Now, Voyager (1942): Superlative, Oscar-Nominated Bette Davis Melodrama, Co-Starring Claude Rains and Gladys Cooper

They don’t make them anymore: Under the assured helm of Irving Rapper, “Now, Voyager” is a superior soap opera, an unabashedly kitschy melodrama grandly acted by Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Gladys Copper and Paul Henreid.

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

A classic mother-daughter melodrama that’s simple irresistible. This weepie, as the genre was labeled then, was extremely popular when it was released in 1942, during the War, largely appealing to housewives who stayed home and went to the movies while the men were fighting.

In this variation of the Cinderella story (the ugly duckling who’s transformed into a swan), Dr. Jacquith (Claude Rains), a kind, benevolent psychiatrist, helps a sexually repressed, neurotically dowdy Bostonian woman named Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) to become an attractive, confident woman, defying the wish of her strong-willed and domineering mother (Gladys Cooper).

Scenarist Casey Robinson adapted to the big screen the 1941 novel of Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote Stella Dallas, which adapted to the big screen in several versions, the best of which is still Barbara Stanwyck’s 1937 film.  It’s therefore no coincidence that both novels deal with female self-sacrifice, or masochism.

Prouty borrowed her title from Walt Whitman’s poem, “The Untold Want”: The untold want by life and land ne’er granted, Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

Detailed Plot

Charlotte Vale is an unattractive, overweight, repressed old-maid whose life is brutally dominated by her tyrannical mother, a snobbish Bostonian aristocrat.

In the first scene, we get to see the restless hand of a nervous, insecure Charlotte, extinguishing a cigarette, clearing the butts, and hiding the ashtray in a drawer, fearing her mother’s response.

The mother’s verbal and emotional abuse of her daughter has contributed to the woman’s complete lack of self-confidence.

Mrs. Vale had already brought up three sons, and Charlotte was an unwanted child born late in life. Fearing that Charlotte is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her sister-in-law Lisa introduces her to  psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who recommends that she spend time in his sanitarium.

Away from her mother’s control, Charlotte begins to mature, even blossom as a more attractive, self-assured femme.

At Lisa’s urging the transformed woman takes a cruise instead of going home. On the ship, she meets Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance, a married man traveling with friends Deb and Frank McIntyre.
Charlotte is touched by Jerry’s devotion to his young daughter Christine (“Tina”), who keeps him from divorcing his wife, a manipulative, jealous woman who doesn’t really love Tina.

In Rio, the two lovers are stranded on Sugarloaf Mountain, when their car crashes. (It’s the only weak in the film).  They miss the ship and spend five days together before Charlotte flies to Buenos Aires to rejoin the cruise. Although they have fallen in love, they decide it would be best not to see each other again.

When she returns, the family is stunned by the dramatic changes in her appearance and demeanor. Charlotte is resolved to remain independent: Jerry’s love and devotion have given her strength and confidence.

Charlotte becomes engaged to wealthy widower Elliot Livingston, but after a chance meeting with Jerry, she breaks off the engagement.

During a vocal argument, Charlotte tells her mother she didn’t ask to be born, that she knows her mother never wanted her, that it’s “been a calamity on both sides.” Mrs. Vale, shocked by daughter’s new courage, duffers a heart attack and dies. Guilty and distraught, Charlotte returns to the sanitarium.

At the sanitarium, she meets Jerry’s lonely, unhappy 12-year-old daughter Tina who’s also been sent to Dr. Jaquith. Tina reminds Charlotte of herself, as both are unwanted and unloved by their mothers. Charlotte becomes interested in Tina’s welfare and, encouraged by Dr. Jaquith’s permission, she takes her under her wing, and later takes her home to Boston.

Jerry is delighted by the changes in his daughter. Dr. Jaquith has allowed Charlotte to keep Tina, if her relationship with Jerry will remain platonic. Charlotte sees Tina as his gift to her and her way of being close to him. When Jerry asks if she’s happy, Charlotte says there’s much to value in her life: “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”  (This line ranks #46 in the AFI’s list of the Top 100 Movie Quotes)

Main cast

Bette Davis as Charlotte Val

Paul Henreid as Jeremiah “Jerry” Duvaux Durranc

Claude Rains as Dr. Jaquit

Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Windle Vale

Bonita Granville as June Val

John Loder as Elliot Livingsto

Ilka Chase as Lisa Val

Lee Patrick as “Deb” McIntyr

Franklin Panborn as Mr. Thompso

Katharine Alexander as Miss Trask (as Katherine Alexander

James Renie as Frank McIntyr

Mary Wickes as Nurse Dora Pickford

Producer Hal B. Wallis made Now, Voyager his first independent production at Warner. The initial choices to play Charlotte were Irene Dunne or Norma Shearer, but when the feisty Davis learned about the project, she campaigned for and won the role. Davis immersed herself totally in the role, reading the original novel, involved in choosing her wardrobe. Consulting with designer Orry-Kelly, she suggested a drab outfit, an ugly dress for the virginal Charlotte, to contrast with the stylish wardrobe on the cruise ship.

Henreid uses the familiarity of sharing a cigarette, with the famous two-cigarette scene, being used as his introduction to a lonely woman.

Davis was not pleased with the initial tests of Austrian-born actor Paul Henreid, claiming that the “slicked back” appearance made him look “just like Valentino.” Davis insisted on another screen test, with more natural hairstyle, until Henreid was embraced as an optimal screen lover.

In her 1987 memoir, This ‘N That, Davis  revealed that co-star Claude Rains (with whom she also shared the screen in Juarez, Mr. Skeffington, and Deception) was her favorite co-star.

Several lines from “Now, Voyager” have entered into movie lore, quoted by Davis fans.  In one, Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes and tenderly hands one to Davis, who then says: “Don’t ask for the moon–we have the stars.”

The harshest, most enjoyable scene is arguably the one in which Charlotte dismisses her priggish suitor (John Loder) with the line: “Let’s not linger over it.”

A must-see for Bette Davis fans, alongside “Jezebel,” “The Old Maid,” “Dark Victory,” The Letter,” “The Little Foxes,” and “All About Eve.”

Max Steiner’s score, which fits the text and Davis’ performance like a silk glove, won the Oscar Award.

The film was a step in the right direction of Davis’s determination to shape her artistic future while under contract at Warner.  On this picture, she had a say on the choice of her co-stars and director, Irving Rapper. Davis previously had worked with Rapper before, with him functioning as a dialogue director, but there were clashes on the set, due to Davis’s insistence to be in control. 

Davis and Henreid claimed that the moment in which Jerry puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights both, then passes one to Charlotte, was developed during rehearsals, inspired by a habit Henreid shared with his wife, but drafts of Casey Robinson’s script show it was in his original draft.  Regardless, the scene became an indelible trademark of Davis’s legendary screen image–and legacy.

The staircase features prominently in the plot, as I will elaborate in a future column. The characters climb up the stairs and descend them at crucial dramatic moments, in various wardrobes, indicating their state of mind of being in control or being dominated.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 3

Actress: Bette Davis

Supporting Actress: Gladys Cooper

Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Max Steiner


Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context

This was Bette Davis’ sixth Best Actress nomination; she was nominated for ten Oscars, winning two.

For playing the tyrannical mother, Gladys Cooper received the first out of her three Oscar nominations; all in the supporting league.

In 1942, the two female acting awards went to actresses in the schmaltzy WWII melodrama, “Mr. Miniver”:  Greer Garson won Best Actress and Teresa Wright Supporting Actress.



Produced by Hal B. Wallis

Directed by Irving Rapper

Screenplay: Casey Robinson, based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty

Camera: Sol Polito

Editor: Warren Low

Music: Max Steiner

Art direction: Robert Haas

Costume: Orry-Kelly


Running time: 117 Minutes


End Note:

Thanks to TCM, which showed the classic melodrama on January 10, 2018.