Director: James Whale
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Writer: Tom Reed
Cast: Mae Clarke, Douglass Montgomery, Doris Lloyd, Frederick Kerr, Enid Bennett
Studio: Universal Pictures
Why I DVRed This: True confession: I started watching this live when it was on and then DVRed it. Then, I never actually watched it on DVR. Instead, I watched it live and deleted the DVR. I have made this website a house of lies, and I apologize for anyone who is personally offended by my actions.
Presentation on TCM: …But to be fair, I got very excited to be at home at the exact time a movie started and that had a TCM host introducing it. I was getting ready to pack for a trip to Wisconsin to go to a friend’s wedding, and the film was the perfect length of time (less than an hour and a half) for me to procrastinate but not procrastinate so much that I either A) had to stop watching the movie or B) would be unable to pack.
Anyway, Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. That night’s programming highlighted the work of Mae Clarke, an actress I have to admit I had never heard of before. He said she was most famous for her role in Frankenstein, which was also directed by James Whale. In fact, as Mankiewicz recounted, Universal was so impressed with Whale’s work on Waterloo Bridge (because he had come in severely under budget) that the studio let him choose any project he wanted next. He chose Frankenstein and brought Clarke with him. (Prior to Waterloo, she had been famous for getting a grapefruit smashed into her forehead by James Cagney in The Public Enemy.) Obviously Frankenstein was a huge hit, and the rest is history. But it was all news to me. The things you learn on TCM sometimes!
Synopsis: In World War I London, an American chorus girl, Myra Deauville (Clarke), supports herself through prostitution on Waterloo Bridge. During an air raid, she meets fellow American, Roy Cronin (Montgomery), and they fall in love. But her self-hatred prevents their relationship from blossoming, despite his devotion.
Analysis (contains spoilers): So this movie is a weird one. It’s “precode,” meaning it could get away with a lot that a code era movie could not. For example, the protagonist is a self-loathing prostitute. That is not something you tend to see in movies enforced by the Hays Code. Those movies instead tended to be saccharine and show nothing controversial. “White slavery” and prostitution were outright banned as subjects. Thus, Waterloo Bridge as a whole could not exist.
Because of that, in fact, the film would be remade twice. First, it was remade in 1940, with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in the leads. Then, in 1956, it was remade as Gaby with Leslie Caron and John Kerr. In the Vivien Leigh remake, there is no prostitution; in Gaby, the main character only turns to prostitution after her doughboy lover is rumored to be dead at D-Day (Gaby also takes place in World War II, not World War I). But in the original film (based on a less-than-successful play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood), Myra simply chooses to prostitute herself so she can pay her rent and even returns to prostitution voluntarily after meeting Roy (who is apparently an idiot who cannot figure out what she does for a living despite obvious hints—it would be a different movie if he understood what she did and was accepting of it, but that type of movie absolutely could not be made in 1931).
This plot actually still seems kind of shocking to me, especially the ending—after reuniting with Roy and presumably giving up her career, Myra should have a happy ending. But walking across the very location she prostituted herself, Myra is struck by a bomb (remember, the war is going on!) and killed. It’s an abrupt and strange ending that reminds me of the advice on endings offered in National Lampoon’s “How to Write Good” article (for a story set in England, try this ending— “Suddenly, everyone was run over by a lorry. –The End—”), but to be fair, the ending is alright diegetically. The film makes clear that there are air raids during the war (that’s how Myra and Roy meet actually) early on, and so there’s a Chekhov’s gun element to the ending. More though, there seems to be a moralistic tone to the ending. Myra cannot have a happy ending after the choices she’s made (not just the prostitution but her dishonesty and maltreatment of Roy, who she runs off on), so she must die for her sins. This ending is actually very much in line with the Hay’s Code, which necessitated that criminals be punished by film’s end.
Incidentally, Waterloo Bridge was made while the Hay’s Code was in effect; it just was made before the Hay’s Office was being run by Joseph I. Breen, who more actively enforced the code. That’s what historians mean by “precode” in this case (though it’s obviously a misnomer). (For a decent history of the Code, see this New York Times book review or this NPR article.) Because Universal did not want to offend people (though the film would still be protested and banned in certain cities), the film is not, as such, as immoral as it seems. There is no sex, for instance, nor any overt hints at sex (and yes, I recognize the oxymoron of overt hints); indeed, the scene in which Myra is shown to solicit a gentleman only implies that he is getting a carriage for the two of them to go out together. Of course, the audience knows what’s going on, but, it could be argued, that the audience’s assumption of sex is its own problem, not that of the filmmakers. Still, the writing makes it clear what she is doing is “wrong,” because she’s ashamed of it, and it makes it clear that she and people like her cannot ever be happy. What the film seems to imply, however, is that it is a sad world we live in because Myra deserves to be happy, even while society precludes that possibility. That is, in a different movie, Myra would find success as a singer and find and keep true love. Instead, the war, poverty, the harsh reality of show business, and the general miasma of the period force her onto a path she cannot exit with happiness. So, like so many other pieces of art from the 1920s and 1930s, World War I is shown to be a breaking point for humanity, and now people like Myra are denied happy endings because of the horrors of mechanized war, human progress, etc. But that’s probably giving the film too much credit. It’s not really art, just a movie that’s kind of ok and has some decent acting (from Mae Clarke) and some really not decent acting (from Douglass Montgomery).
As such, this movie is interesting to watch more as a relic of a different filmmaking era. The acting (overall) is fine, the script is fine, the directing is fine. In general, the film is fine, if a little stagebound. It feels a little rushed and would not generally be placed in the canon of classic films. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching it. It feels like the kind of movie that today would be remade as a prestige picture released around December—the kind of movie you might see once and say was pretty good but that doesn’t leave any kind of lasting impression on you (it would probably star Benedict Cumberbatch and Kate Winslet and receive a few Oscar nominations but not any wins). Waterloo Bridge is from an era in Hollywood when there was no such thing as an auteur (I mean, of course there was—there was Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin—but the idea did not yet exist) and so directors were just assigned projects until they got power to pick their own pre-approved projects. The reward for making a fine movie that made a profit was that you could then make a bigger budget picture like Frankenstein. It seems like a nice world to have been in, I guess.
Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: So this was an example of a movie that I definitely would not have DVRed simply because I had no idea it existed. I had never heard of it nor of anyone in it (excepting Bette Davis, but she’s barely in it, so that hardly counts) nor of anyone associated with it. However, I’m very glad I watched it. I can’t say I’d necessarily watch it again, but I enjoyed it enough. Plus, I was able to make fun of the melodramatic ending for a few days (even though no one understood the reference).