Film Score: Max Steiner Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Gladys Cooper
House the writers decided to do a riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with Hugh Laurie playing the part of Jack Nicholson, trying to rile up the rest of the inmates at the mental hospital to rebel. The big test is over being denied ping-pong paddles. After Laurie gets them chanting in unison the head psychiatrist Andre Braugher defies expectations by emerging from the office and acceding to their demands. It seems impossible to know precisely what the expectations were about psychiatry in the early nineteen-forties, but in a post Cuckoo’s Nest world the actions of Braugher have the same effect on the viewer as those of Claude Rains in the opening of Now, Voyager. The fact is, novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, on whose work the film was based, set out to demystify the idea of psychiatry, especially when it came to the character played by Rains--a doctor similar to the one who had helped her with psychological difficulties earlier in her life. But while Rains was the first choice for his role, Bette Davis came to the film late, after neither Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer, nor Ginger Rogers had worked out. Rains and Paul Henreid apparently never got along well with each other, but they only had a couple of scenes together in the film. It wouldn’t be until Deception, four years later, that Rains and Henreid would be able to have it out with each other dramatically onscreen.
This film opens on a rainy day in Boston, in front of a grand mansion. Inside, the staff scurries to avoid the wrath of the wealthy widow Gladys Cooper. Soon her daughter-in-law, Ilka Chase, shows up with psychiatrist Claude Rains in tow. He’s there to meet with Bette Davis, the youngest child of Cooper, who has been completely dominated by her mother her entire life and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It doesn’t take Rains long to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Cooper, and when Chase’s daughter, Bonita Granville, teases Davis mercilessly, it finally sends her up to her room in tears. Rains suggests a stay at his sanitarium, and that’s were Davis goes. After a few weeks in the country--and a major makeover--Rains sends Davis on a South American cruise under an assumed name. Of course she meets Paul Henreid onboard. He’s very attentive, impervious to her cynical self-deprecation, and very married. And naturally she falls for him. Fortunately, Henreid’s marriage is on the rocks, and one of Henried’s friends onboard, Lee Patrick, is not shy about telling Davis how unhappy he is. But the trip eventually ends, Henreid goes home to his wife, and Davis to her mother. This time, however, Davis learns how to tame her mother, and her transformation into a popular single woman in Boston is just the beginning of a new life. Then come a series of fascinating twist that defy expectations all the way to the end.
It’s a strong film, but the romantic-melodramatic nature of the story is such that it really didn’t stand much of a chance at Oscar time. Davis and Cooper were both nominated for their performances, but it was Max Steiner’s evocative score that won the film’s only Academy Award. Rains is his usual, dependable self and delivers a strong supporting performance, and the other real standout in the cast is Janis Wilson, as Henreid’s teenage daughter. Paul Henreid, however, was never going to be a legitimate romantic lead in Hollywood because of his accent, even though that’s how he always saw himself--his autobiography was titled Ladies’ Man. Of course this was the film in which he had the memorable business of lighting two cigarettes and giving one of them to Davis. Though he was a good actor, and rather charming in his way, he could never rise beyond the second tier in films to become a real star. In the end, the film belongs to Bette Davis. The way she manages to walk the tightrope with Gladys Cooper after her transformation, maintaining her independence without getting herself kicked out of the house or cut out of the will, is one of the joys of the film. The ending is also rather impressive, unexpected in ways, disappointing in others, but part and parcel of making movies under the control of the production code and satisfying in its own perverse way. Now, Voyager isn’t the best Bette Davis film, but it’s definitely enjoyable and well worth seeking out.