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Sunday, April 23, 2023

Canon Fire #4

Among the One-Hundred: Now, Voyager (1942)

Knew a spinster secretary during the seventies who treasured her copy of Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty, a writer who understood women beat-down and unfulfilled. Did Bette Davis too? She got closest to her public with Now, Voyager, living their lives it seemed, slaying a dragon mother not few of fans had to cope with at home. Mary read Now, Voyager numerous times between 1941 (its publication date) and years I knew her, lived alone, met a tragic end. She and I got along because we both liked the movie, her since it was new, me from watching Channel 36 out of Charlotte. The seventies was glorious share of earthly time with not only classic films but those who knew first-hand an era I sought closeness to, Now, Voyager still a live entity and not yet quaint artifact it later became. Frank Deal was Channel 8/High Point’s host for prime time “Superstars Movie,” his weatherman duty shared with Sunday night unspool of pre-49 Warners that WGHP had lately bought. Frank was forty-eight, old enough in 1974 to remember how fine these features were. He showed Now, Voyager, and though there were necessary cuts, spoke voluble to values yet intact. There was a 1973 record album from RCA to celebrate Now, Voyager and others of Max Steiner lineage. Safe to say I was the only sophomore on my dorm hall playing it. There was bond had with women instructors over Now, Voyager, as several saw and cherished it from long before (long? It had only been thirty years, a period that to me seemed several lifetimes). Nice to grow up surrounded by living links with movies I came to love.

What of now? Following for Now, Voyager is less, but fervent, proof at You Tube where latter-day love persists, if of fan rather than analytic sort. Which to prefer? Give me fans where enthused to degree of “Fave Film Fashion,” moderator Amanda Hallay high on Voyager wardrobe and dedicating her segment “to my friend Norman and his Mum.” Most exuberant of Web appreciators is Steve Hayes, calling himself “The Tired Old Queen at the Movies,” though there’s nothing tired about Steve’s enthusiasm for Now, Voyager and others of classic bent he chooses to review. He’s funny, outlandish, and insightful, plus does neat voice impressions. Folk like Steve are a gift to You Tube. So do modern watchers tend toward mocking Now, Voyager? Not from what I see. Many wish modern films could follow its example. First to performance style … does Bette sustain? She said to Dick Cavett that stars should be bigger than life, that a “little” acting is what we pay to see, Davis herself registering first, then Voyager’s Charlotte Vale, but would audiences have wanted her consumed by the characterization? It need not come to choice between an actress and her part, for Davis like most of greats tendered both, a style largely gone now, but does loss of strong personas spell progress? I admire players who go full immersive, late examples Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale, latter of this-week-seen Ford vs. Ferrari. Bale shed weight to wraith-point for another role, some thinking he doomed himself, but maybe this was figured of Bette Davis when she death marched for Of Human Bondage in 1934. Day-Lewis and Bale, plus others, see acting in terms of complete transform, a generation of Lon Chaney Seniors. Who knows but that BD lost herself 100% in Bunny O’Hare?

Look to You Tube for interviews w/ Bette Davis and/or Paul Henried as they reminisce about Now, Voyager. There’s bittersweetness looking back at wretched quality clips little sharper than 8mm. Davis/Henried were still game, latter doing his cigarette gag for youth amused by its application to love scenes in Now, Voyager, hosts and voiceovers referring to “the old tearjerker” as if yes, we’ve come far from there. Now, Voyager was from mid-fifties the stuff of late, late shows, a somnambulist’s retreat. It is but faint exaggeration to call it and others of similar age lost from date of initial release (Voyager never had a major reissue), 117-minutes ripe for abuse from TV edits till digital and uninterrupted broadcast came to belated rescue and brought us closer to values Now, Voyager always had. Essence was never romance Charlotte has with “Jerry Durrance” (Henried), but intense conflict engaged with Mother Vale as essayed by Gladys Cooper. Here was where Now, Voyager hit closest to homes of distaff patronage who felt unloved by parents that, as Charlotte accuses, “didn’t want me to be born.” Such corrosive truths had barely if ever been explored by mainstream film. Fan-mail to Davis revealed family scabs Now, Voyager picked, women by hundreds beset by varied Mrs. Vales. Now, Voyager was and remains property of women who identified intensely with Charlotte, and by extension, Bette Davis. It would be called a biggest grosser for her. A Stolen Life was actually that, though Now, Voyager did take biggest profits of any Davis at WB.

Charlotte’s case is one we are assured can be “fixed.” She has a nervous breakdown as opposed to a chemical problem that would require medication. A month to find herself, gain confidence, and Charlotte is good to go. Davis plays it uncertain however, so even after glamour treatment, Charlotte still must confront myriad of insecurities, including a mother formidable as ever and not readily overcome. Cooper as Mrs. Vale never softens, won’t compromise with the daughter she seems outwardly to despise, in fact saves worst vitriol for a final showdown, this to acknowledge that lifelong family conflict never resolves in a hurry, if ever. Mother-daughter scenes have tension and vitality that romantic asides cannot approach. The main of what we take from Now, Voyager are aching-real combat between fault-finding parent and damaged child. What happens by compare between Charlotte and Jerry Durrance, him married, walks wire between censor poles unyielding; we’re given to conclude the two sleep together based on a clinch that fades upon a hotel balcony where separate rooms beckon, both tactfully accessible, shorthand for love that will be consummated but not to awareness of children, even adolescents among the audience. Did precocious patrons figure meaning of a kiss gone to black followed by morning after conduct to indicate much-increased closeness? Charlotte/Jerry’s airport farewell, yearning as to suggest, no confirm, prior intimacy, is played specific to that effect by Davis and Henried. He ardently kisses Charlotte through a spider web veil she wears, less obviously in a 16mm print I had, dismayingly clear on Blu-Ray from Criterion.

Charlotte afterward cuts Jerry off. He’ll have to make do with stars rather than a moon she once (hope it was at least twice) yielded. Might another Pan-American trip loosen her up? Not to be however, for Charlotte will raise Jerry’s unloved child with whom there is intense bond and no evident input from Social Services. Jerry accepts the plan and says, “Shall we just have a cigarette on it?,” this as I expect (or frankly hope) he plans a next assignation, maybe on another solo cruise. Understanding such reality was/is why men might not buy Now, Voyager’s concept, let alone resolution. They’d sit and wonder if Jerry gets on with healing via pick-up of a Dolores Moran or something as accessible once off Vale premises. What hope has Jerry with Charlotte, however noble their gestures for the moment? His wife must die to clear a way, us not supposed to wish for that, but of course anyone sufficiently invested does, characters having set up offscreen “Isobel Durrance” as clingy, an anchor, loveless mom, the works. Even during wait for her demise, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) will beat Jerry’s time (BD said in later interviews that Charlotte most likely married Jaquith). Movies ask a lot of our credulity. Jerry can accept the arrangement for daughter “Tina’s” sake, as Charlotte seems an only one that can effectively help the troubled child. Maybe he and D. Moran can send sacrificing Charlotte a holiday fruitcake in appreciation. Lord love the Classic Era, but solutions here have as much to do with reality as W. Woodpecker, so why do I get weepy watching them? Maybe it’s sheer craftsmanship, earnest performances, that Steiner score. All knew how unreal Now, Voyager was. Davis complained loud about censorial limits each time she got a new picture out, not just privately, but to mainstream press. What sustained her and the vehicles was an audience sophisticated enough to read between Code lines, as I said, even youngsters hep enough. Remember Conrad Lane decrypting King’s Row at age eleven in 1941?

Mentioned scrapbooks before that I found on Bette Davis, a fan’s reverie that lasted from the late thirties into wartime. These are labors of intense love, nothing Bette did eluding enthusiasm and scissors of this hunter/gatherer. It was “good for Bette,” said fawning press, to spend days “relaxing” at Lake Arrowhead where scenes for Now, Voyager were location-shot. Fans took proprietary interest in objects of devotion. They knew less of struggle Davis and colleagues engaged daily with Warner brass, data revealed but decades later when memoirs, unauthorized bios, and studio memos dealt truth, or at least perceptions by some, w/regard career and lives of the screen-adored. Davis oversaw direction vehicles took and how she’d be presented in them. Insistent, “bitchy” said some, but right enough most of the time to make suggestions useful toward quality end. Truth be known, Davis was co-director at least on Now, Voyager, hands off her growing authority so long as grosses also grew. She was obstreperous at times, not uselessly so as some who went before and saw slide as result. Stardom plus ideas were OK where ideas proved constructive, as Davis’ generally were. Her equivalent on elsewhere lots: Katharine Hepburn at MGM … what others in actress category? Many (most?) did the jobs and hoped for best, like Joan Crawford taking guidance, wanting it from strong directors, these best judge of her gifts and getting most out of them. There was too Claudette Colbert mostly freelance with a mind much of her own. Barbara Stanwyck frankly figured she was lucky to get one/two good pictures from any random six, doing her best but always mindful of odds. Did any of these have lioness impulse to approach Davis?


Blogger Velvet_trashbag said...

Hello- thank you for a great write up one of my all-time favorites movies. You may already know this, but Paul Henreid's daughter Monika runs an Instagram page with lots of great behind the scenes information on PH and BD's lifelong friendship. It it a great source.

The IG's title is: welovepaulhenreid
The official Paul Henreid page! Star of CASABLANCA & NOW VOYAGER, but so much more! Authorized content from Monika Henreid, Paul Henreid’s daughter.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Jim Cobb said...

I still have that Steiner LP you mention. That RCA series from the 70's gave us so many fine performances of these scores

12:23 PM  
Blogger Jim Cobb said...

BUT THERE'S MORE: I pulled the LP mentioned above for a listen this morning---amazing how good this 50 year old recording still sounds. Afterwards I looked to see if these Charles Gerhardt recordings had been reissued on cd and discovered that there is a comprehensive 12 cd set of all of the series which includes not just Steiner, but also Bernard Herrmann, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman, Miklós Rózsa, and Victor Young. All for 28 bucks on Amazon. I am thinking that readers of your blog might find this of interest. I just ordered mine.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

couldn't find it. What is it called?

10:50 AM  
Blogger Jim Cobb said...

Charles Gerheadt conducts classic film score. It is on Amazon. From Sony Music.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Sir James Cobb --

Found it. Thanks very much!

12:54 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

Wonderful essay as always, John. And if anyone would like a previously unshared perspective on NOW, VOYAGER, Max Steiner's copious comments on his manuscript of the score detail the process of its composition. The book also has many stories of Max and Miss D, who were--contrary to the legend, and one unfortunate anecdote--good friends. She hired Max to score the only film she produced, and called him "my composer." My book is Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood's Most Influential Composer (Oxford, 2020).

9:00 PM  

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