“Now, Voyager”: Why the 1942 screen classic with Bette Davis and Paul Henreid will never age

“Box office dynamite—that’s ‘Now, Voyager’.” Those are the first words of Naka‘s “Now Voyager” Variety film review, as published August 19, 1942. Continuing in the very same review: ‘Here is drama heavily steeped in the emotional tide that has swept its star, Bette Davis, to her present crest, and it’s the kind of drama that maintains Warners’ pattern for box office success. (…) It affords Miss Davis one of her superlative acting roles, that of a neurotic spinster fighting to free herself from the shackles of a tyrannical mother. (…)  For Henreid, perhaps, this is his top role in American pictures; he neatly dovetails and makes believable the sometimes underplayed character of the man who finds love too late.’

Now Voyager 01 on the set
On the set of “Now, Voyager” at Warner Bros. with film director Irving Rapper (center) and his leading actors Paul Henreid and Bette Davis (right) | Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

The film tells the story of Boston heiress Charlotte Vale (in the beginning unglamorously portrayed by Bette Davis), a sheltered, frumpy, and middle-aged neurotic who is driven to a nervous breakdown by her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper), but with the help of a soft-spoken idealized therapist (Claude Rains), she is transformed into a modern, secure and attractive young woman. During an ocean voyage to South America, she meets a suave man, Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), and blooms as a woman. Durrance, unhappily married to a woman he dares not to hurt, has a young daughter Tina (played by the then twelve-year-old promising juvenile actress Janis Wilson in an uncredited role). She is an emotionally depressed child victimized by the insecurity of their unsettled home. Ultimately, Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durrance end up in a platonic relationship in which she keeps Tina, who in the meantime, is in the process of recovering, while Henreid stays with his unwanted wife.

Now Voyager 06
Bette Davis (with script) and Paul Henreid on the set of “Now, Voyager” | Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

“Now, Voyager” is an unabashed first-rate soap opera—or a woman’s picture, if you wish—and as such, it’s one of the very best of its kind, thanks to Warner Bros. expertise. At the same time, the powerful drama is backed by Max Steiner’s lush and Academy Award-winning musical score which is almost as much a part of the film as the actors. Bette Davis, one of Hollywood’s queens in the 1940s, made the film’s heroine a touching, dignified, and truly believable woman.

Miss Davis was not the first choice to play the role of Charlotte Vale, though. Irene Dunne, along with Charles Boyer, her co-star in “Love Affair” (1939), were considered to be perfect for the leading roles. Producer Hal B. Wallis also offered the female lead to Norma Shearer, and although she was fond of it, she had already made up her mind to retire from the screen after George Cukor’s “Her Cardboard Lover” (1942), due to her eye problems. When Irene Dunne heard that the script had also been discussed with Norma Shearer, she declined as well, fearing that both actresses were played against each other. Then Ginger Rogers was offered the part. She liked it, but weeks passed by for her to reply, and even after Wallis sent her a wire while she was on her ranch on the Rogue River, she did not respond, so finally the part went to Bette Davis, who was eager to play it.

One of the most famous and landmark scenes of the film is when Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes simultaneously and gallantly hands one of the cigarettes to Bette Davis, thereby starting a new custom (in an era when people obviously weren’t aware of the danger of smoking). The film became highly successful: “Now, Voyager” was Warner Bros.’s fourth biggest grossing film of 1942.

Compared to the then-established two-time Academy Award-winner Bette Davis, Mr. Henreid only had a few years of experience in Hollywood. After leaving Austria in the mid-1930s, he first settled in London and then moved on to the West Coast. So, although pretty much a newcomer in Hollywood when “Now, Voyager” was made, his performance was well-received. The New York Herald Tribune wrote, ‘Paul Henreid achieves his full stature as a romantic star’ while Time praised him as ‘Hollywood’s likeliest leading man who acts like a kind and morally responsible human being.’

Ladies Man
The cover of Mr. Henreid’s autobiography “Ladies Man: An Autobiography” (1984). Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York

In his autobiography “Ladies Man” (1984), Paul Henreid remembers Bette Davis as ‘a solid master of her craft’: “I found her a delight to work with, and we got along famously. In fact, a very close friendship started between us, and she remained a dear, close friend—and always a very decent human being.” The atmosphere on the set was amiable and supportive, although Miss Davis did have problems with her co-star Bonita Granville (who played the part of Charlotte’s young niece June Vale). “She was bitchy in the film and off. I don’t remember the details, but she struck me as flighty and gossipy,” she told Boze Hadleigh in his interview book “Bette Davis Speaks” (1996).

Principal photography of “Now, Voyager” began on the Warner lot on April 7, 1942, and ended on June 23, with retakes on July 3. The film was released in the U.S. on October 31, 1942. “Casablanca,” another Hal B. Wallis production, also starring Paul Henreid and Claude Rains (a frequent performer in Wallis’ pictures), was released a few months later on January 23, 1943, and was almost shot simultaneously at Warner Bros., from May 25 until August 3. Over the years, “Casablanca” gained a more popular following than “Now, Voyager” did; in 1998, a novel entitled “As Times Goes By,” written by Michael Walsh for Warner Books, follows the characters of Rick, Ilsa, Victor (Paul Henreid), Sam, and Louis (Claude Rains) after they left Casablanca.

“Starmaker: The Autobiography of Hal B. Wallis” (1980) with a foreword by Katharine Hepburn. Publisher: Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, New York

When originally scheduled to direct “Now, Voyager,” filmmaker Edmund Goulding wrote a treatment for the film, but he fell ill and was unable to direct the film. Michael Curtiz then was assigned as director, as soon as he had finished shooting another Wallis production called “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) with James Cagney. Still, from the very start, it became clear that Curtiz and Bette Davis couldn’t get along. Finally, producer Hal B. Wallis decided to go with a new director, London-born Irving Rapper. “He was a pleasant, amusing Englishman. He liked Bette, and she liked him,” Wallis recalled in “Starmaker,” his 1989 mémoires. Irving Rapper was a vocal coach, dialogue director, and assistant director in the 1930s who, prior to “Now, Voyager,” had directed only three features, including “One Foot in Heaven” (1941) starring Fredric March and Martha Scott, and “The Gay Sisters” (1942) with Barbara Stanwyck. In the end, just like Bette Davis, he was not the first choice by all means, but he turned out to be the right one.

Four years later, Irving Rapper and his three leading actors from “Now, Voyager”—Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains (Davis’ favorite co-star)—were reunited with the drama “Deception,” also made at Warner Bros. (this one without Hal B. Wallis). In 1964, Paul Henreid directed Bette Davis (playing twin sisters) in the crime drama “Dead Ringer,” with his daughter Monika Henreid playing a supporting role.

Irving Rapper and Bette Davis later worked together again in “The Corn Is Green” and “Another Man’s Posion’ (1951). “Irving has directed some of my best pictures,” she said in later interviews.

Now Voyager 05 posterWoman’s pictures such as “Now, Voyager” were a popular genre in the 1930s and 1940s. The studios had several powerful leading ladies under contract, including Barbara Stanwyck (“Stella Dallas,” 1937, based on Olive Higgins Prouty 1923 novel, who also wrote the novel “Now, Voyager” in 1941), Greta Garbo (several pictures, such as “Anna Karenina,” 1935, and “Camille,” 1937), Joan Crawford (“Mildred Pierce,” 1945), and—of course—Bette Davis. Up until today, the topic of woman’s pictures is still explored by scholars. Do they emphasize feminism, are they (anti-)feminist or liberating? In most films, the focus was on independent women, who made their own choices instead of circling like satellites around their leading men. That particular approach made so many films in this genre very worthwhile, and it’s presumably one of the reasons why “Now, Voyager” still looks as fresh and original as the day when it was first released. Not dated at all, but standing the test of time all the way, more than seven decades later. That’s an incredible achievement for any film, also considering that we’re talking about an art form that has undergone so many changes since then.

Author Olive Higgins Prouty wrote four novels about the wealthy Vale family in Boston (“Now, Voyager” being the third). She sold the “Voyager” rights to Wallis for $35,000 in October 1941, and made several suggestions. She preferred Technicolor to be used, with the flashbacks shown in subdued colors as if seen through a veil, and she had laid down a scheme for particular sequences. Wallis decided to go ahead and ignore them completely, but after she had seen the film in her New England home with twenty-five friends, ‘all of them applauded,’ Wallis wrote in his autobiography. She wrote him a letter, saying that ‘the plot follows very closely that of my book and the personalities of the various characters have been carefully observed and preserved.’

Celluloid Muse
“The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak” (1969, published by Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, Illinois

Finally, film director Irving Rapper, born in 1898 in London, passed away at age 101 in 1999 in Woodland Hills, California, of natural causes. Never really in the spotlights, there’s not too much written about him. Authors Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg did include him in their interview book “The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak” (1969), a collection of fifteen interviews with film directors who spent most of their careers working in Hollywood. In their introduction of the Irving Rapper interview, they describe his whereabouts at the time of the interview: ‘Irving Rapper’s apartment is set high in a glistening white building in the very heart of Hollywood. Only a stone’s throw from Hollywood Boulevard, with its seedy spangle of light-signs,  its driven restless sixties people, and its ever-skulking hustlers, Rapper inhabits a seemingly sealed-off forties world. As so often in Hollywood, fantasy and reality seem one, so that as you enter the hall, where a super-efficient blonde announces your arrival directly from the reception desk to the host’s telephone, you could easily be in a scene from a vintage Bette Davis picture, and you half expect to see her charge stormily at any moment through the glass window doors, ready for an argument with David Brian or Bruce Bennett—those lost figures of Hollywood’s past. Chez Rapper, the atmosphere of that past exists. Comfortably plump and relaxed, with an elegant and cultivated personality, he is utterly unlike the brisk new generation of grey-suited, fiercely efficient Hollywood men. (…) Like so many Hollywood talents, he has been put firmly—and one hopes only temporarily—on the shelf by the newest generation, but looking round his apartment, you see the compensations: Chinese lampstands ‘fit for a museum,” magnificent paintings crowded tightly up of a wall, a louvered cocktail recess, an atmosphere of spacious, glossy luxury. And beyond the great windows and the penthouse balcony, the whispering traffic, the horn-bleeps and the diamond shine of an ocean of lights: Los Angeles.’

Just for the record, even though “Now, Voyager” isn’t mentioned in AFI’s list of 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, the film ranks at #23 in AFI’s 100 Greatest Love Stories of All Time, while Bette Davis’ closing line, ‘Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon… we have the stars!’ is at #46 in AFI’s Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time. In 2007, “Now, Voyager” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’

“Now, Voyager” (1942, trailer)

NOW, VOYAGER (1942) DIR Irving Rapper PROD Hal B. Wallis SCR Casey Robinson (novel ‘Now, Voyager’ [1941] by Olive Higgins Prouty) CAM Sol Polito MUS Max Steiner ED Warren Low CAST Bette Davis (Charlotte Vale), Paul Henreid (Jerry Durrance), Claude Rains (Doctor Jaquith), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Vale), Bonita Granville (June Vale), John Loder (Elliott Livingston), Ilka Chase (Lisa Vale), Mary Wickes (Dora Pickford), Janis Wilson (Tina Durrance)