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Charlotte Vale, the plain, sheltered daughter of a wealthy Boston family, is trapped at home by a domineering mother and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is sent to a sanitarium to recuperate and then embarks on a Latin American cruise rather than return home immediately to face her mother. On the cruise she meets an unhappily married man, Jerry Durrance and they fall in love. When Charlotte returns to Boston and her mother’s house, she is a changed woman and becomes engaged to the scion of another prominent Boston family. She also becomes involved in helping Tina, Jerry’s unhappy adolescent daughter, who ends up at the same sanitarium where Charlotte had convalesced. Eventually Jerry reappears in her life, due to her involvement with Tina, and they have to decide what will be the nature of their relationship.
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Now Voyager, along with “Mildred Pierce” (1945), is one of the quintessential women’s pictures from the 1940s. It was Bette Davis’ most popular film of the decade, which is to say probably the most popular film of her career, as she was at the pinnacle of her professional life in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. She received her 5th Best Actress Academy Award nomination in a row for her work in it. Davis’ instincts for what was right for her were sharp and she fought hard to play this role, arguing to producer Hal B. Wallis that her roots in New England (she was born in Boston) and her relatively average good looks, would allow her to understand this woman better than some of the other actresses who were being considered for the part.
“Do you think I hide cigarettes in my room, doctor? Where do I hide them doctor? On the shelves behind the books? Cigarettes and medicated sherry and books my mother won’t allow me to read? A whole secret life hidden up here behind a locked door?”
Later, as the newly sophisticated Charlotte, now broken free of her mother’s domination, Davis manages to maintain some sense of connection to her former self. There is a dignified, quiet restraint to her performance in the second half of the film, a sense that this new woman, unrecognizable from the one we first meet, still holds within her somewhere the plain, serious Charlotte. Even so, Davis shows she can deliver signature romantic lines so that they become touchstones for the genre, in this case, the famous last line of the film, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
Davis is joined by a cast that includes distinguished stage veteran, Gladys Cooper, as her controlling, manipulative mother - a Freudian nightmare who insists on supervising everything about Charlotte’s life, from what she eats to what she wears to what she reads and where she sleeps. Claude Rains is the solicitous psychiatrist who helps to save Charlotte from her mother’s tyranny. Paul Henreid plays her lover, Jerry Durrance, with a smooth, continental style that works well opposite Davis’ more emotional presence. He makes famous a bit of business in this film, lighting two cigarettes in his mouth at once and offering one to Davis as a romantic gesture between the two of them.
The film is helped enormously by Sol Polito’s glamourous black and white photography, particularly the star lighting of Davis. Max Steiner’s score is romantic and lush throughout and Irving Rapper’s direction is solid. The film is an adaptation of a popular novel of the era by Olive Higgins Prouty and epitomizes studio craftsmanship in producing a Hollywood star vehicle, which is also an enjoyable romance.