Now, Voyager remains a highly narcotic, swoon-inducing romance in the Bette Davis canon. It’s an unabashed soap opera about how true love gets hindered by social conventions, and manages to squeeze in a moralistic tale of female self-empowerment to boot. Toss in a third act bit of passive aggressive wish fulfillment where our high society heroine projects the love of a man she cannot have onto his unsuspecting, needy daughter, and there’s enough to make one’s head spin. But that cloudy feeling isn’t a drawback—it’s more like floating with a movie whose indulgences are reminiscent of foolishly falling in love. You ignore the flaws.
Boston heiress Charlotte Vale is a walking disaster of sheltered neurosis, a slave to the domineering whims of her elderly bitch of a mother (Gladys Cooper). Enter kindly psychiatrist Dr. Jasquith, played by Claude Rains as a soft-spoken healing balm who adores the messiness of pipe smoking and draws Charlotte in with his bedside manner and winning curiosity. Before you can say Henry Higgins, the doctor has completely transformed her life. It seems all poor sweet Charlotte needed was a new hairdo, dresses in the latest fashion, and to take off those dowdy spectacles! To test this new, improved Charlotte, Dr. Jasquith encourages her to take a pleasure cruise to Rio and take advantage of her rediscovered womanhood.
Now, Voyager‘s extended prologue belongs to the great Claude Rains, playing the idealized therapist any woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown would dream of. But rest assured, this is a Davis movie, and she rightly takes her place as the repressed female coming into her own through a charming dalliance with suave, debonair Jerry (Paul Henreid). The pleasure cruise grows all the more pleasurable as Charlotte takes courageous risks in meeting Jerry, struggling through conversations and gradually realizing she’s an interesting person, and that an interesting guy is into her. Henreid, best known for his stiff idealist in Casablanca, handles this role with easy, continental grace, and of course all the girls wish they were Bette when he casually lights two cigarettes at once and offers one to her. By moonlight, I might add.
This is all ladled on with velvety, manipulative broad strokes, yet Now, Voyager somehow manages to surpass its corny woman’s movie template. I suspect much of it has to do with Davis, who always threw herself headlong into these parts and enjoyed playing mad hysterics as much as glamour. She gets to do both here, and because Charlotte is fighting against being a stay-home spinster and has picked the right Mr. Right we actually give a damn beyond the camp antics Davis is sometimes notorious for. Naturally, these lovers are blocked because Jerry the brilliant architect is trapped in an unhappy marriage and struggling with a daughter as crazed and unhappy as the former Charlotte.
Jerry and Charlotte enjoy their ephemeral moments of happiness before parting, and Charlotte survived the experience and became Ms. Popular with the social set, rubbing elbows with celebrities and big shots. If only she can figure out how to deal with that sinister mother character, and through some elaborate plot contrivances save herself by saving Jerry’s tormented daughter. Yes, a lot of ground gets covered within the two-hour running time—it feels like three or four different features crammed together, but none of them commit the cardinal sin of being dull.
In true Old Hollywood fashion, the final scene ties it all together rather neatly and elegantly. Jerry and Charlotte draw together and move apart as if they were floating in orbit, so of course their final sequence together has them on the balcony…once again under the night sky. Who can forget Charlotte’s rapturous moment of awareness: “Don’t ask for the moon—we have the stars.” Now, Voyager is like a box of your favorite Valentine’s Day candy; you know it’s tacky but you just can’t resist. This is the stuff of young lovers and hare-brained idealists, for weepy women with handkerchiefs, and if it’s all ultimately pretty foolish stuff it reminds one of another time-honored affectionate cliché: only fools falls in love.