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The Pain of metamorphosis: Bette Davis in ‘Now Voyager’

I can’t remember how I first discovered Now Voyager. It just seems to have come into my life and never left. There are movies like that. They become lifelong treasures, friends that you can visit whether you’re feeling triumphant or lonely. Now Voyager has been like that for me. Whether I’m on the top of the world like Charlotte when she discovers Jerry loves her, truly, deeply, life alteringly loves her, or I’m lower than I’ve ever been, like Charlotte when her mother dies and Jerry seems out of reach forever. Now Voyager is a film that I feel most women can empathise with, especially a woman like me, one that’s existed on the fringe of many things for most of her life. Charlotte is like an avatar for all our private self loathing, our desire to break free from the control of parents and societal expectations, and just love someone as madly and wholly as we can. Even if that someone can never really be ours. 

 

 

Now Voyager is one of the most romantic and best films ever made, with staggering performances from both Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, as well as Claude Rains. It has twice been nominated by the AFI as one of the 100 greatest films ever made, and was listed by Vanity Fair as one of the 25 most romantic films ever made. It deserves such recognition. It contains some of the most wonderful lines ever written for cinema, chief among them its signature closing line, and Irving Rapper’s direction is like something out of a dream. Beautifully soft in black and white, perfectly paced and supported by an utterly gorgeous score by Max Steiner.

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There is practically nothing that one can find to criticise about the film. Some may claim that its unrealistic in its depiction of Charlotte’s transformation, but I completely disagree. Charlotte’s journey from a dowdy, miserable, hen pecked woman to one that is beautiful, confident and capable of meaningfully impacting other people’s lives is so carefully crafted. While the scene in which she steps out onto the ship’s deck is the stuff of iconic cinema, her change cannot be boiled down to that single image.

 

 

Charlotte’s transformation is shown onscreen as being one that is not only about wearing slinky black evening gowns or wearing camellias. Charlotte’s very soul changes, it is awakened to the world by Jerry’s love and her own realisation that there is still so much to live for. That she doesn’t have to hide away from the world, that she can be a part of it in every way, even if it will not always be easy. I think the part of the film that best illustrates this is when she goes to say goodbye to Jerry at the train station. The Charlotte of the past, the one who wanted to marry a ship’s mate but couldn’t, would never have taken such a bold step, but the Charlotte of the present does not want Jerry to think that she will not fight for him. Even if she cannot be with him and live with him, she wants him to know that their hearts are forever linked. It reminds me of Rochester telling Jane that there is a string linking them, that there lives are forever entwined now.

“I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly.”

 

 

According to the AFI website,

“Modern feminist critics have described Now Voyager as an “initiation” or “coming of age” film in which a psychologically immature woman becomes a self-determining adult and comment favorably on the accurate depiction of the mother-daughter relationship.”

I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. Now Voyager is a feminine bildungsroman. While Charlotte is by no means a young woman anymore, her self exploration and actualisation are very similar to that of Jane Eyre in Brontë’s seminal novel. Like Jane, Charlotte comes to realise that she can only be happy on her own terms, that like Jane does with Rochester, Charlotte can only come to Jerry once she has realised who she truly is. Jerry tries to reject what he sees as Charlotte’s pity, but she makes him to realise that it is strength and dedication that has made her love his daughter as well as him, not pity for herself for being childless or him for being estranged from his wife. Unlike many other melodramas, Charlotte and Jerry are equals, and their love for Tina shows this.

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Both Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper were nominated for Oscars for their performances. While Charlotte and Jerry’s relationship is the heart of the film, Charlotte and her mother, Mrs Vale’s relationship is almost as vital to the film. While Charlotte and Jerry have a relationship solely complicated by love, Charlotte and her mother have a relationship complicated by love and hate. Mrs Vale is intent on controlling her daughter, who she tries to bully later on by saying that she had her because she wanted a companion later on in life. It is clear that Mrs Vale wants a slave and someone to lord her authority over. While the two women eventually come to some sort of understanding, it is a fragile one, and when Charlotte utterly rebels agains her mother by breaking her engagement to a man her mother feels in suitable for name rather than happiness, she has a fatal heart attack. It is unclear whether this heart attack is brought on only by shock or if it is Mrs Vale’s last ditch attempt at really punishing Charlotte for “betrayal”. I think that it’s a combination of both.

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Mrs Vale is a very old mother, at least forty years older than her daughter, and therefore her health is adequate at best. But her death is a way for her to truly make Charlotte feel guilty for disobeying her. Mrs Vale is a real piece of work, and the first role that I saw Gladys Cooper. From my experience of her film roles, I think it is her best. She meets and supports Bette Davis, Queen of the Warner Lot, at every turn. Her performance is understated, providing vital balance to Bette and Paul’s intense performances.

 

 

The same is true of Claude Rain’s performance. I particularly enjoy he and Bette’s scenes together because it is very clear how much mutual admiration they had for one another. It is speculated that Bette loved Claude in real life. Whether or not this is true, she and Claude have a wonderful dynamic in the film. Whilst Bette and Paul are the emotional heart of the film, this dynamic provides a much needed grounding, and at times some humour, to the proceedings. Charlotte and Jerry’s love is passionate, all consuming and brilliant, but Charlotte and Jaquith have a warm fondness for one another. Some viewers have said that they believe Charlotte and Jaquith eventually end up together, largely because of how differently he regards her at the party at the end of the film. But I don’t believe that that is true. Whilst I will not deny that I cannot imagine Charlotte loving anyone but Jerry, a romantic connection between she and Jaquith just seems awkward. Their friendship shows that mature men and women can be true friends and provide one another with support that is just as important as the romantic.

 

 

There is so much to love about this film. While contemporary critics called the film too melodramatic and trite, and also too slow and long. But I agree with Variety who said that the film was

“the kind of drama that maintains Warner’s pattern for boxoffice success … Hal Wallis hasn’t spared the purse-strings on this production. It has all the earmarks of money spent wisely. Irving Rapper’s direction has made the picture move along briskly, and the cast, down to the most remote performer, has contributed grade A portrayals.”[15]

And the film’s place as an iconic romantic drama, as influential in its plot and style as An Affair to Remember and Brief Encounterhas confirmed that Variety’s assessment was quite correct. Like An Affair to Remember and Brief Encounter, Now Voyager shows that the path to true love never did run smooth.

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That while love is a magical, precious thing, it is something that exists in a world that does not encourage its blossoming. Now Voyager also has no neat, happy ending, Charlotte and Jerry are faced with a lifetime of separation and difficulties due to the cards that life has dealt them, there is still something distinctly hopeful and wonderful in that. They will survive because of their love for each other and Christine, because they have learnt to not want too much and too intensely as they had before. Everything is what it should be. What it can be.

 

 

This is my second contribution for The Fourth Annual Bette Davis Blogathon being hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Cinema. Please visit her blog for more information and to read everyone’s contributions.

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12 thoughts on “The Pain of metamorphosis: Bette Davis in ‘Now Voyager’”

  1. How could modern day critics find anything negative to say about this film? 🤨 This film will always be everlasting because of the grand performances and the touching storyline. There is a lot of realism in regards to Charlotte’s depression and low self-esteem. Her crusty mother was like so many others of the period – very wooden and practically emotionless. I always got the impression that Mrs. Vale had had Charlotte by accident, having fallen pregnant before the onset of menopause. It wouldn’t surprise me if she held Charlotte’s late arrival against her since it limited her own freedom as a woman. Also, she seemed to have no trouble with her obedient sons which no doubt helped cement the idea in her head that Charlotte would bring her trouble as a young woman.

    Anyways, I could go on and on. 😋 It’s delightful to see how much this movie means to you and a lot of fun to compare our thoughts. Terrific article, Gabriela!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Erica! I’m so happy you enjoyed it! 💖 The critics are just so wrong so often! I think you’re very right. Mrs Vale doesn’t love Charlotte and what’s to punish her. Old bat. I know what you mean! I had to make sure I didn’t go for 10 000 words 🤣

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A beautifully written review of one of her finest films. The title of your review is a perfect in highlighting what I think is a key theme of the film. We can focus on the romance of the film but the pain and difficulties that Charlotte faces in finding herself is crucial. Thoroughly enjoyed your review – which are excellent as always 🙂

    BTW – must be a glitch in my account but I’m having constant problems liking or commenting on your articles. This time I was able to leave a comment but it won’t let me ‘like’ the article. Just to let you know that I always read your work and love what you write 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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