I felt incredibly stupid popping in the first volume of Forbidden Hollywood and realizing its version of Waterloo Bridge was not what I anticipated. I thought the only version of this depressing tale of prostitution and doomed love was the 1940s feature starring Vivien Leigh. Actually, that’s a remake of this James Whale romantic drama that ended up setting the bar pretty high for Ms. Viv. Unlike most pre-Codes where the reasons for its future bans are evident – partial nudity or women undressing, lascivious ladies of the night scheming for an easy payday, etc. – Waterloo Bridge doesn’t mention or revel in its taboo subject matter so much as presenting it as a mundane way of life for the character involved. This gritty drama eschews clear-cut villains and heroes for the moral ambiguity of a tortured past and an even murkier future.
Myra Deavuille (Clarke) is a prostitute struggling to make ends meet. During a pick-up attempt at Waterloo Bridge, Myra gets caught in an air raid and meets soldier Roy Cronin (Douglass Montgomery). Roy and Myra start a relationship, but she fears Roy will reject her once he finds out what she does for a living.
James Whale’s directorial output tended to look at the harsh duality of life; the things we hide from the ones we love in order to maintain their acceptance. A fear of rejection always permeates Whale’s features, maybe because of his own struggles with acceptance due to his homosexuality. Myra’s shame stems from the fact that her profession carries with it a stigma. It doesn’t matter that it’s her only means of supporting herself or that the several friends she has all use the profession to survive as well. What matters is how cruel people can be, discontent to hear the logic of someone’s life choices. Even when Myra starts falling for Roy, against her better judgement, she never outright fears his lack of acceptance, but his family’s judgement coloring Roy’s feelings for her.
Waterloo Bridge isn’t about smearing a woman, or smearing anybody for that matter. None of the characters are caricatures with an obvious agenda towards splitting Myra and Roy. When Roy takes Myra to visit his family, including a young Bette Davis, Myra and the audience expect it to be the moment where their love is doomed by scheming family members who see Myra as low. Instead, our expectations are subverted by the wacky Major Fred Wetherby (Frederick Kerr as the adorable grump) and Davis playing Roy’s sister (?) who becomes Myra’s instant best friend. The only one with reservations is Roy’s mother, Mary (Enid Bennett). And even then, her reservations are just that;she never outright schemes against the couple or blackmails Myra into leaving like other melodramas would. In fact, she finds Myra to be a “fine girl,” a phrase that shocks Myra herself. Myra doesn’t believe herself fine or respectable, so should this classy lady? Both women know the relationship is doomed, but aren’t prepared to rip each other to shreds to hasten the inevitable. The synopsis for this mentions class warfare, and based on how the Cronin’s take to Myra, I didn’t see that at all. It would have been ridiculously predictable for the typical class expectations to happen, but they never do which adds a layer of authenticity to the proceedings. You want Myra and Roy to succeed even more because the impediments you’d expect to pull them apart – family, class – don’t.
This additional legitimacy also prevents Waterloo Bridge from ramping up the salaciousness typical of pre-Codes. Myra is a prostitute, yet no one mentions that word by name. In fact, it’s not until the halfway point that we see Myra actually pick up a man, so you spend almost an hour before coming to that realization. Okay, it’s not that subtle, but the script plays it as something that doesn’t need to be declared despite the term conjuring up images of wanton promiscuity. Because the movie isn’t a message film about the dangers of prostitution, the subtle moments of the trade do more to shock than anything overt like Myra picking up a john. When Myra takes Roy back to her apartment, you gasp at the knowledge that, a few years later, the movie would be cited for something so trivial as a single woman taking a man back to her apartment. And the forbidden quality of Myra and Roy’s pairing is further diminished by the origin of their meeting: helping an old woman gather up her potatoes during an air raid. Nothing scandalous comes from doing a good deed, and this ends up orienting these two as drawn together, and to their respective life paths, by circumstance.
In the same year she got a grapefruit in the kisser in The Public Enemy, Mae Clarke takes center stage as Myra. If Cagney threw a grapefruit at her here, her Myra would rear up and toss it right back at him! Clarke’s earthy beauty and sensuality anchors her in a place removed from the Joan Crawford’s or Bette Davis’ of the world. She’s attainable, normal; a respectable girl in a disrespectful trade. Douglass Montgomery can’t get over on Clarke’s charm, but his baby-face and can-do spirit make him the perfect guy Myra could only dream of meeting. And it helps that Roy’s family are equally darling; Kerr, Davis, and Bennett are all memorable in their roles as Roy’s family members.
The only slight the film gets is the ending. I watched this back-to-back with Red-Headed Woman, a movie lacking the pathos of this film, in my opinion. For all Harlow’s horrible scheming, she wins at the end and is happy in her life. Not so for poor Myra. The movie isn’t content having Myra give up Roy, although a great portion of the movie is spent with Myra grappling with that very decision. Instead, she sends Roy off to war with the hope that they’ll get married….only to be smushed by a zeppelin 30 seconds later. Apparently all of WWII happened right on that small stretch of sidewalk! I get it, Roy was never going to give up so the only way to put the kibosh on their love was to eliminate the problem…Myra. But why can Jean Harlow succeed in Red-Headed Woman and NOT Myra? Yes, I know this was based on Robert E. Sherwood’s play, but I just don’t understand.
The ending aside, Waterloo Bridge stirs the heart with Mae Clarke’s down-to-Earth performance and a host of characters are relatable as she is. Despite the saucy profession of our leading lady, the movie doesn’t glorify or condemn outright, but just makes this as the challenge of the heroine’s life…nothing more. The 1940 version has a lot to live up to.
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