**/**** Image A Sound B Extras D
starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper
screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty
directed by Irving Rapper
by Alex Jackson I'll admit to being rather tickled by Now, Voyager, but I frankly believe that the movies should have higher aspirations than to tickle. Though getting tickled is sort of fun for a short while, in any long duration it simply becomes obnoxious. Now, Voyager is trash, but it's not particularly great trash. There is nothing in its straight-faced inanity that successfully works as critical commentary on the material. This is camp at its most superficial; scratch off the simple surface pleasures and you're left with one black void.
Bette Davis is Charlotte Vale, a spinster aunt who lives with her overbearing mother in their opulent Boston mansion. As the film begins, Charlotte's sister-in-law has invited psychiatrist Dr. Janquith (Claude Rains) to meet with the Vales and see if Charlotte could use some time in his hospital. Disgusted at how Charlotte has had to hide her cigarette-smoking, diary-keeping, and reading of books that were not approved by her mother, Janquith agrees that she needs help; months pass under Dr. Janquith's guidance and supervision and Charlotte's mental health is ostensibly restored. Not quite ready to return home to mother, anyway, Charlotte, at Dr. Janquith's suggestion, takes a pleasure cruise to exploit her newfound self-esteem. It is there that she meets Jerry Durance (Paul Henreid), a wealthy architect who sweeps her off her feet. There's just one problem--he's married!
The film is filled with roughly as much nuttiness as one of David Zucker's Naked Gun pictures. Early on, we're treated to a flashback in which Charlotte is making out with a sailor. With his molded plastic hair and perfectly bronzed skin, the sailor looks enough like one of the gigolo androids from Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence for us to get into the snarking position--and then he talks! Breaking away from the kiss, he exclaims to his lover, "Whoa! I'll say, that was a scorcher!" Before her transformation, the filmmakers illustrate Charlotte's spinster-ism by putting her in a pair of glasses. Take off her glasses and voilà, she's sexually viable. Today, when you put glasses on a woman, it's to lend her credibility as an intellectual (see: Jessica Alba in Fantastic Four or Tara Reid in Alone in the Dark); in the 1940s, glasses apparently represented chastity and frailty, both undesirable traits for a woman to have. (See: Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life.) Either way, the use of the device tells us that the filmmakers think us easily-manipulated morons. It's even worse with Now, Voyager, which belabours their symbolic significance. We're actually out-and-out told that Charlotte doesn't need glasses and is forced to wear them by her mother. In another hilarious scene early in the film, Dr. Janquith confiscates her specs and snaps the frames in two:
Dr. Janquith: The oculist told you that you didn't need these anymore.
Charlotte: But I feel undressed without them.
Dr. Janquith: It's good for you to feel that way.
Charlotte is about twenty-five pounds overweight, but as this is the age before latex and Method acting, that would not be evident unless all the characters were to make verbal note of it. The only thing Davis ever changes is her dress. In yet another side-splitting scene, Charlotte shows a picture of her family to Jerry. He points to her and says, with pure innocence, "Who's the fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair?" The film has this bizarre Von Trier-ian internal logic whereby the characters can see what is not evident to us, the viewer. In the universe of Now, Voyager, ugly dresses magically add measurable mass.
The acting in Now, Voyager is very "actorly." To be fair, this is probably the only real way to perform this material, and furthermore, that quality is likely accentuated by Max Steiner's overbearing, if forgettable, score. When her bratty niece accuses Charlotte of having "the shakes," Davis's resulting performance seems to dare us not to laugh. Most of the time, Irving Rapper directs his actors in a way that condescends to their audience. Whenever Davis may be required to portray a complex form of emotion, the filmmakers lighten her load by giving her dialogue or voiceover narration to explain it away. (Her response to the "Who's the fat lady" crack is "a spinster aunt," followed by a full confession.) After Charlotte comes home a healed woman and tells her mother that she will be her own person from now on, Mother throws herself down the staircase in a bid to cripple herself and engender Charlotte's sympathy. But not before throwing a sideways glance and a half-smile back towards the unseeing Charlotte. You sort of have to laugh to counter how hard the filmmakers are putting the screws to you.
The most famous scene in Now, Voyager finds Jerry lighting himself two cigarettes and handing one to Charlotte. Fine, but he does it so many times throughout the film that it becomes a motif, a little joke between the characters and the movie's way of forcing sexual symbolism on us. This would have been a better movie if he just did that once, after they have sex for the first time--which leads to another problem with Now, Voyager: it's chillingly unerotic. I can't say that the bug-eyed and thick-lipped Davis does much for me, but she's not nearly as much of a problem as Paul Henreid. Henreid is worse than ugly--he's boring, and entirely without charisma as a romantic lead. While Henreid could be great used in the right way, this was not the right way. (For illustrative purposes, imagine him switching roles with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. It would have been a disaster!) And besides, I don't know about the other guys in the room, but it's never been a great fantasy of mine to pop the shy, sexually repressed thirty-three-year-old librarian. That shit gives me "the shakes" more than anything else.
I know that admirers of Now, Voyager understand that this film is goofy, that they describe it as a melodrama and that they're savvy to what's going on with it. But they are still wrong. I'm reminded of that moment in Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven where Dennis Haysbert talks about how modern art is religious art taken down to the basics. Now, I liked Far From Heaven, or rather I found it dreadfully interesting, but I think that it was ultimately a tremendous failure. Instead of taking cinema down to the basics, Haynes coded it into a parallel art form. Watching Far From Heaven was like watching a movie from Mars--it doesn't have anything to do with racism or sexism or any such human concerns. Rather, it's about the idea of racism and sexism as filmic conceits. It was a movie made by and for the academic elite of film criticism and is pretty much useless as sociology, much less as a visceral tearjerking entertainment.
Now, Voyager is certainly a less ambitious film than Far From Heaven, yet it is similarly alienating. When Davis utters that immortal last line, "Oh Jerry, don't ask for the moon. We have the stars," and the camera pans over to the night sky, it's not moving, it's stupid. What's more, it's stupid in a way that lends itself to deconstructionist secular terms--the antithesis of everything that great cinema is, to say nothing of great romance. The people condescending to Now, Voyager are a more alarming bunch than the usual gang of Mike Nelsons and Crow T. Robots, because they seek to reduce the spiritual to the chemical.
In conjunction with their 5-disc Bette Davis box set, Warner Video has reissued Now, Voyager on DVD in a rather stunning 1:33 full frame transfer. In some respects it might be a little too good: the solid blacks and whites are so virile that when Davis enters frame in a black dress with white polka dots, you kind of flinch a little, as if the telecine were revved up to 11. The Dolby mono 1.0 soundtrack is clean and solid, if otherwise unremarkable. Aside from the audio-visual presentation, the platter has little to recommend it. The only real extras are "score session cues" presumably preserved in their original form, thus allowing you to hear the orchestra cough and mumble in-between takes. Adding insult to injury, it seems that the disc's producers couldn't get the basics right, since the optional English subtitles paraphrase or altogether skip half the dialogue and nobody but Davis receives a comprehensive filmography. The film's dull trailer rounds out the sparse package. Originally published: August 15, 2005.