The classic black-and-white film “Now, Voyager” is the screen version of the novel of the same name written in 1941 by Olive Higgins Prouty, who is also the author of the well-known story of “Stella Dallas.” The title is taken from the Walt Whitman poem "The Untold Want," which is a portion of his “Leaves of Grass,” and states: "Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find."
Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) is the spinster daughter of Mrs. Henry Vale, who bore three sons before her late-in-life daughter Charlotte, whom she did not welcome into her life. In an effort to keep Charlotte tied to her, she engages in unflattering attempts to lower her self-esteem. She chooses her daughter’s dowdy outfits, the books she reads, her hair style, and the manner in which she should conduct herself. She insists that Charlotte must wear her glasses at all times to protect her eyes.
Bette Davis - Pixabay
Charlotte’s sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase) has the discernment to recognize that Charlotte is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She has invited a psychiatrist friend of hers, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) to visit in hopes that he might offer a solution to this family problem. Lisa cautions her mother not to refer to their visitor as “doctor” lest this inhibits Charlotte’s openness in the conversation. Of course, Mrs. Vale ignores the admonition and Charlotte is aware that their visitor is a doctor.
Treatment at the Sanitarium
Lisa asks Charlotte to show Dr. Jaquith the rest of the beautiful mansion that is theirs. Charlotte shows the doctor her bedroom and he admires the marble boxes that Charlotte etches, and Charlotte gives him one. She is encouraged to spend a few weeks at his Sanitarium, Cascade, in order that he might provide her with his unique treatment. Charlotte agrees readily to his suggestion.
Once she is out of her mother’s clutches, Charlotte becomes more self-confident, and Dr. Jaquith orders an additional treatment, an ocean voyage by herself to South America to test her new-found self-assurance.
Paul Henreid - Wikimedia
New Friends on an Ocean Liner
Aboard ship, Charlotte is paired with the only other single person on board, Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), who is traveling with his friends, the McIntyres. They are seated together at meals and strike up a friendship. Charlotte learns from Deb McIntyre that Jerry is in a loveless marriage and has two children. He would probably divorce his wife except that he is devoted to his children, particularly his daughter Tina, who has significant psychological problems stemming from the fact that she was an unwanted child on her mother’s part.
On an off-shore excursion in Rio de Janiero, Charlotte and Jerry take a cab whose driver does not speak English. When the cab crashes in a lonely area in Sugarloaf Mountain, the boat leaves without them and they are left to spend five days together before Charlotte can rejoin the cruise again in Buenos Aires. They spend the time getting to know each other. Charlotte reveals that she had spent time in a Sanitarium. Jerry speaks of his concerns for his daughter. Charlotte helps him to purchase gifts for his children from a woman’s point of view. Jerry buys her a flower, the Camellia, and gives her the nickname, “Camille.” The famous scene occurs between Charlotte and Jerry where Jerry lights two cigarettes in his mouth from one match while looking at her, and then gives her one of the cigarettes. This scene has been replicated, has been joked about, and has been seriously used many times over throughout the years.
Charlotte and Jerry fall in love, knowing that it could not end well, and when they part, they decide not to see each other again.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Claude Rains - Wikimedia
A Remarkable Change
When Charlotte returns home, her family is astounded at the change in her. Mrs. Vale is unhappy that her daughter has become independent and strong-willed. She criticizes the clothes Charlotte wears and her new attitude toward her mother. She threatens to take away her allowance, and reminds Charlotte that she will inherit a huge fortune when Mrs. Vale dies if she remains in her good graces.
Charlotte realizes that she wants nothing more than to be married and to have a family, but knows that her love for Jerry will never come to that. Her mother is left wondering why Charlotte receives camellias from a florist on a regular basis. Lisa introduces her to a well-to-do widower, Elliot Livingston (John Loder) who can give her all these things, and Charlotte accepts his proposal. At a party one evening, she is startled that the host has invited his out-of-town architect, Jerry Durrance, and she and Jerry are able to talk briefly that evening. The encounter leads Charlotte to break off her engagement to Elliot, knowing that she cannot enter a loveless marriage.
Charlotte’s decision precipitates an argument with her mother. Mrs. Vale becomes so upset that she had a heart attack and died. The incident disturbed Charlotte so much that she returned to the Sanitarium for a rest and Dr. Jaquith’s treatment.
Back at the Sanitarium
At the Sanitarium, Charlotte notices a lonely twelve-year old girl putting a puzzle together. When the young girl says her name is Tina, Charlotte realizes that she is Jerry’s daughter. Dr. Jaquith said that Tina’s father heard about Cascade from a friend. Charlotte takes Tina under her wing; they play tennis together and take rides into town. The little girl improves greatly under Charlotte’s care, and Charlotte asks Dr. Jaquith if she can take Tina to her home. With Jerry’s permission, Tina did go home with Charlotte, where he visited them frequently.
There is a happy ending here for Tina, but not for Jerry and Charlotte. It is obvious to the viewer that marriage is not in the cards for them. Once again, this film has produced a lasting memory on its fans with Charlotte’s oft-repeated remark: “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
What thrilled me about this film was the opportunity to see movie stars who were a big part of the scene in my younger days. Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, John Loder, and Ilka Chase were big in the forties and fifties. As teenagers, we “swooned over” Paul Henreid, and saw every movie that Bette Davis was in. Thank you, dear people, for the memories!