Anybody wanting to see the strength and power of Bette Davis as an actress should see “Now Voyager,” a 1942 soap opera about an inhibited and neurotic Boston woman, Charlotte Vail, who overcomes her problems. The movie also stars Claude Rains as Dr. Jaquith and Paul Henreid as Jerry Durrance, a married man that Charlotte falls in love with on an ocean cruise. Davis brilliantly portrays the overwhelmed version of Charlotte at the beginning and shines magnificently as the beautiful and self-confident Charlotte. The movie makes a strong point that true beauty comes from within.
Charlotte’s mother, Mrs. Henry Vale, played brilliantly by Gladys Cooper, remains a strong force in the film from the beginning, as she refuses to show any love to her unwanted daughter. Poor Charlotte spends her days in an upstairs room in the Vale mansion, occasionally rebelling in small ways against her strident mother, but generally sulking about her lack of freedom and respect. When Dr. Jaquith shows up with plans to cure Charlotte, he’s immediately out of step with Mrs. Vale’s strange sense of obligation and propriety. Dr. Jaquith immediately perceives the problem: He must remove Charlotte from the suffocating clutches of Mrs. Vale.
Dr. Jaquith visits Charlotte in her room, and we see her in a dowdy, overweight version with a serious mistrust of authority. She dabbles in art, making carved ivory boxes, and Dr. Jaquith praises her ability. Finally feeling appreciated, Charlotte gives Dr. Jacquith one of her creations. Rains is believable in this role as a caring psychiatrist, and when Dr. Jaquith brings Charlotte back to his facility, it seems more like a country club than a mental institution. There are no rocking patients or impromptu screams, and the staff to patient ratio is high.
Charlotte does so well at the institution that Dr. Jacquith lets her take an ocean cruise, where she meets Jerry (Henreid). Charlotte takes the place of her stylish cousin June (Bonita Granville), so she even has a new name to go along with her ugly duckling turned-into-a-swan transformation (she’s seriously luminous now). Jerry’s secret to romancing Charlotte: Treat the now interesting and engaging beauty with kindness and respect. I didn’t like the now famous acting “business” Henreid brings to the role of Jerry when he often lights two cigarettes in his mouth and gives one to Charlotte. I wish actors could think of better business than using cigarette tricks.
Eventually, the transformed Charlotte returns home, a little broken-hearted at her suspended romance with Jerry, but eager to have a new, terrific relationship with her mother. However, Mrs. Vale remains unmoved by Charlotte’s new freedom until her daughter gets a marriage proposal from a man belonging to a prominent Boston family. Charlotte’s growth continues up to the end of movie as it becomes apparent that she may only be contemplating marriage to appease her mother. A subplot about Jerry’s daughter helps wrap up the film without fully rectifying Charlotte’s bittersweet love affair with Jerry, but it fully emphasizes Charlotte’s transformation into a caring, giving person.