Thursday, March 23, 2017

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

 (This post is part of the Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood)

If one were to ask most people to name a Bette Davis movie, chances are good that they might name Now Voyager (1942). It not only remains one of her most famous films, but it also contains what could be the most iconic moment in a Bette Davis movie--the scene in which Paul Henreid's character (Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance) lights cigarettes for both himself and Bette Davis's character (Charlotte Vale). Ultimately Now, Voyager would be Bette Davis's most successful film of the Forties.

Now, Voyager was based on the 1941 novel of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty. Both the book and the film centred on Charlotte Vale, an unmarried, plain, insecure woman dominated by her overbearing mother (played by Gladys Cooper in the film), who had married into the wealthy, respected Vale family. It is once Charlotte gets away from her mother that she blossoms, and even has a romance with a married man Jeremiah "Jerry" Duvaux Durrance. The novel was the third in a series of novels centred on the Vale family by Olive Higgins Prouty.

Hal Wallis, who had been head of production at Warner Bros., made a deal with the studio to produce his own films. For his first film under the deal he bought the rights to the novel Now, Voyager.  Amazingly enough, he only paid $40,000 for the film rights to the book. Initially, Mr. Wallis wanted Edmund Goulding to direct the film, but he dropped out due to illness. He then brought Michael Curtiz onto the project.

Though it might seem hard to believe today, Bette Davis was not the first actress considered for the role. Taking into account her success in Love Affair (1939), Hal Wallis had initially wanted to cast Irene Dunne as Charlotte Vale. As it turned out, Norma Shearer was also interested in the role. Unfortunately for Hal Wallis, Irene Dunne and Norma Shearer would eventually become involved in other projects. Mr. Wallis then considered Ginger Rogers, who was fresh from winning an Oscar for Kitty Foyle (1940).

It was Bette Davis's friend, director Irving Rapper, who told her about Hal Wallis's planned adaptation of the novel Now, Voyager. Bette Davis then began actively campaigning for the role of Charlotte Vale. Bette Davis argued that a native Bostonian, as she was, would better grasp what the role entailed than an actress who was not from Boston. Studio head Jack Warner worried that Bette Davis was not attractive enough to be convincing once Charlotte transformed into a glamorous woman. Bette Davis argued that the average woman would not identify with a more conventionally beautiful actress in the role. Hal Wallis agreed with Bette Davis and was eventually able to convince Jack Warner to let her have the part.

The casting of Bette Davis would mean that Now, Voyager would have a new director. Miss Davis was not particularly eager to work with Michael Curtiz again, so he was removed from the film. She successfully lobbied Hal Wallis to hire Irving Rapper to direct the movie. As strange as it might seem now, Paul Henreid was not the original choice for Jerry. Initially Bette Davis thought Ronald Reagan would be good in the role, having been impressed by his performance in King's Row (1942). Jack Warner, Hal Wallis, and Irving Rapper convinced her otherwise, arguing that Ronald Reagan would not be able to hold his own with her.

Paul Henreid was given a screen test for the role, although initially Bette Davis was not enthusiastic about him. In his screen test Warner Bros. had slicked down his hair and clothed him in a silk smoking jacket. When the two actors met, Paul Henreid told Bette Davis that he really disliked that screen test. Bette Davis then campaigned for him to have another screen test with a more natural look. This screen test pleased both Miss Davis and Warner Bros., and he was cast in the role of Jerry.

For the role of Charlotte's mother Hal Wallis had wanted to cast  Dame May Whitty. It was Bette Davis who insisted on Gladys Cooper for the part. For the role of Charlotte's psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith, Hal Wallis initially considered both Raymond Massey and Charles Coburn before deciding on Claude Rains. Claude Rains rejected the role until his part was expanded and he received $4000 a week. Bette Davis was very happy to have Claude Rains on the film, as he was one of her favourite people with whom to work.

Now, Voyager premiered on  October 22, 1942 in New York City. It went into wide release on October 31, 1942. The film received mixed to positive reviews, but did very well at the box office. It ultimately earned $2.2 million, making it the most successful of Bette Davis's films so far. When it came to the Academy Awards, Now, Voyager was largely overlooked. Bette Davis was nominated for Best Actress, but lost to Greer Garson for Mrs. Miniver (1942). Gladys Cooper was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Teresa Wright for Mrs. Miniver. It did win an Oscar for the third category in which it was nominated--Max Steiner won the award for Best Dramatic Score for the film.

While Now, Voyager received only three Academy Award nominations and won only one, today it remains one of the best remembered films from 1942, as well as one of Bette Davis's best remembered films. Much of this is due to her performance as Charlotte Vale. Bette Davis did what would have been difficult for many actresses in Hollywood, she took Charlotte from being a insecure spinster to a more worldly, confident woman in the course of the film. Other actresses might not have been quite so convincing in the part.

Beyond Bette Davis's performance, Now, Voyager largely succeeded because it appealed to women during World War II. Just as Charlotte became more independent during the course of the film, there were many women finding that they had to provide for their families while their husbands were serving in the war. Many women, now working in jobs generally reserved for men, could probably identify with Charlotte. While Now, Voyager is generally thought of as a "women's picture", it also had an appeal for both sexes in one respect. Bette Davis received letters from both women and men who had been dominated by their mothers.

While Bette Davis made many more films for Warner Bros., as well as many more films with Irving Rapper, Now Voyager would remain her biggest success during the Forties. Indeed, today it still remains one of her most famous films.


charsmoviereviews said...

Excellent post! I love to read about the history of the films themselves. I am not surprised that Bette fought so hard for this role - one of her best for sure. I cannot imagine anyone playing this role with as much conviction as Bette did.

Michaela said...

This film is definitely my favorite Bette vehicle. Personally, it means a lot to me, but just as a movie, it's really well-done. The casting is wonderful -- I'm so glad everything fell into place the way it did, especially the casting of Bette. I honestly can't picture Dunne, Shearer, or even my beloved Ginger doing the part as beautifully as she does. There's a certain balance that Bette strikes that is simply perfect.

Nice post!

Carol Saint Martin said...

I love this movie. Bette's performance is absolutely incredible. And Max Steiner's Oscar winning score is one of my all time favorites. Great post!

Elaine Hodges said...

Great post! So glad that Paul Henreid got a second screen test! I cannot see
anyone else in that role.

I would love for you to add it to the Classic Movie Marathon link party that launched last night.