06th Dec2019

‘Now, Voyager’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Gladys Cooper, Claude Rains, Bonita Granville | Written by Casey Robinson | Directed by Irving Rapper


The secret at the heart of the Boston social scene is Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) – a shy, repressed, mentally unstable young woman, tortured by her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper). Charlotte’s older sister (Bonita Granville) arranges for a visit from the esteemed Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains), who recommends a stay at his hospital in Vermont. The retreat proves life changing. Charlotte’s adventurous spirit is awoken, and she takes a voyage to Brazil. En route she meets the unhappily married Jerry (Paul Henreid). The pair fall in love. Having said farewell to Jerry – apparently forever – Charlotte returns home, and finds that while she has been transformed, her increasingly ill mother hasn’t changed at all. It’s now a question of whether Charlotte’s increasing self-confidence can continue in the great yawning mansion, or whether she will succumb to her mother’s insistence that she be married off to a half-decent family.

Now, Voyager (taking its title from a tiny Walt Whitman poem) is an important feminist text, although it’s not much fun to watch. With the feel of a summarised novel, the first half of the film moves very swiftly. Editing is unusually rapid – Don Siegel is credited as montage director. Come act three and the pace slows, and the film is dragged into the shallows of sentimentality.

A late child, Charlotte is the “ugly duckling”, and openly unwanted. Throughout the film runs the theme of unwanted children, specifically girls. There’s Charlotte’s niece, whom we meet alone with a puzzle; and Jerry’s daughter, Tina, traumatically outcast. Like Charlotte, these are girls who are not taken seriously. Their feelings are disregarded, and they are controlled, channelled toward nothing but marriage.

Charlotte is difficult company. Awkward, tetchy, self-hating and prone to breakdowns, she’s apparently “immune to happiness.” It is certainly satisfying to watch her self-realisation occur – even if there is the undeniable sense of privilege at play in her recovery. Moreover, her locus of evaluation is purely external, with her emerging contentment signified by status and popularity, or simply by nabbing a man.

This is not the only dated aspect of the film. There’s a deeply unfunny sequence involving a comedy-foreign taxi driver. There are clichés at home, too: Charlotte’s main ally in the house is the kind of sardonic, wise-cracking nurse we’ve seen a thousand times in films about rich people from the period. Then there is the nature of Jerry’s seduction of Charlotte, which is creepily forceful. On two occasions he pushes through her demands for him to stop. And their first on-screen kiss he steals when she’s asleep.

Despite this questionable courting, there is definite chemistry between Davis and Henreid. This makes it easier to swallow some of the coincidences that contrive to have their ships pass in the night. I particularly enjoy his lighting of two cigarettes – one for each of them – which becomes a delicate surrogate for a forbidden kiss. Smoking isn’t just cool here; it literally pulls chicks.

Max Steiner’s melodramatic score is overbearing and sometimes irrelevant. For example, there’s a scene where Charlotte dumps a potential suitor, all the while portraying an amusingly indifferent confidence, yet the music is telling us it’s a wailing tragedy. I don’t think journeyman director Irving Rapper is aiming for ironic counterpoint. I wonder what style and wit the likes of Max Ophuls might have brought to the picture.

Now, Voyager isn’t a bad film, it’s just not a particularly special one. The underlying themes are laudable, but the story is meandering, and the script is so lacking in zing that even the likes of Henreid, Rains and Davis can’t bring it to life. Opening miserable and ending up maudlin, the cast manages to make the film watchable, but it’s far from essential.


  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Episode of The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 with actor Bette Davis
  • Interview with Paul Henreid from 1980
  • Selected-scene commentary on the films score by professor Jeff Smith
  • New interview with film critic Farran Smith Nehme on the making of the film
  • New interview with costume historian Larry McQueen
  • Two radio adaptations from 1943 and 1946
  • PLUS: An essay by scholar Patricia White and a 1937 reflection on acting by Davis

Now, Voyager is out on Criterion Blu-ray from 9th December 2019.


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