Now, Voyager (1942) is a feature-length rumination on the "Ugly Duckling" trope that became a mainstay of romantic comedies in compressed form (plain girl takes off her glasses and, maybe after a makeover montage, becomes a heartbreaker). Bette Davis elevates it into high melodrama with no little help from director Irving Rapper and an able supporting cast.
Davis stars as Charlotte Vale, a goony shut-in with eyebrows that appear to wrap around her head three times, the eccentric spinster of her moneyed family. All Ugly Bette needs, it turns out, is for a pushy doctor (Claude Rains) to wrest her life out of the controlling grip of her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper). After a few weeks of deprogramming and refinement, Charlotte is set on a cruise of South America, where she becomes the toast of high society. But, more importantly, she develops a tender connection with an unhappily married man (Paul Henreid).
It's easy to give Davis all of the credit for Now, Voyager's success; she's in full movie star powerhouse mode here and there's no one else like her. Even though the Lon Chaney-esque attempt to turn her into a nobody is externally comical, she is so committed internally that when Charlotte eventually transglamifies, it's emotionally rewarding. Both of her leading men, Rains and Henreid, do a nice job settling into her background like premium-grade studio players. Cooper, for her limited part, is an all-time bad mom — earning Charlotte's withering line, "...Tyranny is sometimes expression of the maternal instinct. If that's a mother's love, I want no part of it." — and the late appearance of young Janis Wilson gives the final act of the movie a real jolt of goofy but touchingly sincere energy.
Director Rapper is maybe the unsung hero of Now, Voyager. I was unaware of Rapper's work before watching Now, Voyager, and he doesn't at all give off the impression of a studio journeyman but rather as a subtle artist with a unique touch for quietly interesting visual presentations. Without ever being flashy or too indulgent, Rapper manages the overall tone well so that the melodrama never overwhelms the authentic emotions. There is some jarring low comedy involving a Brazilian cab driver who acts like he flunked out of Italian clown school, and maybe just too much of that feeling that the first part of this story is overfamiliar, but the final act is original. Max Steiner's music won him his second of three Oscars.