In commemoration of Armistice Day, Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the World War I blogathon. My entry is mostly about the 1940s version of Waterloo Bridge though I’d like to draw some comparison to the 1931 version.
“I loved you, I've never loved anyone else. I never shall, that's the truth Roy, I never shall.” Myra Lester
Waterloo Bridge is based on the eponymous 1930 play by Robert E. Sherwood, made into a pre-Code movie the following year by James Whale for Universal. In 1940 MGM gave it the gloss treatment with big stars Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor and direction by Mervyn LeRoy. MGM banked on Leigh’s and Taylor’s star power. They banked right. The chemistry between the star-crossed lovers is wonderful though Leigh originally wanted her husband Olivier to play the role. But it all worked out for the best. Taylor and Leigh got on very well on the set and both later cited Waterloo Bridge as their personal favorite. Though Leigh is fantastic in the role, this is not a one-woman show. Leigh and Taylor are aided and abetted by a great supporting cast.
Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg lovingly recreated a wonderfully dewy, shimmering and ethereal London on the MGM backlot.
Many insults could be hurled at Waterloo Bridge. Yes it's a weepy, yes it’s overly sentimental, yes I promise you will need that entire box of Kleenex, but in the hands of talented actors the film manages not to drown in cloying soap suds. It evades the pitfalls of nauseating Hallmark Channel sappiness (with apologies to Hallmark Channel fans). It is an incredibly affecting and haunting movie that reflects on love, loss, unnecessary suffering and bittersweet memories that shape people forever. I’ll be damned if it isn’t mesmerizing even to viewers who usually don’t care for melodrama. Waterloo Bridge doesn’t apologize for its overt romanticism and it is its genuinely-felt sentiment that makes the movie virtually bullet-proof. It entirely succeeds at what it’s setting out to do. Stun the viewer into wondrous awe. It has lost nothing of its power.
The story is told in flashbacks by a grey-haired distinguished looking Taylor who is reminiscing about love found and lost. It is clear from that moment that we don’t have to get our hopes up for a happy ending. The tragic denouement is telegraphed a mile away. Another war romance condemned to failure, over before it ever really began. The mood is melancholy and somber throughout. The film is steeped in doom.
The date is September 3, 1939 and Germany has just declared war. On the eve of his deployment to France, Scotsman Colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) - on his way to Waterloo Station to join the troops - stops at Waterloo Bridge where over 20 years earlier a chance meeting changed his life forever. He met the love of his life - ballerina Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh) - during an air raid. A whirlwind romance follows. It quickly becomes clear that both are meant for each other. Roy has his orders to leave the next day to the front and Myra doesn’t for one minute believe that they will see each other again. Against the explicit order of her tyrannical dance instructor Mme. Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya) - who believes that ballet and love do not mix - Myra meets Roy for dinner. They want to get married but there’s a law prohibiting marriages after 3pm and Roy must catch his troop train. Mme. Kirowa has no compunction about summarily firing Myra for insubordination. "War is no excuse for indecorum.” Her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field) lays into Madame and shares Myra’s fate. Quickly they find themselves broke and hungry. Mistakenly the newspapers list Roy as being killed in action, a soul-crushing blow for Myra. She gets sick and has to pay medical bills. She and Kitty see no other way than turn to prostitution.
Unexpectedly Roy comes back and wants to pick up where they left off. Those terrible years in the trenches were nothing but a bad dream. Now that he’s home he can focus on beauty and happiness. He introduces Myra to his family. For a little while Myra believes that she can wipe the slate clean and that her fairy tale may still come true. Roy’s family welcomes her with open arms but all throughout this dream-come-true Myra feels that she is not good enough and may sully the honor of Roy's family and regiment with their marriage.
Certain implausibilities in the plot don’t bear close inspection. Robert Taylor doesn’t fool anyone as a Scotsman. Thankfully he’s not even trying to put on a dodgy British/Scottish accent. And buying Taylor as an Edwardian aristocrat would require a suspension of disbelief of cosmic proportions. He’s thoroughly all-American middle class.
Continuing down this tiresomely nit-picky path, albeit set during WWI, the costumes and hairstyles of the actresses are clearly contemporary 1940. How can Myra and Roy fall in love to fast? Why the hell does Myra make the stupid decision not to tell her future mother-in-law why she is so upset in the restaurant? One word from her would have changed her fate.
Answer: we wouldn’t have a compelling movie otherwise. Giving a hoot about these little bumps is what we were put in this world to rise above.
Many decisions of the protagonists only make sense in the very special universe melodrama operates in where contrivances and coincidences are not weaknesses but part and parcel of the genre. Complaining about far-fetched circumstances in melodramas is like objecting to the lack of realism in an abstract painting.
Robert Taylor, impossibly handsome and dashing, turns in a very sensitive performance. For most of his career he was seldom accused of being a great actor. I think he got an unfairly bad rap. He was always a pro and here puts his whole heart into his role and treats it with real respect. What Taylor had in spades was screen presence, that certain magic that tops - to me at least - an Oscar-worthy performance every time. Taylor developed into an if not brilliant, then at least very competent actor whose later roles were a far cry from his early pretty boy ones. For someone who’s by many considered not an actor at all he turned in many good performances.
Roy’s attitude towards life is an almost over-confident and optimistic one. He embraces life to the fullest, he loves the excitement of being alive. Roy simply knows he’ll make it through the war alive because now that he has found his love there is no way he can die. The gods must, simply must be on his side. They couldn’t be so cruel and take happiness away from him.
This being a romance, the unsavory aspects of war stay in the background. The audience doesn't see the unspeakable carnage of the Great War, no shell-shocked men broken in mind and body coming home to a world forever changed. The film focuses on the gallantry of the young men - Roy thinks there’s a certain amount of excitement in war - and that it is perfectly fine.
Still, that innocence is lost forever is made blatantly clear through Myra’s fate, a stand-in for innocence lost on a much grander scale. War makes its own rules and nothing would ever be the same after 1918.
Waterloo Bridge was Leigh’s follow-up movie to Gone With the Wind. Myra Lester is a far cry from little Miss Rich Bitch Scarlett O’Hara, the role that had catapulted Leigh to superstardom.
Leigh was a marvelous actress and her performance here is flawless. She glows with an inner radiance that is unearthly and elevates the art of suffering to new heights. She effortlessly goes from young innocent who’s even mistaken for a school girl to brassy tramp plying the oldest profession in the world back to a woman who hopes to be reborn through love.
Myra’s attitude towards life is quite different from Roy’s. Much less confident, delicate and fragile, she’s very young and very innocent. She is quite fatalistic and doesn’t believe that people are necessarily in control of their destiny. Not having been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Myra knows that life doesn't always work out the way you plan and to expect too much will only lead to dashed expectations. A rose-colored belief in a happy ending won’t automatically make it so. War means short-lived happiness, parting, hardship, death. Myra’s fatalism has deep roots. There seems to be an underlying maybe not even consciously-realized belief in Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
In fact Roy remarks on the fact that someone so young should be so defeatist. Myra considers Roy an incurable romantic. It is as if Myra thinks too much happiness is tempting fate, the gods may strike her down for it.
Out of sheer desperation Myra and Kitty turn to prostitution. Of course the 40s version had to bow to the dictates of Joe’s Purity Squad. This being post-Code the matter is only obliquely referenced. The word prostitute is never uttered. It doesn’t need to be unless the viewer is purposely obtuse. The ‘40s version may be more sanitized than the earlier one, but as we all know, any screen writer worth his salt was able to circumvent the pesky confines of the Code and make the subject blatantly clear. The Code really doesn’t work against this version. It in no way hampers the impact of the story. The entire subject matter is handled with subtle allusions while at the same time leaving no doubt as to what’s going on.
The way it is conveyed that Kitty has become a prostitute is well-handled. Coming home in the early hours one morning, Kitty - all tarted up - encounters a beat cop…and hesitates in her tracks. She doesn’t want to be picked up for streetwalking. Then before she enters her own flat she wipes off her too-liberally applied lipstick. With a few quick strokes, the audience understands perfectly.
It is most important to note that nowhere does the movie feel compelled to condemn or look down upon the choices Myra and Kitty have to make. The script takes a remarkably compassionate and lenient view. The audience feels nothing but sympathy. There is a telling bit of dialogue by a defiant Kitty about a world in upheaval and her wish to go on living no matter how. Myra believes Kitty is walking the streets to support her:
“No I didn't! I'd a done it anyhow. C'est La Guerre. No jobs. No boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours, 'cause they know it may be their last…We're young and it's good to live. Even the life I'm leading! Though, God knows - I've heard them call it the easiest way. I wonder where they thought up that little phrase? I know one thing. It couldn't have been a woman.”
Not only does she justify prostitution as a means of support, she also emphatically denies that this is an easy way to make a living.
Special mention has to go to Virginia Field as Kitty - the BFF we all want to have. She should have at least got an Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actress for it. Kitty’s character is a bit anachronistic, she seems to be in the wrong movie. She’s not so much a girl from the 1910s, instead she oozes 40s street-wise dame attitude. Before being a ballerina she used to be a chorus girl - at that time considered barely a step up from a prostitute - and has more grit and worldliness than Myra. Loyal and without self-pity in the beginning she takes it upon herself to take care of her more innocent friend and earn money for both of them. Being a prostitute hasn’t cost her her humanity.
It is rigid Madame Kirowa - a portrait of rectitude etched in acid - with her hard-and-fast rules towards romance who comes off as thoroughly unappealing and judgmental. She calls Myra a “camp follower” who should be in another profession than dancing for nothing more scandalous than one evening out to dinner with an officer.
I’ve seen many reviews who blame “society” (eternally ill-defined terminology of course) and the English class system for Myra’s suicide. One review even called the movie a tragic story of class struggle. I’ll spare you that interpretation. This is not a film about class warfare. This is what happens when people let preconceived notions and ideology write their reviews. Apart from Mme. Kirowa LeRoy portrays every character with sympathy and understanding. Everybody proves to be far more tolerant and open-minded than we might expect, almost too much so. Our expectations about the behavior of the supposedly of so stuffy and class-conscious British society are completely disappointed. If we expect stereotypes, we don’t get them.
Running true to aristocratic form, both Roy’s mother and his uncle the Duke should at least look down on Myra, for being a dancer and for being of a much lower social class. The Duke however doesn’t believe in "correct marriages”, for him marrying outside his class might bring fresh blood into the family. He also dismisses many of his peers as people with "limited social ideas.”
Roy’s mother (Lucile Watson) is willing to receive Myra with open arms, even after their initial failed meeting. When Myra finally gathers enough courage to tell her what she had to do to survive the war Lady Margaret professes sympathy with her. She doesn’t want Myra to rush off and leave Roy without even giving him a chance to understand.
Roy doesn't judge either, his love is blind. He only wants Myra to reverse her decision. He can acknowledge that civilians had to do things to survive that they would never have thought about in peacetime. War damaged those left behind too.
Myra simply can’t tell Roy what she has become. She cannot come to terms with her situation and feels beyond redemption. So she sees only one way out. She steps in front of an oncoming army truck. Myra is no Scarlett who’d simply tough it out. She’d rather perish.
It is Myra’s own defeatist attitude - her belief in her own inadequacy - that is her downfall in the end. Not society, not class conceit and not her fiancé’s family. The great tragedy is that Myra had been forgiven, her sacrifice was unnecessary. In a way Myra’s fate is a self-fulfilling prophecy because somehow deep down she never really believed in that happy ending.
Waterloo Bridge is a film full of memorable scenes. Kitty and Roy searching for Myra in every dirty dive in London. Myra crossing Waterloo Bridge contemplating how to earn money and knowing full well she cannot rely on the kindness of strangers. Suddenly she hears the voice of a man behind her propositioning her - unseen to the audience. She accepts.
Myra going to Waterloo Station one evening on the prowl for nightly customers, in a cheap satin dress, with a stone-hard face and a coquettish smile for the men descending from the troop train…when unexpectedly Roy comes back from the dead. Every emotion is in Leigh’s face. Shock, happiness, disbelief, desperation, shame. LeRoy was a veteran of Silent films and this is how he has Leigh play it. Back to the basics. Norma Desmond was right. They didn’t need dialogue. They had faces.
Of course one of the best scenes ever to make it on film - any film - is the dinner at the Candlelight Club. The orchestra plays Auld Lang Syne, the Farewell Waltz, in memory of absent friends and lovers. The melody weaves itself through the entire film. It is to this song that Myra and Roy share their first dance and kiss while each musician in the orchestra plays his piece and then extinguishes the candles beside him in a poignant symbol of farewell until there is nothing but darkness left. 'Til they meet again.
Much is made of the comparison with the 1931 version. For many the ’31 version is superior, for me the later version wins hands down though I’m a pre-Code fan. The MGM version has all the gloss, lavish production values, polish, perfect set designs and incredible cinematography we’ve come to expect from the studio. And for once polish beats gritty realism.
The ’31 film isn’t helped by a fairly unsophisticated performance by Kent Douglas as Roy who was not the most charismatic actor on the Universal roster though he is serviceable. Mae Clarke is very good as Myra but not in the same league as Leigh either looks or acting-wise. Occasionally both actors slide into the overly declamatory acting style of the early talkie era.
From the opening radio announcement to a stunned and silent crowd that war has been declared, to an aged Robert Taylor standing on Waterloo Bridge fingering the good-luck charm Myra once gave him, the 1940 version has an emotional wallop that can’t be beat. The bookending of the story with yet another war to end all wars can’t have failed to strike a chord with contemporary audiences.
Where the pre-Code version should score is with a hard edge. After all I’d heard about it I expected the early version to be unapologetically frank. For a pre-Code film I found it unusually subdued and restrained. Here too the world prostitute is never uttered. Salaciousness is suspiciously absent except for one scene in the beginning showing the scantily-clad dancers's dressing room antics. There are no happy sinners in this pre-Code, just a bitter former chorus girl trying to get by.
Astonishingly the pre-Code version puts a lot more emphasis on class-consciousness than the 40s version. Roy’s mother can see what her son evidently cannot, that there is a huge chasm between Myra and the Cronins. She makes it absolutely clear that there can and should be no future for Myra and her son. Mother can acknowledge Myra’s intrinsic goodness but that doesn’t mean she could ever overlook the stigma of Myra’s profession. Glenn Ericsson wrote a review for the TCM site where he strangely states about Myra’s predicament:
“Sherwood's play and the 1931 version examine this injustice [Myra being considered a fallen woman] and make a plea for understanding; MGM's version simply accepts it as The Way Things Must Be. Roy's Mother (Lucile Watson) clearly has great affection for her future daughter-in-law yet offers no encouraging words when Myra reveals the truth -- a piece of clever screenwriting, considering that nobody ever states anything directly. Myra is damaged goods, so "case closed” …MGM’s Waterloo Bridge reinforces a harsh status quo: "He must never know!”
In fact it is the other way around. In the pre-Code Mrs. Cronin - gentle, smiling but nevertheless cruel - leaves no doubt that Myra can under no circumstances marry her son.
It’s hard to decide which ending is the more pitiful. In the pre-Code Myra’s situation with Roy has been happily dissolved when a bomb goes off next to her and kills her. The ending is almost Noirish. Just when we think all’s well that ends well, fate steps in. The utter randomness and arbitrariness of death.
I don’t want to belabor the point, but the 1940s version is fantastic. It is one of Hollywood’s greatest tragic love stories, full of self-inflicted suffering and what ifs that will forever remain unanswered. Maybe to be of lasting endurance a love story has to be tragic, at least on film. A “what could have been” is often more powerful than the realization of it.
Waterloo Bridge is a film for the history books, well, at least my history book.