In a key scene of the beloved Bette Davis film Now, Voyager (1942), the heroine goes to dinner on a cruise ship wearing a cloak decorated with fritillaries. A fritillary is a spangled butterfly, and the scene signals that Charlotte Vale, spinster, has emerged from her cocoon. One of “the Vales, of Boston,” Charlotte has been sheltered and stifled to the point of neurosis by her formidable mother (Gladys Cooper). The cruise is the culmination of a rest cure prescribed by the wise Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains); Charlotte is sailing under the name of a family friend, who has lent not only her ticket but also her wardrobe, each item with its own instructions. Charlotte’s grand entrance is marred when Jerry (Paul Henreid), her new friend and unhappily married romantic interest, finds a note pinned to the cloak. Bewildered, he says, “Somebody must be playing a joke on you.”
One of several moments of abject humiliation for Charlotte in this Warner Bros. classic, the revelation that her wings are borrowed flips, with the suddenness and grace of a butterfly, into one of several moments of sardonic self-knowledge: “The joke is far funnier than you realize.” Davis spits the line. As a result of pressure from the Production Code Administration, the consummation of the couple’s relationship is merely suggested: they spend the night “bundling” when a car accident strands them in the hills above Rio de Janeiro (after an excruciating scene with their Brazilian driver that is meant to provide comic diversion but should have been challenged by the PCA in the name of the Good Neighbor Policy, a key reason for the Latin American setting in the first place). But much more is at stake on this cruise than a pity fuck. A declaration of independence is imminent.
“The particular depth of this film is how it entrusts us with aspects of the character’s interiority that no one in the film can access.”
The combination of proper Massachusetts ladies Ruth Elizabeth Davis and Olive Higgins Prouty—the author of Now, Voyager, the third in a popular series about the Vales—results in a deeply satisfying, sometimes harrowing portrait of female capacity (white, New England, bourgeois) and how it is thwarted, symbolized by the butterfly’s short life span and seen in the world’s inability to recognize the heroine’s qualities of discernment and passion. But not the viewer’s inability, for the particular depth of this film is how it entrusts us with aspects of the character’s interiority that no one in the film—neither Charlotte’s seeming soul mate Jerry nor the beneficent Dr. Jaquith—can access. This is achieved through moments of reverie that recall the book’s prose (“I was thinking about my mother . . .”) and narrative focalization. For example, an early flashback functions as a primal scene of maternal prohibition; the teenage Charlotte is ordered to give up a shipboard dalliance. Later, catching a glimpse of her glamorous reflection, Charlotte says aloud: “He wishes he understood me!” implying that the more pressing enigma is knowing herself. The ferocity of this character’s inner life melds perfectly with the conviction of Davis’s performance.
Filmed in 1942 on and off the Warner Bros. lot, Now, Voyager is among the best loved of the many classical Hollywood films featuring female stars, adapted from popular women’s fiction, and aimed at female audiences. Studio-era Hollywood always recognized the significance of the female box office, targeting women viewers with fanzines, fashion, and flamboyant emotion. The “woman’s picture” rose to prominence during the Depression—often telling stories of class rise, as in the Barbara Stanwyck classic Stella Dallas (1937), also adapted from a Prouty novel. During World War II, the industry aimed its product even more squarely at the women on the home front, with stories whose conventional setups—thwarted romance, maternal sacrifice, career women chucking it all for love—gave vent to some uncommonly strong feelings of gender injustice.
With its memorable closing line, in which Charlotte discloses that she can, in effect, do better than Jerry (“Don’t let’s ask for the moon; we have the stars!”); its makeover story arc, in which Davis goes from fat pads and unibrow to cosmopolitan chic; and its painful depiction of mother-daughter dynamics and resultant female emotional precarity, Now, Voyager is for many the quintessential woman’s film. A poignant train-platform farewell during which a camellia corsage wilts in real time; prophylactic smoking—two cigarettes lit at the same time in the gesture for which the movie is best known—on a balcony with Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain rear-projected; a mother’s sudden death after quarreling and a daughter’s declaration: “I did it.” These are a few of Now, Voyager’s gasp- and groan-worthy highlights. Stanley Cavell puts the film at the heart of his genre study Contesting Tears, in which he links the “melodrama of the unknown woman” to the philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau. If anyone lives up to the term self-reliance, it’s Davis, and Charlotte is unimaginable without the actress’s animating spirit.
To be sure, Now, Voyager has received its share of disapprobation and damnation-with-faint-praise from the critical establishment over the years. The contemporary New York Times review concludes: “Although Now, Voyager starts out bravely, it ends exactly where it started—and after two lachrymose hours.” Pauline Kael later called Prouty a “genius of kitsch,” and Carol Burnett aimed her wicked parody at the business with the cigarettes. Dismissals, accompanied in certain cases by grudging acknowledgments of how well this film pulls it all off, remain typical responses to “women’s genres.”
Later feminist critics like Jeanne Allen, Maria LaPlace, and Tania Modleski have turned their attention to such taste hierarchies, revisiting Now, Voyager and the genre as a whole. Like most melodramas, the film presents a feminist conundrum. Mrs. Vale is vilified, consistent with Philip Wylie’s vitriolic indictment of American “momism” in Generation of Vipers, which, as E. Ann Kaplan points out, also came out in 1942. And Now, Voyager’s ending, in which Charlotte selflessly promises to raise Jerry’s daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson), is pathetic, in the word’s true sense (another woman’s picture might tell the story of Jerry’s wife, Isabelle). But the film’s final gesture can also be taken as a feminist statement and even as queer world-building—rejecting Jerry and men in general, our heroine treats an unwanted girl-child with the respect and companionability lacking in the relationship with her own mother. What does the moon have over the stars, anyway? In real life, Prouty was a benefactor to a young Sylvia Plath; at the very least, the story can be credited with legitimating women’s mental health as a subject of public concern.
“The film was a box-office success, a clear response to the studio system’s wartime efforts to answer the question that confounded Freud: ‘What does a woman want?’”
Now, Voyager’s duality—surface “twaddle,” to use one of Dr. Jaquith’s clinical terms, versus emotional depth—is not unrelated to the duality in Charlotte Vale herself. Her very surname raises questions of disclosure. Matching staircase scenes show off the character’s transformations. In the film’s opening moments, we await the star’s appearance. Family members assemble in the parlor with Dr. Jaquith, mirroring contemporary audiences soon to be shocked by the “ugly duckling” styling of Warner’s top star. Details of nervous hands and sensibly clad feet lingering on the steps, as her mother callously defends the matriarchal reign of terror, dare us to treat the full reveal as (only) camp. The second staircase entrance is a shipboard one, when “Renee Beauchamp” first emerges from her cabin, introduced by a close-up of chic spectator pumps soon to be complemented by a wide-brimmed hat with a literal veil that casts her face, her very identity, in shadow. Ostensibly, the answer to female mental anguish is heterosexual romance, weight loss, and cosmetics—the movie’s product tie-in campaigns urged the female viewer to “sail thou forth to seek and find . . . beauty.” But this scintillating creature isn’t the real Charlotte either. Her metamorphosis isn’t complete until she comes into her own power. At the end of the film, Charlotte Vale, confirmed spinster, strides down the stairs of the home she has inherited, windows flung open to the starlight.
Davis was adept at playing smoldering and stoic. She’d been under contract since 1932, earning her nickname as the “fourth Warner brother.” Her relationship with the studio was contentious, however; in a high-profile 1937 case, Davis, wanting better roles, sued to break her contract and lost. But in 1942, the actress was on a roll of tour-de-force performances for Warner. She’d already earned two Oscars, for Dangerous in 1935 and Jezebel in 1938, and the nomination she’d get for Now, Voyager would lead to a record five-in-a-row streak. She had settled into a comfortable alternation between sincere heroines and what Molly Haskell and Richard Dyer describe as “bitch” roles. In The Little Foxes (1941), she stands by, with hooded gaze and set jaw, as husband Herbert Marshall dies. In The Old Maid (1939), she stands aside while Miriam Hopkins raises her daughter (and chews the scenery). As unashamed to play Aunt Charlotte, “the fat one with the heavy brows and all the hair,” as she would be to play the demented Baby Jane in her postwar career, Davis was an identification magnet for all misfits and unloved children.
The rest of the film’s cast is splendid too—Gladys Cooper, hired at director Irving Rapper’s insistence, is a worthy match for Davis’s burning intensity and ironic hauteur. In her Oscar-nominated performance, Cooper intentionally falls down the stairs with aplomb and all but purrs as the redoubtable Mary Wickes, as Nurse Dora, rubs her head. Janis Wilson’s Tina is appropriately cringey (though her vanilla ice cream melts as she mopes about, she may well grow up to have the prodigious appetites of her fairy godmother). Claude Rains is grand as Charlotte’s shrink and confidant, and Paul Henreid debonair as her soft-focus love object; after the film wrapped, the two men immediately went to work on Warner Bros.’ other great melodrama of 1942, Casablanca. A love triangle with Davis, under Rapper’s direction, followed in 1946’s Deception.
From Orry-Kelly’s gowns to the Oscar-winning score by Max Steiner, it all works, a product of what André Bazin called the “genius of the system.” (Steiner would even quote himself in 1945’s Mildred Pierce, the Warner Bros. starring vehicle for Davis’s sometimes-rival Joan Crawford.) Apparently, Rapper had told Davis of unit producer Hal B. Wallis’s plan to cast Irene Dunne as Now, Voyager’s lead; Davis lobbied for the role and for the relatively untested Rapper as her director. Born in England and with a stage background, Rapper started as a dialogue coach—helping with Warner’s stable of non-native-English-speaking directors: Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle, and Anatole Litvak. The adaptation process on Now, Voyager, which would be Rapper’s fourth film behind the camera, was smooth, with Edmund Goulding, Davis’s Dark Victory (1939) director, doing the treatment and Casey Robinson—writing his fifth screenplay for Davis—drawing liberally on Prouty’s dialogue. Sol Polito’s cinematography flatters Davis in her most successful romantic role and captures intimate drama in the film’s symbolic objects: the eyeglasses, cigarettes, flowers, and hats that Charlotte doesn’t so much hide behind as use to conjure herself into being. Now, Voyager was a box-office success, a clear response to the studio system’s wartime efforts to answer the question that confounded Freud: “What does a woman want?”
The thematizing of psychoanalysis in the film is no joke. By the early forties, Austrian and Jewish émigrés in Hollywood had already begun contributing shadowy visual styles and psychoanalytic themes to the emergent genre of film noir. While psychiatry was not always shown in a flattering light—see Cat People (Jacques Tourneur), made the same year as Now, Voyager—here, Jaquith and Cascade are idealized. Prouty based Charlotte’s experience on her own with the eminent Dr. Austen Riggs and his sanatorium in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, an institution still at the forefront of residential psychiatric care. (Prouty’s papers are housed at Clark University in Worcester, her birthplace; interestingly, Clark was also the site of Freud’s only U.S. speaking gig, in 1909.) Now, Voyager’s hybrid therapeutic ethos may encompass weaving and ocean cruises, but its Oedipal drama is compelling enough to make it an ever-popular film for psychoanalytically informed film criticism and theory. Such themes figure prominently in influential studies of the film by feminist critics Elizabeth Cowie, Mary Ann Doane, Teresa de Lauretis, and Lauren Berlant (work Cavell has been accused of ignoring, in a repetition of the gendered authority issues raised by the film itself).
Although the film bids farewell (vale) to the actual father—its first image is the family name inscribed on the base of a lawn jockey outside the mansion—patriarchal authority makes itself felt in other ways. Monstrous Mother Vale hands down edicts while enthroned in a high-backed chair, a strikingly psychoanalytic mise-en-scène for confrontations with her daughter. Camera movements pick out symptoms, tracking in on characters’ facial reactions or fidgeting hands. While many read the pipe-smoking Jaquith as a father figure, or even a potential suitor, he also plays good mother to Mrs. Vale’s bad. In fact, Charlotte is not Now, Voyager’s only butterfly: as Richard Corliss suggests and Cowie elaborates, all of its characters flit through multiple psychic positions. Charlotte parents Tina and chooses her as partner, as her mother did her; Jerry is Charlotte’s mirror as well as her lover. Mrs. Vale even invites Nurse Dora, after comparing Charlotte unfavorably with her, to sleep in her husband’s room. What’s wrong with Charlotte? “Untold want,” as the Whitman poem from which the film’s title is drawn would have it: desires that can’t be named or accounted for.
Prouty’s resonant stories ennoble maternal sacrifice (and punish overreach); the era’s uneasy response to growing female public power was to mythologize the private sphere, giving audiences something to truly cry over. “Women owned Hollywood for twenty years,” Davis is quoted as saying in Nobody’s Girl Friday, J. E. Smyth’s account of women’s work behind the scenes in studio-era Hollywood. Perhaps this, and the “fourth Warner brother” nickname, overstates the case. Appointed the first woman president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in November 1941, Davis immediately resigned after it became evident that the board had no intention of allowing her to govern. Thwarted, she channeled her energies elsewhere. I can think of no better account of the woman’s picture’s central role in American culture. At least we have the stars.