Now Voyager and The Fight For Control

“I survived because I was tougher than anybody else.”

It had been a harsh struggle for Bette Davis and Warner Bothers. Becoming the first actor at the studios to win an Academy Award should have been Davis’ ticket to better roles.

Warners had other ideas. Instead they figured Davis could turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse and thereby started giving her a steady diet of garbage.

Execs meaning in particular Jack Warner felt as long as an actor was being well compensated (according to their standards) then they should just shut up and due what they were told. After all they were under contract and most of these people would be working in a department store, pumping gas or still struggling on Broadway if it weren’t for the movies.

Not surprising Bette Davis did not see it that way

“I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.”

In 1936 she took matters into her own hands and went to England in order to make two films. The studio filed an injunction blocking Davis from doing so. Bette came back swinging and sued Warner Brothers.

The four Warner brothers (left to right) Sam, Harry, Jack, and Albert, 1926. Little did they realize they would eventually inherit a “fifth brother

The legal fact of the matter she was kidding herself. Davis was in direct violation of her contract and didn’t have a leg to stand on

The case, decided by Branson J. in the English High Court, was reported as Warner Bros. Studios Incorporated v. Nelson in [1937] 1 KB 209. Davis lost the case and returned to Hollywood, in debt and without income, to resume her career.

For anyone who didn’t know how the studio system worked Jack Warner was there to break it down like a fraction:

Jack Warner testified, and was asked, “Whatever part you choose to call upon her to play, if she thinks she can play it, whether it is distasteful and cheap, she has to play it?” Warner replied, “Yes, she must play it.

Don’t come to the queen unless she sends for you

Not only had Davis lost but public sentiment was against her. Calling oneself a slave while getting paid over a thousand dollars a week did not sit well with audiences where many were still trying to climb out of the Depression. It only served to reinforce the idea that movie actors and actresses were overpaid whiny and spoiled.

Warner Brothers could have easily ramped up the pressure to break her. After all everything was on their side.

But a curious thing began to take hold.

Yet in the end Davis got what she wanted. Better scripts and parts including one that culminated in her second Academy Award for Jezebel. This was a period where Davis morphed into the fifth Warner.

 

The Warners had finally gotten the message that an unhappy Bette Davis was not worth the migraine she was capable of inflicting.

Losing her case might have been the best thing that happened to Bette Davis. It was the beginning of a remarkable phase in her career where she would become one of the most profitable movie stars of the era.

She may have lost the battle but she clearly won the war. Bette Davis in Little Foxes (1941).

Now Voyager released by Warner Brothers in 1942 is one of those well mounted soap operas Hollywood was so good at during that time. When you hear someone say they don’t make them like they used to the person could very well be referring to this movie.

Davis stars as Charlotte Vale a woman headed for the old maid’s home who is brought out of her shell thanks to her sister in-law, a caring doctor and a businessman that she meets and falls in love with on an ocean cruise to South America.

What separated Bette Davis so forcefully from the rest of the pack of Hollywood leading ladies then and now was her courage. She was never afraid to look unglamorous or for a lack of a better word downright ugly.  If that’s what the story required then Davis had no compunction in going that route.

Charlotte Vale is the epitome of the young spinster in the beginning of the film and Davis goes the full homely

bette

Charlotte is severely style-challenged but her lack of fashion is only reflective of deeper issues. She’s been broken in spirit thanks to this woman.

Gladys Cooper was one of the great beauties in her day. But she was more than eye candy. Cooper would emerge as a star of the London stage and like Davis go on to have a lengthy and successful career. When she arrived in Hollywood in 1940 the woman was in total command of her craft.

Cooper’s Mrs. Henry Vale is the quintessential domineering mother. There is no yelling or screaming because true ladies of blue blood persuasion do not engage in such behavior. Yet there is a force tinged with anger below the surface and the bulk of it is directed at Charlotte. That’s not to say rage is the only thing in this woman’s heart.

While her actions and words are quite cruel at times, you get the feeling that in her own warped way she really does love Charlotte. The last thing she wants is her daughter to leave her but Mrs. Henry Vale is too upright to ever come right out and say it. Emotional displays are for the lower classes.

Therefore she works overtime to destroy Charlotte’s sense of self even using her granddaughter to ridicule her. All of this serves one purpose and that is to maintain total control.

Which makes her transformation to an attractive socialite even more stunning. It’s not just the change in wardrobe but the attitude as well.

Her finding love with Jerry Durrance (Paul Henried who was having a pretty good year himself) is icing on the cake all summed up nicely by two cigarettes. If you never thought of tobacco as romantic Now Voyager may challenge that assumption.

No longer is Charlotte the shy retiring type. She is now a woman that has tasted life and wants more of it. The confidence Davis infuses her character with is not one of arrogance but of a real curiosity to find her place in the world. She is taking baby steps to get there and for that reason you cannot help but cheer her on.

But there is a much deeper reason to root for Charlotte. If nothing else audiences hope once and for all she can finally break free from her mother the woman who not only drove her to be an old maid but purposely planned and executed it from the very beginning of Charlotte’s life.

So when Charlotte comes back from the voyage a new person the power struggle is on. Either she will obtain her independence or it will be crushed once and for all.

Oh yeah. It’s on.


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