There is a comforting symmetry in a film which takes its title from a couplet from a poem which is quoted within the dialogue which should now itself be better remembered for a different quotation, the final lines of the film as spoken by Bette Davis in the role of Miss Charlotte Vale, the unexpected “ugly duckling” last child of the infamous Vales of Boston: “Don’t let’s ask for the moon; we have the stars.”
The poem was The Untold Want by Walt Whitman, essayist and journalist, the grand man of American letters, who wrote “The untold want by life and land ne’er granted / Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find,” and it was the name Now, Voyager that Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of Stella Dallas, chose for her 1941 novel, the third in a sequence of five featuring the Vale family.
Partially inspired by Prouty’s own nervous breakdown following the death of her daughter and subsequent experiences of psychotherapy, Now, Voyager charts the emancipation of Charlotte Vale as she is removed from the home she has shared with her overbearing mother since birth to a sanitarium where she blossoms into her own woman, travelling on a cruise liner to South America before returning home to her duties having reinvented herself.
Adapted by Casey Robinson and directed by Irving Rapper, it was his second collaboration with his friend Bette Davis, already a two-time Academy Award winner for Dangerous and Jezebel; Now, Voyager would bring her another nomination and also for Gladys Cooper for Best Supporting Actress as Mrs Windle Vale, Charlotte’s martyr of a mother who treats her like a burden, though King Kong‘s Max Steiner would win the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.
Davis having fought for prime roles and built a reputation as being a formidable guardian of her career, she had not initially been considered for Charlotte but she pushed for the role which recalled her own background, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and reflected her less than “Hollywood perfect” looks as the dowdy Charlotte as well as showing another side of her dramatically, emotionally fragile and expecting rejection, even anticipating it.
A youthful cruise under the supervision of her mother having ended in humiliation and heartbreak, after the care of Doctor Jaquith (The Invisible Man‘s Claude Rains), a man who finds not only a patient for treatment but a friend, travelling incognito Charlotte’s voyage brings her into the company of Jeremiah Durrance (Casablanca‘s Paul Henreid), also travelling alone on business and trapped in an unhappy marriage.
In their adventures in Rio Jerry brings out of Charlotte the potential for kindness and warmth she has never experienced before but they are obliged to go their separate ways, a melodramatic premise of sacrifice and devotion which is raised by the performances of Davis, Cooper and the supporting cast, including strong turns from Janis Wilson as Jerry’s daughter Tina Durrance and On Moonlight Bay‘s Mary Wickes as Dora, Mrs Vale’s nurse and the only person immune to her venom.
Restored on Blu-ray in 4K for the Criterion Collection, Now, Voyager is accompanied by an informative video essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme, a brief interview with Henreid from 1980 and two radio adaptations among other features, but the standout is an hour in the company of Ms Davis herself, interviewed in 1971 by Dick Cavett, confident, witty, forthright, pragmatic and every inch the glamorous star reflecting on an enviable career.
Now, Voyager is available on Blu-ray from Monday 9th December as part of the Criterion Collection