As the old adage has it: ‘a son is a son until he gets a wife; a daughter’s a daughter all of her life’ (or until she gets a life). This is the dilemma facing Boston heiress Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) whose ageing mother (Gladys Cooper) can’t bear the thought of her youngest daughter discovering sex, finding a man and leaving the family’s well-appointed nest.
Poor Charlotte is under the thumb. She is forced to wear sensible brogues, thick stockings and glasses. Her hair is in an unbecoming bun. No wonder she is so miserable and takes to her room where she reads ‘unsuitable’ books, has sly cigarettes (the butts secreted in Kleenex) and works on painstaking marquetry boxes. Dr Jaquith (Claude Raines) is called in and Miss Vale is whisked off to a leafy psychiatric sanatorium for rest and recuperation.
The next thing she is aboard a cruise ship steaming for Brazil. When she appears on the gangplank she has totally transitioned. Glamorous but nervous, she’s been made-over into a stylish belle. Can she carry off the masquerade and overcome her assorted neuroses? Aboard ship she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid). During an excursion Jerry and Charlotte have to take refuge overnight in a rain-lashed bothy where they bunk down as the embers smoulder. The implications are clear. But Jerry is (unhappily) married so the relationship ain’t going nowhere. Charlotte, back at the sanatorium, meets the miserable 12-year-old Tina (Janis Wilson) who sharply reminds her of her own unhappy former life. They form a healing bond over icecream and tennis. Who needs psychoanalysis?
The plot may be overly contrived and its view of psychiatry facile but the stylish Now, Voyager remains a 24 carat weepy, superbly crafted with all the bling at Warner Bros’ disposal. It’s played to perfection by Davis (and Cooper). Bette never looked quite so beautiful appearing in a succession of gorgeous Orry-Kelly outfits.
The hand of director Rapper may wobble from time to time – there are three Charlotte relationships to navigate, that with her mother, with Jerry and with Tina. That wobble is also understandable considering the number of plot twists and themes: parental abuse, mental ill-health, thwarted love, female empowerment and reinvention, to name a few. There’s lush photography from Sol Polito, a hugely memorable score from Max Steiner and an unforgettable bit of business with two cigarettes that has become part of Hollywood iconography.
Available on Blu-ray Mon 9 Dec 2019