October 11, 2018

Now, Voyager (1942)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Irving Rapper
Stars: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Gladys Cooper

What it's about. Set in circa-1938 New England. Bette Davis lives in the mansion of her domineering, humorless, and elderly mother Gladys Cooper. Davis is depressive and friendless. Her saintly sister-in-law Ilka Chase and her vivacious grown daughter Bonita Granville pay a visit, bringing with them insightful psychiatrist Claude Rains.

Rains whisks Davis away to his clinic / resort, where she has an ugly duckling to swan transformation, along with a newfound and decidedly expensive taste in Orry-Kelly outfits.

Rains sends her alone on a cruise to South America, where the yet socially uncomfortable Davis promptly meets Paul Henreid, a heavily-accented, ceaselessly polite, and unhappily married man. Because it is a movie, chainsmoker Henreid is thunderstruck at first sight of Davis, and after significant effort gets to spent a romantic night with her, even if it is in a ditch.

Henried's attention gives Davis the confidence in society she lacked before. When she returns home, her mother is as unpleasant as ever, but Davis is now able to hold her ground. Davis becomes engaged to the wealthy and well-pedigreed John Loder, but despite his height, she finds him boring and dumps him. Davis' disagreeable mother is so shocked that she dies.

Davis inherits everything, then pays a visit to Rains' clinic, where she immediately encounters Janis Wilson, the miserable daughter of Henreid's troubled marriage. Davis soon makes Wilson the happiest teenager in America, and essentially adopts her, overcoming Rains' wariness and Henreid's petulance.

How others will see it. Now, Voyager was purportedly the greatest box office success of Bette Davis' career, at least until All About Eve (1950). The popular film won an Oscar for Max Steiner's score, best remembered as the romantic song "It Can't Be Wrong". Davis and Cooper were respectively Oscar-nominated as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. The film's legacy was cemented by its 2007 inclusion in the prestigious National Film Registry.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has 13K user votes, which does not compare favorably with the 457K user votes of Casablanca, made the same year and in fact the very next movie for both Claude Rains and Paul Henreid.

But guess what, the user ratings from women over 45 are higher for Now, Voyager (8.8) than they are for Casablanca (8.7), though the latter is widely regarded (and deservedly so) as one of the greatest movies ever made. Men under 45 are less overwhelmed, though their user rating of 7.6 is more than respectable.

User reviews are predictably ovewhelming positive. Reviewer nycritic calls it a "beautiful soap opera filled with subtext", and Piltdown_man gushes that it is "a love story for the ages."

How I felt about it. The success of Now, Voyager is undeniable. Is it the Davis-Henreid-Rapper chemistry? Apparently not, since Deception (1946) paired the trio again, to lesser effect. Rapper was reportedly a favorite director of Davis, who found him pliable and receptive to suggestions.

No, the quality of Now, Voyager comes from an unheralded source, Casey Robinson, whose screenplay was adapted from an Olive Higgins Prouty novel. The veteran screenwriter had toiled in Hollywood since 1927, but found his inspiration at Warner Bros. in Bette Davis, with his best scripts coming between her movies Dark Victory (1939) and The Corn is Green (1945). Perhaps Robinson understood Davis' complex film persona better than anyone.

It is difficult to believe that Davis' character here was ever the life of the party, though she is presented as such on multiple occasions. She prefers a battle of wills with Cooper, or Rains, or Henreid. But most of all she likes Janis Wilson, not as an opponent to fence with, but rather as a surrogate daughter through which she can vicariously enjoy the youthful joy of life that she missed out on.