The towering 1942 romantic melodrama Now, Voyager, starring Bette Davis and Paul Henreid has been re-released, and its audiences will once again get swept away in the emotional tsunami created by Max Steiner’s orchestral score; the music’s almost outrageous grandiloquence matches the passion and absolute seriousness of the film, and underscores Steiner’s reputation as the Tchaikovsky of the Hollywood golden age. The film was a sensational success and its keynote scene where Henreid suavely lights two cigarettes at once – one for him, one for Davis – was much copied by saucer-eyed fans. Clive James confessed that he attempted it while trying to impress a girl on a date, only for her to say she didn’t smoke, leaving him looking like a walrus.
Charlotte Vale (Davis) is a young woman from a wealthy Boston family who is bullied by her domineering widowed mother, played by Gladys Cooper. Under this tyranny, Charlotte has become a tearful, frumpy, bespectacled spinster with unplucked eyebrows, who lives at home and, in one of the film’s most showstopping lines bitterly reveals her secret addictions: “Cigarettes and medicated sherry and books my mother won’t allow me to read!” Her concerned sister realises that Charlotte is having a nervous breakdown and insists her mother let her stay at a sanatorium run by kindly, shrewd Dr Jaquith, an unassumingly excellent performance from Claude Rains.
Under his tutelage, Charlotte gets better and blossoms into an amazingly elegant and beautiful woman: one of the most glorious transformation scenes in Hollywood history. On a cruise, she meets the handsome, attentive (and unhappily married) architect Jerry Durrance, played by Henreid, and falls in love with him, though knowing full well that his honour and decency will not permit an affair. So Charlotte strives for redemption, or quasi-marriage, by becoming a kind of mother to Jerry’s unhappy youngest daughter, who is herself on the verge of a breakdown, and sees so much of herself in her.
It isn’t vulgar or facetious to notice that, quite alone among the drama’s adult characters, Charlotte is the one fated never to have sexual experience. (Unlike, say, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in Casablanca, released the same year, who has relations with both Humphrey Bogart and Henreid without her romantic heroism being impugned in the slightest). Charlotte’s frustration and neurosis – and Davis rather brilliantly suggests the residue of both, even at her most magnificently glamorous – clearly owe something to that. She is compensating: her energies are diverted into a new destiny, a new sense of mission to save Jerry’s daughter from the miseries that blighted her own life. But the scenes in which Charlotte first returns to her mother after her sanatorium triumph, and it looks as if she might backslide into her old miserable existence, will have you on the edge of your seat.
Charlotte’s plan will have to take the place of actually marrying Jerry, actually having his children, and yes, perhaps there is absurdity in it, examined in the cold light of day. But as Charlotte says to Jerry, they mustn’t ask for the moon when they have the stars – these are a possession superior to the moon. There is something quixotic in Charlotte’s sense of nobility and self-denial.
Maybe the 1940s were the very last period in which this story would make sense. It was released during wartime, and though there is nothing in it about the war (again, unlike Casablanca) the war makes relevant its themes of self-sacrifice and transcending one’s own emotional unhappiness. At the same time, it is almost ecstatically driven by the war: emotional rocket fuel. Davis’s performance is at once spiky and angular and yet also soft, sensual and vulnerable. The excellent Henreid is perfectly cast. This film is exquisitely crafted and passionately acted.
• Now, Voyager is in cinemas from 6 August.