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The Bette Davis Blogathon: "Now, Voyager" (1942)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Irving Rapper, Now, Voyager (1942) tells the story of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), an unattractive, overweight, repressed spinster whose life is brutally dominated by her tyrannical mother (Gladys Cooper). Fearing Charlotte is on the verge of a mental breakdown, her sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase) introduces her to psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who recommends she spend some time in his sanatorium, Cascade. Under Jacquith's care, Charlotte regains some degree of self-confidence, improves her appearance and treats herself to an ocean voyage to Brazil. Onboard the ship, she meets and falls in love with Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), a man who is dutifully committed to an unhappy marriage for the sake of his troubled daughter Tina (Janis Wilson).

Charlotte and Jerry have several romantic misadventures while in Rio de Janeiro, but decide it would be best not to see each other again. Upon Charlotte's return to her Boston home, the Vale family is astounded by the dramatic changes in her appearance and demeanor. Although her mother is determined to keep her guilty and beholden, Charlotte is resolved to remained her own woman. Soon, she finds herself being romanced by millionaire Elliot Livingston (John Loder), but she ends the relationship after running into Jerry by chance and realizing how much she still loves him. A subsequent argument leaves Mrs. Vale dead of a heart attack and Charlotte, feeling guilty, checks back in at Cascade. There she encounters Tina, whom she helps overcome her emotional problems. When she improves, Charlotte takes her home to Boston. Some time later, Jerry and Jacquith visit the Vale household, where Jerry announces that he cannot allow Charlotte to continue to keep Tina with her out of pity for the girl and/or him. Charlotte responds that she has come to think of Tina as his gift to her and her way of being close to him. She says she hopes that Jerry will understand that she considers every aspect of her life — her love, Tina, the home, the Vale wealth — to be theirs together.

Charlotte Vale: Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon.We have the stars. 

Written in 1941 by Oliver Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager was the third installment of what would become a four-part history of the upper-class Vale family of Boston, along with White Fawn (1936), Lisa Vale (1938) and Home Port (1947). In the third novel, Prouty followed the progress of Charlotte Vale, an unattractive, neurotic young woman who blossoms under psychiatric care, goes through a diet and a major makeover and falls in love on an European cruise. The psychiatric elements in the story were drawn from the author's own life; after losing two baby daughters within a period of three years, she had suffered a nervous breakdown. Prouty borrowed her title from Walt Whitman's poem "The Untold Want," which read in its entirety: "The untold want by life and death ne'er granted, / Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find."

In January 1942, Hal B. Wallis signed a contract with Warner Bros. to start his own production company at the studio. For his first independent project, Wallis chose Now, Voyager, hoping that the picture would contain the same elements of shipboard romance that had made Love Affair (1939), starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, such a box-office success. After Warners purchased the screen rights to Now, Voyager, Prouty sent them a lengthy letter offering suggestions about the novel's adaptation. Among other ideas, she thought the picture should be shot in Technicolor, with flashbacks to Charlotte's shipboard romance with Jerry Durrance done as silent film in black and white. "In my novel I tell my story by the method of frequent flashbacks," Prouty wrote. "It has occurred to me, however, that by employing the silent picture for the flashbacks, in combination with the talking picture, similar results can be accomplished, and with much interest to an audience because of the novelty of the technique." Wallis decided not to follow her recommendations.

Rapper and Davis between takes
The first director assigned to Now, Voyager, Edmund Goulding, had asked to borrow Dunne from Columbia to star as Charlotte Vale, a choice fully supported by Wallis. When Goulding fell ill, however, Michael Curtiz took over directing duties and offered the part to Norma Shearer, who eventually turned it down due to scheduling conflicts. Wallis then turned to Ginger Rogers, undoubtedly influenced by her recent Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle (1940), another popular "woman's film." Although Rogers was taken with the novel, for some unknown reason she rejected the role, leaving Wallis no other choice but to look internally since no actress considered thus far was a Warners contract player.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. queen Bette Davis was informed by her friend Irving Rapper that the studio had acquired the rights to Now, Voyager. She immediately began campaigning for the lead, feeling that as a native Bostonian she would understand the role better than an actress not raised in New England. Jack Warner, however, feared that she was not attractive enough to make Charlotte's transformation "from hirsute frump to svelte and well-appointed beauty" believable. When Davis argued that casting a beautiful actress would be unreasonable and that her "modest" appearance would appeal to women across the nation, Wallis realized that she was right and persuaded Warner to give her the role. "Bette Davis wanted to play the part, and we finally went with her," Wallis wrote. "She was our last choice, and a lucky one."

By agreeing to cast Davis in Now, Voyager, Wallis also had to agree to fire Curtiz, whom she did not want to work with again after The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), Jimmy the Gent (1934), Kid Galahad (1937) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). She convinced Wallis replace Curtiz with Rapper, a former dialogue coach and assistant director at Warners whom she had helped make the full transition to behind the cameras. Davis had even appeared in an unbilled cameo as a nurse in Rapper's directorial debut, the medical drama Shining Victory (1941), as a way to wish him luck. Rapper and Davis later reunited in The Corn is Green (1945), Deception (1946) and Another Man's Poison (1952).

Wallis, Robinson and Davis on the set
To adapt the novel to the screen, Wallis signed Casey Robinson, who had begun his Hollywood career writing the titles for silent pictures, before graduating to directing in the early 1930s. After helming six films, however, he decided to abandon that field to concentrate on writing and went on to script some of Davis' most acclaimed films, including Dark Victory (1939), All This, and Heaven Too (1940) and the aforementioned The Corn is Green. In adapting Now, Voyager, Robinson remained faithful to the novel and drew heavily on Prouty's words for dialogue, particularly in the scenes between Charlotte and her tyrannical mother. The major alteration Robinson made to the original storyline was in moving Charlotte's first encounter with Jerry from the sanatorium, where he is recovering from his own emotional breakdown, to a luxury liner bound to South America. Because World War II was raging on in Europe, a cruise to the Mediterranean would be unthinkable.

Several actors were considered for the role of architect Jerry Durrance, including George Brent, Davis' co-star in eleven films, Ronald Colman, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea and Franchot Tone. For a while, Davis wanted to cast Ronald Reagan as her leading man, impressed by his heartfelt performance in Sam Wood's Kings Row (1942). Warner, Wallis and Rapper, however, convinced her that Reagan would not be able to hold his own opposite her and hired instead Austrian émigré Paul Henreid, who was making his Warner Bros. debut on a loan-out from RKO. Henreid began his film career acting in German films in 1933, before moving to England two years later. Following supporting roles in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940), he departed to Hollywood under contract to RKO, making his American debut in Joan of Paris (1942). That year, Henreid also appeared in Curtiz's iconic Casablanca (1942), playing the heroic anti-Nazi leader Victor Lazslo, arguably the most notable role of his career.

Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in a publicity still
At first, Davis was not happy with the idea of having a foreign actor play Jerry, especially after seeing Henreid's screen test. The studio had tried to turn him into a new George Brent "He wore a satin smoking jacket, his hair was brilliantined and he was covered in a pound of makeup." When Davis finally met Henreid, she bluntly told him she hated the test, which she thought showed him as "an oily European," and insisted he be tested with a more natural look. After the second test, she finally accepted him as her screen lover and Warners subsequently signed for $4,000 a week to appear in Now, Voyager. Henreid eventually became a lifelong friend of Davis and the two later reunited in Rapper's film noir Deception (1946). Years later, he directed her in Dead Ringer (1964), a crime thriller co-starring Karl Madden and Peter Lawford.

After considered Raymond Massey and Charles Coburn, Wallis offered the role of renowned psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith to Claude Rains, who had appeared with Davis in Juarez (1939). When first approached to play Jaquith, however, Rains was not interested. As Wallis recounted, "He turned down the part, insisting it was too sketchy. Casey Robinson built up the role, and Rains agreed to do it for the then enormous salary of $5,000 a week. I offered him $25,000 for six weeks, but his agent Mike Levee was adamant and we went ahead with the required arrangement." Rains, whom Davis called her favorite leading man, later re-teamed with the actress in Mrs. Skeffington (1944) and Deception. Rains also appeared with Henreid in Casablanca.

Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper
Wallis wanted to cast Dame May Whitty as Charlotte's domineering mother, but Rapper insisted he hire Gladys Cooper instead, even though she was perhaps too young for the role (Cooper was 20 years older than Davis). Rapper also insisted on signing Ilka Chase and Bonita Granville as Charlotte's sister-in-law, Lisa Vale, and niece June. When Wallis asked the director why, he said he thought they were the only actresses who would be believable tormenting Davis. Ironically, she would later claim that Granville was the only castmate who was rude to her during production. To play Jerry's troubled daughter Tina, Davis lobbied for Mary Anderson, one of the young actresses discovered in the seach for Scarlett O'Hara. Davis even tested with her, but the role was uncast when Now, Voyager began filming. The part was eventually given to Janis Wilson, whom Davis later asked to be cast as her daughter in Watch on the Rhine (1943).
Now, Voyager began production in early April 1942, with a budget of $761,000 and a 42-day shooting schedule. Within three weeks, however, the film was already six and a half days behind schedule. Among the problems were unexpected weather delays during location shooting at Laguna Beach in California, Davis' health issues and Cooper's difficulties in remembering her lines. In addition, Davis tended to work very slowly, insisting she be given time to analyze every scene as it was filmed. Luckily, Rapper's attitude towards her was very pacific. Rather than ordering Davis to play a scene a certain way, he would ask her instead to try his ideas to see if they worked for her.

Claude Rains and Bette Davis
To play Charlotte before her transformation, Davis asked costume designer Orry-Kelly to create her a dull wardrobe to contrast with the sophisticated gowns that she would be wearing later on in the film. She also suggested that he pad her figure in order to give the impression of extra weight. Additionally, she instructed make-up artist Perc Westmore to give her ticker eyebrows. For the scene after Charlotte's transformation, Wallis requested that Orry-Kelly put Davis in a wide-brimmed hat, so that the audience would not get a full view of her face until later. Warner objected to the choice, but Wallis ignored him.

In Now, Voyager, Davis was required to play Charlotte at two different ages as a young 20-year-old and, for the most part, as a 29-year-old woman. Since her actual age was 34, she needed a skilled cinematographer to make her look her best. Consequently, Wallis insisted that Sol Polito, Davis' trusted cameraman in eight other pictures, including the already mentioned The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Corn is Green, be taken off another film and assigned to Now, Voyager.

There are several stories regarding the origin of the iconic cigarette-lighting ritual, in which Henreid lights two cigarettes in his mouth at the same time and then hands one of them to Davis. Rapper claimed to have invented it based on a description in Prouty's novel to replace the awkward explanation of the moment in the screenplay. Davis and Henreid both said that they came up with it inspired by the way he and his wife used to light cigarettes for each other during motor trips. For his part, Robinson asserted that the sequence had been in his script since its inception, which an examination of the drafts on file at the University of Southern California corroborates. He did not invent the routine, however, as it had originated in one of Davis' first Warner Bros. pictures, The Rich Are Always With Us (1932), in a scene between George Brent and Ruth Chatterton.

Filming the cruise scenes in Now, Voyager
Wrapping principal photography in late June, two weeks behind schedule, Now, Voyager opened at the Hollywood Theatre in New York on October 22, 1942 to generally mixed reviews from critics. Although Theodore Strauss of The New York Times liked Robinson's "deliberate and workmanlike" screenplay and Rapper's "frequent effectiveness" in directing the film, he considered that Now, Voyager "endlessly complicates an essentially simple theme. For all its emotional hair-splitting, it fails to resolve its problems as truthfully as it pretends. In fact, a little more truth would have made the film a good deal shorter. [...] Although Now, Voyager starts out bravely, it ends exactly where it started and after two lachrymose hours. David Lardner offered a similiar opinion in his review for The New Yorker, writing that for most of the film Davis "just plods along with the plot, which is longish and a little out of proportion to its intellectual content."

Variety, on the other hand, shared a more positive review, describing the film as "the kind of drama that maintains Warners' pattern for box-office success. [...] Hal Wallis hasn't spared the purse-strings on this production. It has all the earmarks of money spent wisely. Irving Rapper's direction has made the picture move along briskly, and the cast, down to the most remote performer, has contributed grade A portrayals." The American public seemed to agree with this assessment, as Now, Voyager was a massive box-office success, turning in a profit of $2.38 million. In fact, it was Bette Davis' biggest moneymaker of the 1940s, marking the pinnacle of her career at Warner Bros. as a romantic leading lady. The film also established Paul Henreid as a major romantic star and launched his association with Warners, his home studio for most of the decade.

At the 15th Academy Awards held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in March 1943, composer Max Steiner received the Oscar for Best Dramatic Score. Steiner's music was indeed essential in creating the mood of Now, Voyager; with lyrics by Kim Gannon, the captivating "Charlotte's Theme" soon became the pop hit "It Can't Be Wrong," originally performed by Dick Haymes. The song was also recorded by Anne Shelton, Frank Sinatra and even Bette Davis herself. Additionally, Davis and Gladys Cooper garnered Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, but lost respectively to Greer Garson and Teresa Wright, both winning for William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver (1942), which was named Best Picture that year.

This post is my contribution to The Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE. 


Bette Davis: The Performances That Made Her Great by Peter McNally (2008) | Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Reference to His Work in Film, Stage, Radio, Television and Recordings by John T. Soister with JoAnna Wioskowski (1999) | Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars by Bernard F. Dick (2004) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review by Theodore Strauss | Variety review


  1. Great post on one of my favorite Bette films! I always find it interesting to see the actors up for a part before it is cast. I can't imagine Dunne, Shearer, or Rogers in this, because it is such a "Bette Davis film" to me. :) Also, thanks for sharing the multiple stories on how the cigarette lighting came to be.

    1. Thank you for reading.
      I can't imagine Dunne, Shearer or Rogers in the film either. Bette Davis IS Charlotte Vale.

  2. I didn't realize this film was Davis' biggest money-maker in the 1940s. Obviously it's a story that resonates with a lot of people, then and now.

    Thanks for including so much research and background material in your post. I feel like a real smarty pants now! ;)

  3. This is one of my favorite Davis films. She owns the part! I have a vintage hat similar to the one we see after her transformation. Mine has a rounded crown though. I keep wanting to take a picture in it to share :)

    1. I completely agree. She is flawless as Charlotte Vale.

  4. This is an excellent and well researched piece! I really enjoyed reading about all that went into the making of this film. I can't wait to watch the movie again now that I know more about the behind the scenes aspect. Really great piece!

  5. I need to see this movie- Bette Davis is a star in which I need to do my movie watching with! This film is certianly an essential- for Bette and film itself. Its so iconic and famous- Ahh Im missing out!!! Really awesome and informational post- its awesome!!

    1. You should definitely see "Now, Voyager" whenever you have the chance. I also recommend "Jezebel," "Dark Victory" and "All About Eve." And if you're interested in seeing her in a more lighthearted vehicle, I suggest "The Bride Came C.O.D."


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