DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Waterloo Bridge

Sunday 6 September 2009

Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge (1940) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, Virginia Field, Lucile Watson


Waterloo Bridge is Hollywood melodrama of the highest order- a heartbreaking tale of tragedy and romance under the backdrop of war. What starts off with a predictable wartime romance evolves with great subtlety and deftness revealing a psychological character study and a story of class struggle told with maximum cynicism.

On the heals of WWII British officer Roy Cronyn (Robert Taylor) takes time out on London’s famous Waterloo Bridge to reminisce about the significance of war, the bridge and the small good luck charm he holds in his hand. Flashing back to WWI, we watch Roy, as a distinguished upper class gentleman, about to go to war. While on the same bridge an air raid sounds sending Roy and a number of civilians into the Underground for cover. There he meets a young and beautiful ballerina, Myra (Vivien Leigh). Sparks fly and after a brief romance they decide to get engaged before Roy ships off to the front.

Her commitment to Roy, unfortunately, comes at the cost of her job with the dancing company. The dictatorial creative director fires her for choosing love over her career. Like all great melodrama, the ramifications of this singular choice - to find Roy before he ships off or stay with the company to do the show - feeds the tumultuous journey of Myra from here on in. While Roy is at war Myra struggles financially eventually resorting to a truly desperate deed to make ends meet. But when Roy returns home, seemingly after she thought he was dead, she's suddenly thrust back into the life of wealth, class, privilege and respect - a world her poisoned conscience just can’t reconcile.

The title works on a number of levels - of course Waterloo is one of Britain’s great military victories and thus reflective of the presence of war in the lives of the characters. Second the bridge becomes the location for many of the key beats in the film - first, the inspiration for Roy’s flashback at the beginning; second, the place where Roy and Myra meet; third, the place where Myra makes the choice to accept her first male 'proposition'; and lastly the location of her eventual demise, which is rendered visually by director LeRoy with a sumptuous fog engulfed atmosphere.

Deeper than the title is a subversive and scathing condemnation of war and class. In my review of Charles Vidor's noir-melodrama 'Gilda' I discussed the effect of the Motion Picture Production Code on Hollywood cinema - both good and bad. In ‘Waterloo Bridge’ the film succeeds solely on the constraints of the code and it's effects of filtering out the salacious material.

Myra’s war time digression as a lady of the night is never mentioned overtly. In fact, her digression, though so vital to the story is danced around so coyly, and handled with kid gloves its very easy to miss. LeRoy builds up the moment magnificently. During the war Myra and her friend Kitty struggle and scrape to live unemployed. Myra is so embarrassed she's too afraid to even ask for Roy’s help. And so while contemplating life and death on Waterloo Bridge, a male passerby asks her how she’s doing. What’s wrong with that? Just an ordinary guy being friendly right? LeRoy’s staging of the scene suggests much much more. He purposely frames out the gentleman, and directs Vivien Leigh for a contemplative reaction which suggests complete and utter fear. And when it suddenly starts to pour rain after they leave we know there‘s much more going on than just an innocent meeting. As she leaves with the man LeRoy transitions into a series of seasonal images compressing time. And so, in a matter of a few short moments LeRoy has implied a lengthy period of suggestive and demeaning behaviour.

From then on the word ‘prostitution’ is never mentioned, obviously under regulation of the Production Code - perhaps under the article which says, “Illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option“. Even if LeRoy could have gotten away with the word, he probably would have played scenes as they are. Without the word, it amplifies the shame Myra feels for her action and the dishonour she feels she’s committed against Roy’s family. Thus emerges a tragic story of British class struggle and the perceived expectations of men, women and their status in society.

"Waterloo Bridge" is actually a remake of a James Whale-directed 1931 film - a time before Production Code. So I'm curious how these nuances play out unconstrained. This 1940 version works on one more level which the 1931 likely may not have had. For 1940, it was a time of war, and a time when pictures were made to help morale and the Allied cause. And so the tragic fate of Myra runs counter to any sort of prevailing big picture agenda resulting in a kind-of 'anti-propaganda' picture, an unpredictable and inspired slice of pulp fiction.

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