Voyager – and its leading lady – soars.
Screenwriter Casey Robinson adapted a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty for the film’s script. Though respectful of its subject matter, this is not the sinister, psychological trauma of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 feature Spellbound, for example. There is an emotional compassion and genuine desire to understand the self-doubt and anxiety suffered. And that patient ear comes in the form of a dashing Paul Henreid as travel companion, Jerry Durrance. Robinson, whose work on Casablanca in the same year would go uncredited, throws in another sweeping, illicit romance, with emotions and internal strife reinforced throughout by the striking strings and brass of Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning score.
The influence of the Curtiz film is echoed in a will-they, won’t-they dilemma, emotional adieus at train stations and airports, and another potential suitor who arrives on the scene. And though quivering with a little more passion than the stiff-upper-lip of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, even when “primitive instincts” and “love-making” are alluded to, it all remains quite above-board. Without ever being overly saccharine, this restraint, a subversion of convention, and the introduction in the film’s latter stages of a character who unites Charlotte and Jerry, brings this classic melodrama to its harmonious, albeit unexpected, much-quoted conclusion.
Now Voyager is released in selected cinemas UK-wide on 6 August.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63