A thank-you note to Charlotte Vale.

When I first became a classic film devotee, I had just gotten to junior high school, more specifically the seventh grade. Going from the snug comfort of elementary school to the uncertain territory of junior high was like a form of culture shock -- the rules were looser yet stricter, the teachers were unknown, there were many more students because junior high was when the four towns that make up our county pooled all their students into the same school. You remember being thirteen. It's a weird, awkward time when you suddenly become conscious of your body and your hair and all the things that never bugged you before but now were suddenly so important. In the midst of all that, I had a life preserver thrown out to me, a 1942 melodrama that chronicled the psychological issues of a woman who wasn't weak, but rather unaware of her strength. Her name was Charlotte Vale, and the actress who embodied her so completely was Bette Davis.


Bette was one of the few Old Hollywood actresses I really knew of. I had seen a few of her films, a poor copy of Of Human Bondage packing the biggest punch so far. I already loved the lady, so when I sat down to watch Now, Voyager, I knew I couldn't be disappointed -- after all, it was supposed to be one of her best. For the next two hours, I was a mess. How could something from 1942 be so perfectly made for me? How did Bette Davis, someone I never met, know how I felt?

But let's back up a minute for those ignorant of this magnificent movie. Now, Voyager is about New England heiress Charlotte Vale, a woman so dominated by her mother (Gladys Cooper) that she's become labeled as an ugly spinster. Charlotte's sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase) is worried that Charlotte is close to a nervous breakdown, so she introduces psychiatrist Dr. Jacquith (Claude Rains) to Charlotte. After a stay at Jacquith's sanitarium, Charlotte's mental health is still fragile, so instead of being sent home, she's sent on a cruise. Completely made-over to rid herself of the aesthetic confines her mother forced on her, Charlotte looks beautiful but still feels undesirable and distrustful. She meets fellow passenger Jerry (Paul Henreid), an unhappily married architect with a young daughter similar to Charlotte. Through their affair, Charlotte finds her confidence and joy for life, although she and Jerry have to go their separate ways.

Reinvigorated, Charlotte shocks everyone when she comes home from the cruise. Unwilling to be bullied, she tries to maintain a friendly relationship with her mother, which mostly works until she breaks off her engagement to Elliot Livingston (John Joder) after a chance encounter with Jerry at a friend's party. Realizing her relationship with Elliot lacks the passion and adventure she really wants, Charlotte is content to remain unmarried. While arguing this to her mother, Mrs. Vale dies, leaving Charlotte to blame herself. Hoping to give herself a rest, she checks back into Jacquith's sanitarium, where she discovers Jerry has placed his daughter, Tina. Seeing so much of herself reflected in Tina, Charlotte begins taking care of the girl, reciprocating the kindness and love Jerry showed her to his child. The film doesn't end with an embrace between the former lovers, but rather this indelible line: "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon -- we have the stars."

The idea of an ugly duckling becoming a swan is an old one, undoubtedly, but those who see Now, Voyager as that simplistic are mistaken and I think the physical transformation is to blame. It's a common device to have a leading lady go from unattractive to movie-star glamorous within a film, her hidden beauty suddenly giving her access to wealth, romance, and adoration. (Side note: why must it always be ladies? Hmmm...) Now, Voyager can be, and has been, accused of the same thing, in addition to the belief that Bette Davis made herself frumpy in order to receive accolades for willingly doing such an Oscar-baiting thing. If you think that, you don't know Bette Davis.

While it's true that Davis heavily influenced the way Charlotte looked at the beginning of the film, I can only believe it was because she thoroughly believed it was right for the character. Let's not forget this was also during the days when studios were horrified to have their female stars looking anything but drop-dead gorgeous. Bette is notorious for pushing against Warner Bros., her home studio, and fighting to get the look of Charlotte right is an example of that. Jack Warner didn't want to give Davis the role at all, fearing that "she wasn't attractive enough to make the character's transformation into a glamorous woman of the world believable. When Davis argued that casting a Hollywood beauty in the role would be ludicrous, and that her more modest appearance would appeal to women around the nation, [producer Hal] Wallis saw that she was right and convinced Warner to give her the role" (TCM). Bette had costume designer Orry-Kelly give her padding so she looked slightly overweight, and she asked makeup artist Perc Westmore to give her thicker eyebrows. The final look was a compromise between Davis and Wallis, who didn't want the star to look too extreme.

The point of Charlotte going through such a dramatic transformation was to emphasize how she changes mentally. Her designer clothes and perfectly coiffed hair would mean nothing if she still felt suffocated and misplaced. She works to get to a good place, something she shouldn't have to work for because everyone deserves to feel good about themselves. While I admit I find the romance of Now, Voyager very swoon-worthy, that isn't all there is to Paul Henreid's Jerry. He's a support system, a person who believes in Charlotte and
makes her remember what it feels like to be loved. His daughter strengthens their bond, giving Charlotte the chance to help Tina before the girl goes through as much pain and misery as she had. She feels a kinship with Tina before they even met, asking Jerry "Does she know she wasn't wanted?" the same day she first hears about Jerry's family.

The ending is up for interpretation, due to its intense final scene and cryptic closing line. An option is that Charlotte and Jerry stay friends and
co-parent Tina -- the "moon" is their romantic relationship, the "stars" their friendship and Tina. In my mind, this happens for a little bit, but then Jerry finally gets the guts to divorce his wife, he and Charlotte tentatively start things up again with enthusiasm from Tina, all while Charlotte continues to thrive in her work at Jacquith's sanitarium, along with various other mental health organizations. This sounded reasonable to me until I watched Bette Davis's interview with Dick Cavett where
she said that she saw Charlotte ending up with Jacquith. I entertained this idea for months (seriously), but I just can't see it. For one thing, it takes away from their characters' friendships, one of my favorite parts of the film. I like when a man and a woman can be friends without romance getting in the way, this being the exception. Plus, I think Davis's great admiration for Claude Rains influenced what she said. She loved Henreid, but she frequently called Rains her favorite co-star.

I always wonder if Davis saw Charlotte Vale as a reflection of herself. Her personal life was often tense and she wasn't a conventional beauty, which was often pointed out to her in reviews and by people like Warner -- as tough as Bette was (and damn, she really was), there had to have been some insecurities there. To me, Now, Voyager can be summed up in one word: cathartic. Although I don't cry anymore when I watch it, by the end I always feel renewed and comforted, even hopeful. I'm not going to sit around and wait for my own Jerry Durrance to pop up, but I can control my life to make sure I feel happy, respected, and beautiful.

Charlotte falling in love isn't what Now, Voyager is about. It's about acceptance and joy, and finding what makes you you and loving it. I have a lot of things about myself that others find strange -- my sister in particular likes to poke fun at my record collection and antiques -- but they make me happy and I couldn't change them even if I wanted to. The same thing goes for the stuff I don't like about myself; I have to come to terms with them or else I'll be miserable. None of this truly hit me until I watched Davis as Charlotte, until I saw the struggle and the fight she went through to be her authentic self.

Bette Davis was a rare, extraordinary actress. One cocked eyebrow, one cracked syllable, one twitch of her mouth could drastically alter a scene. She stuck to who she was and anyone who wanted her to be different than that could go to hell. She remains one of the most complicated people I've ever read about, a woman I wish I could understand better. But I wouldn't want her any other way. I like to think that the person on the silver screen was exactly who she was: resilient, smart, vulnerable, lively, independent, captivating, and of course, doing it all with a cigarette in hand.

With love,
Michaela

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This is my tribute to Bette for the great Bette Davis Blogathon, hosted by Crystal. You can find the roster here.

Comments

  1. Such a beautiful post! I also identified a great deal with Charlotte in high school. She made me want to tap into my own self confidence, and oddly enough made me realize that I didn't need a physical makeover in order to love myself or be loved in return.

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    1. Well said! There's a lot to admire in this film, but I think its message is just wonderful. Thanks for reading!

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  2. A lovely post on one of my favorite Bette Davis films! Every viewing of Now, Voyager leaves me feeling so emotional. I love your referring to the film as a life preserver for you at 13. Many classic films have been "life preservers" for me at crucial moments of transition in my life. It's amazing that a great film can strengthen the person watching it.

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    1. Thank you! Some people seem so incredulous about the importance of film, but I've experienced so many life-changing things through the classics and I've discovered lots of incredible role models. Now, Voyager will always be special to me.

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  3. Now, Voyager was the first Bette Davis film I saw, and it also spoke to me being a high school student at the time. I love how empowering the story is - even though I don't really like the makeover as a necessary thing. But taking control of your life and discovering what makes you unique - oh, these are things the film talks about beautifully!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. As much as I enjoy the makeover (those shoes! that hair! the clothes!), I get what you're saying. But I think that was the only way the story was going to go forward in that time period -- they wouldn't leave Bette Davis as "ugly spinster" Charlotte, although I bet Davis would have been all for it. The way I see it, the makeover emphasizes Charlotte's internal struggles. The new look doesn't erase her problems, but it does give her confidence and I can't fault the film for that. Thanks for reading and commenting, as always!

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  4. Agreed - there is something cathartic about this film, and it's not just that Charlotte loses a few pounds and plucks her eyebrows. She's changed as a person, which I find much more inspiring.

    Bette Davis and Hal Wallis were right to fight for this role, and to have Charlotte appear exactly the way she does.

    I loved your description of starting junior high school. I had a lot of those same feelings, especially about appearance. Things that were of no concern the previous school year suddenly took on dramatic proportions.

    This is a wonderful review. I really enjoyed it. :)

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    1. Thanks! When I chose to write about this movie, I knew I couldn't do my standard review. It's too personal for me.

      Oh, the joys of junior high. Such a roller coaster ride, even if you have a superb support system like I did.

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  5. Davis, Henreid and Rains are all great in this film, as is Gladys Cooper! Great that you chose to write about a film which had such a personal impact on you.

    Although I love Now Voyager too, I do feel that classic Hollywood is sometimes hard on mothers, and this film is a case in point, with two evil mothers ruining their daughters' lives...

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    1. Interesting idea -- I'll have to give that more thought! Thanks for reading!

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  6. I've never watched this film without wishing that Bette ended up with Claude Rains and thanks to your review I see I am in good company with Davis! I think what makes them seem like a good pair is their intelligence.

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    1. I could see Davis and Rains getting together after this film ended, but for some reason I prefer her and Henreid -- this time. Bette had marvelous chemistry with both men. The three of them worked together again in Deception, a drama I really need to watch again. Thanks for reading!

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  7. "Now Voyager" has always been one of my all time favorite films, and I can easily relate to it. In ways I'm very similar to Charlette Vale. This film is pure magic. Thanks for joining in on the blogathon with such a great post on one of my favorite films.

    Oh by the way, I don't know if you saw my announcement post the other week about my next blogathon, but if you haven't, I would love to invite you to join in. Here is the link below.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/announcing-the-animals-in-film-blogathon/

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    1. Thanks for hosting such a splendid event! I feel like Charlotte in a lot of ways, too.

      Great topic! If I can think of anything, I'll certainly join. If not, I'll definitely be reading others' entries!

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  8. This was great post!

    It's weird how the characters we identify with during our awkward stages stick with us.

    Bette Davis was such a phenomenal actress, and what a role model to get one through those uncomfortable stages!

    Fabulous post!

    -Summer (Serendipitous Anachronisms)

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    1. Thanks, Summer! Bette was certainly a good person to look up to during that time. Her and Katharine Hepburn were my go-to gals, and still are these days.

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  9. Just getting around to reading all the entries (I had to write my book to film post and have had jury duty these last three days). I really need to watch this movie again. I watched it for the first time a couple years ago and really liked it. It didn't resonate with me like it did for you (I was homeschooled) but I have had films that I can relate to and give you hope.

    We have lots of records! Records are the best because - you can skip to any song and any point in the song, they still play if scratched, and they don't get eaten up in the player :) My brothers and I used to have "Record parties" where we would put on a record, light some candles, turn out the lights, and talk. The best :)

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    1. I know what you mean regarding catching up on reading. I still haven't gotten around to all of the Bette Davis posts, or the Beyond the Cover ones. School has taken over my life at the moment and it's a bummer.

      I love vinyl! It sounds lovely and it can be so neat to have a record from years ago in your hands. When I found a plethora of original Sinatra albums for only a few bucks, I thought I was dreaming. I'm envious of those "record parties"!

      Thanks for reading, Phyl!

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  10. Hi Michaela. I'm just wanting to let you know that I've been asked to co-host a blogathon dedicated to Olivia in celebration of her centenary in July, and I would love to invite you to join in. The link is below with more details.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/announcing-the-olivia-de-havilland-centenary-blogathon-2/

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Thanks, I'll start thinking of a topic right away!

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  11. Hi Michaela. Just thought I would drop by to let you know that I've just announced my Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, and would love to invite you to join in. The link is below with more details. I got in early this year.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/announcing-the-second-annual-barrymore-trilogy-blogathon/

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    1. Thanks for letting me know! I'll look into it right away!

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  12. Hi Michaela,

    I'm back again with another blogathon announcement post. This time the idea was suggested to me by another blogger. Anyway I would love to invite you to join in. Here is the link below.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/announcing-the-joan-crawford-blogathon/

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    1. Thanks, Crystal! If a topic comes to me, I'll be sure to sign up right away!

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    2. No worries Michaela. Let me know if you decide on anything.

      Delete

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