Film Festival: Vices
In Now, Voyager (1942), when Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes and then hands one to Bette Davis, he commits a perfect moment to film forever. Movie history is often made in small, perfect moments.
The subject of vices puts me in the mood for Now, Voyager. This film has more smoking in it (and more important smoking) than any movie I can think of. And, along with smoking, other guilty pleasures include martinis, old-fashioneds, cruise ships, adultery, hats, Orry-Kelly gowns, and a three-hankie script.
The story is by Olive Higgins Prouty, of Stella Dallas fame. For a pure wallow in soap opera heaven, I recommend doing Fannie Hurst (“Imitation of Life” and “Back Street”) and Prouty all in the same weekend.
In Now, Voyager, Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the spinster daughter of a domineering, high-society Boston matron. Charlotte is so completely under her mother’s thumb that, in her first scene, we see her hiding cigarettes from her mother in her bedroom. Convinced that Charlotte is about to have a nervous breakdown, Charlotte’s sister-in-law, Lisa, brings a psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), to the house. In typical Hollywood fashion, Charlotte has the breakdown during his visit.
“A child of my old age, I’ve always called her. I was well into my forties and her father passed on soon after she was born. My ugly duckling. Of course, it’s true that all late children are marked.” –Mrs. Vale
Vermont, Nassau, Rio
After a stay in Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium, Charlotte decides to take a cruise to Nassau and Rio de Janeiro. As if she isn’t already mixed up enough, everyone mistakenly calls her Renée Beauchamp, because she’s borrowed a friend’s ticket and clothes.
“If old Walt (Whitman) didn’t have you in mind when he wrote this, he had lots of others like you. He’s put into words what I’d like to say to you now, and far better than I could ever express it. Read it. …–-Untold want by life and land ne’er granted / Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.” –Dr. Jaquith and Charlotte
She spends a beautiful day in Nassau with a man she meets named Jerry Durrance (played by Paul Henreid). They smoke their first cigarette together. He lights her cigarette for her; you can tell no one has ever done this for her before. He also orders Cointreau for both of them (which marks him as a stellar date in my book.) To add to Charlotte’s confusion, Jerry introduces her to friends on the cruise as Camille. At this point, she has three different names!
“But I intended a compliment. In that dress you are rather like a camellia.” — Jerry
As the ship sails on to Rio, Charlotte finds out more about Jerry’s life as a married man, and gets more involved with him. As their relationship gets as close as it’s ever going to get in this movie, Jerry puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them simultaneously, and then hands one to Charlotte. You have to see this to believe it. The smoldering looks she gives while their smoke mingles in the air between them…. well, it’s priceless. After this, they do this cigarette thing each time the temperature rises between them.
“Having fun together, getting a kick out of simple little things, out of beauty like this, sharing confidences you wouldn’t share with anybody else in all the world. Charlotte, won’t you be honest and tell me that you are happy too?” –Jerry
Fashion and Bette Davis eyes
Besides all the love, tears and smoke, there is great fashion. When we first encounter Bette, we see a close-up of her feet, clad in a pair of too-sensible black brogues. After her therapy, her entrance is marked by a close-up of her feet in new spectator pumps with stacked heels. (I’ve never seen another movie that uses shoes as a character development metaphor!)
Bette wears matching hats for many of her outfits, ranging from tiny ones perched on her head to a beautiful white swoopy number that she uses to great advantage for vamping with those amazing eyes. She has at least three floor-length gowns, and some killer evening wraps with fur and beadwork.
This movie was made right before Casablanca. Claude Rains and Paul Henreid were stars of that movie too!
“Mother, I don’t want to be disagreeable or unkind. I’ve come home to live with you in the same house. But it can’t be in the same way. I’ve been living my own life, making my own decisions for a long while now. It’s impossible to go back to being treated like a child again!” –Charlotte
Now, Voyager is all about half-requited love and a frumpy woman’s declaration of independence from her overbearing mother. It’s definitely worth the trip.
Resource links for Now, Voyager
- Now, Voyager (1942) from IMDb
- Bette Davis biography from her official website
- Paul Henreid at Turner Classic Movies
- Claude Rains overview from TCM
- The Vale Novels of Olive Higgins Prouty
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This is an update of a review that appeared originally in RETRO magazine, Nancy Eaton, editor.