Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review – Waterloo Bridge (1940)

April 9, 2010

Waterloo Bridge – U.S., 1940

In the opening scene of Mervyn LeRoy’s moving and well-acted 1940 film Waterloo Bridge, a British general named Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) takes a walk across the Waterloo Bridge, from where, according to Wikipedia, the views are “the finest from any spot at ground level.” His mind, however, is on not Westminster or the South Bank, but a young woman he once knew named Myra (Vivian Leigh). In his mind, he hears the soft, sweet words they spoke that day, words that promised eternal love and everlasting memory. And then, like so many movies before this one and so many since, viewers are transported back in time to that fateful day when the two of the met by chance during an air raid on the Waterloo Bridge. It’s unfortunate that the film begins this way, for one of the film’s most dramatic moments involves Myra believing that Roy has died, a belief that the audience already knows is erroneous.

In flashbacks, we revisit the day Roy and Myra met. He was standing on the bridge, taking in the view, and she was running to find shelter due to the ominous warning of an impending air raid. A simple case of butterfingers later, and he is helping her pick up her things and escorting her to the nearest air raid shelter. Once there, the two of them exchange introductions – he is an officer, and she is a dancer, an occupation that to many of the characters in the film represents an unacceptable level of vulgarity and indecency, despite the fact that she is a part of a touring ballet. We witness Roy and Myra flirt rather harmlessly. He talks about the legs of a dancer, and she shows him hers, just to prove to him that she indeed has no leg muscles. She learns enough about him to recognize his romantic nature; he learns enough about her to comment on her unusual degree of pragmatism. He asks if she minds if he smokes, and she says she doesn’t (What woman in a film from the 1940s or 1950s ever does?). And then the air raid ends. Just as they are beginning their proper good-byes, a cab pulls up and she gets in it. Before it speeds away, Myra gives Roy her good luck charm, for as she explains, he’ll need it more than she will. She laments meeting him for a moment, for doing him has brought the war home for her. Now she knows someone fighting on the front lines and therefore has someone to worry about when she hears about recent battles or casualties. In other words, she cares about him. And then the cab speeds off, perhaps ending their budding romance before it ever really begins.

It doesn’t end right then, of course, and later, as Myra is trying to focus of her pirouettes, she is taken aback by Roy’s late arrival to her performance. In addition, he displays a rather flattering inability to either stop smiling at her or cast his gaze at any of the other beautiful woman dancing on stage. Soon, the two of them are sneaking off to the Candlelight Club, remarking about how far along they are in their relationship, and sharing their first passionate kiss as a big band performs a memorable rendition of "Auld Lang Syne." As the evening winds down, they wonder aloud if their paths will ever cross again. The answer is still an unfortunately realistic no. They say their good byes, and the evening ends. And so does their courtship, right? Absolutely not, for as luck would have it, Roy is granted an additional forty-eight hours of shore leave. This time, though, he doesn’t want to leave anything to chance. Fate has brought them together again, and he is determined that it shall never separate them again. Therefore, the only sensible thing for them to do – at least in his mind – is to get married.

If all of this seems rushed, it’s helpful to remember that the film takes place during a time of war, and war sometimes creates a sense of urgency and intimacy that would probably not exist during peace time. In fact, it’s entirely likely that these two characters would have never met under normal circumstances. In light of this, their quick courtship actually makes sense. To them, there are only two possibilities: If Roy does indeed come back, they can be together. If he doesn’t, they have at the very least lived their lives without regret. Unfortunately, neither of them anticipates the events that indeed do unfold.

Waterloo Bridge works well because of the strength of the two lead characters. We admire Roy’s romantic nature and intense commitment to Myra, and we respect Myra for her steadfast refusal to give up on life. That refusal eventually leads her to make some tough decisions, but sometimes survival offers you no other alternative. However, because Roy is still alive, Myra’s actions, as well as the personal sacrifices they entail, can be viewed as unnecessary, as mistakes made by a woman without possession of all the facts. Such an interpretation would likely make us look at her decisions with a sense of regret, as if she could have made a different choice. To me, such an interpretation is unfair, for Myra’s actions demonstrate her persistent determination to get through terrible times. They provide evidence of her inner strength. It is not important whether the decisions she makes are morally correct or not; she does what she must do to survive. I wonder if that would have been clearer had the director omitted the opening scene on the bridge.

Waterloo Bridge is a remake of a James Whale film from 1931. In that version of Waterloo Bridge, Roy Cronin is a rather naïve individual, and Myra is likely the first person for whom he has ever had such strong romantic feelings. In a way, he is like John Wayne’s character in Stagecoach – so inexperienced that he doesn’t pick up on all of the clues pertaining to the profession of the girl he loves. In the updated version, Cronin’s youthful inexperience is gone. Cronin is a man who knows the world and most likely has known love before. His proposal of marriage therefore comes across as somewhat sensible. It helps that Leigh’s Myra is able to be receptive to it, for in the beginning, everything about her is pure. In Whale’s version, Mea Clark’s Myra never really gets the chance to seriously entertain Cronin’s marriage proposal, and she spends the entire movie trying to find a way out of a situation that she really wants to find herself in. Both versions are well done, yet Whale’s version, made before the Hayes Code was enforced, is slightly more challenging for viewers.

What is consistent in both versions is the idea that having premarital sex, regardless of the circumstances, can be emotionally devastating for some women, causing them to view themselves as being unworthy of such noble institutions as marriage and family. In addition, the film portrays this notion as persisting in women despite the reactions of the men that love them. The film seems to be suggesting that a good woman’s conscience will simply not let her live what she considers to be a lie. Did this notion ever exist as strongly as it does in Waterloo Bridge? Perhaps it did. Could Hollywood films have portrayed it any differently? Probably not. Waterloo Bridge is therefore a romantic tragedy, a film about a love that should have been one for the ages but which time was unfortunately not ready to accept. It remains a powerful film. (on DVD)

4 stars

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