Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Waterloo Bridge (1931)

by on July 26, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed July 27 at 2:50, 6:15, 9:40 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

*Double Feature w/ DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE


We’re in the thick of “Essential Pre-Code” at Film Forum, which Brynn White overviewed in her feature for Alt Screen. A must-see this week is James Whale’s gentle, affecting weepie wrongly overshadowed by the glossy 1940 version with Vivien Leigh as a “ballet dancer.”


Ben Sachs for MUBI:

James Whale was a director regularly capable of disarming his audience with his psychological perception: even in his noted horror movies, characters reveal longings and neuroses whose authenticity shatters the conventions of the genre. When Whale got to direct human dramas (like One More River [1934] or this), he treated the form as a canvas on which he could paint a broad range of emotions. Case in point, the plot of Waterloo Bridge is unexceptional melodrama—an impoverished dancer-turned-prostitute tries to conceal her identity from the soldier she’s fallen in love with—but Whale imagines it as though it had never been told before. When the heroine begins selling herself on the street near the beginning of the film, the turn is sharp, decisive: everyday pathos is treated matter-of-factly to intensify her emotional struggle later on; and when the film reaches its tragic conclusion, it has the taste of genuine loss.



Mick La Salle for the San Francisco Chronicle:

There are two film versions of the Robert Sherwood play, Waterloo Bridge, one made during censorship in 1940 and the other made before censorship in 1931. If you want to see what the Code did to movies, watch both. If you just want to see a good picture, watch the 1931 version.


The 1940 version is some nonsense about a ballerina (Vivien Leigh) who throws herself off a bridge. The 1931 version is about an American showgirl who gets stranded in London at the start of World War I and becomes a prostitute. Either that or starve. It’s one of the earlier pre-Codes that presents a prostitute, not only sympathetically, but as romantically viable and someone a guy should want to marry.


The picture stars Mae Clarke, best known for getting a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in a movie called The Public Enemy. Perhaps she’s best known for that because Waterloo Bridge, her best performance and her greatest showcase, was held up in a limbo of confused rightsfor about 65 years.


Fernando F. Croce:

In the glacéed MGM remake, Vivien Leigh goes into prostitution carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders; in the Warners version, Mae Clarke hits the street cuz “jobs are hard to find and rents are high, that’s all,” a shrug appreciated by James Whale. A coruscating role for the actress, though Whale has to first find her amid the Mamoulian-like bustle, the camera cranes down from a theater balcony and shuffles through a musical production’s boffo finale until Clarke is located with the chorines. The fancy coat she receives in the dressing room one moment becomes part of her tart getup the next as she plies her trade under bombarding dirigibles — one such air raid introduces her on the eponymous bridge to Douglass Montgomery, a fellow Yank in London and a callow soldier away from the trenches. They go to her flat, he’s delighted at how she can light a match off her heel but can’t imagine her line of work, Ethel Griffies enters as her landlady, “a proper whited sepulcher”; by early morning the two are talking about having reached the “sock-knitting stage,” Montgomery promises to return and Clarke puts on her streetwalker uniform, silently yet with a sudden sadness. The soldier brings flowers to her empty apartment, Clarke’s pal (Doris Lloyd) spots him from across the roof and moseys over in a shot surely noted by Renoir — all the poor heroine needs is a gallant hero, Lloyd assures him, and, before Clarke can tell the neighbor to mind her own business, she’s been invited to meet Montgomery’s aristocratic family, Whale ends the scene with bloomers hung to dry in front of the lens. A tragic path, capped with an overhead tracking shot which perversely visualizes an early throwaway quip, but Clarke is to Whale not so much a lachrymose sufferer as the first of his several transgressive outcasts, whose tattered mink scarf is as treasured by the filmmaker as Karloff’s insinuating scars.



William K. Everson in Love in the Film:

The original Waterloo Bridge is perhaps less efficient at the business at tearjerking since it is not as concerned with it being a great love story. Myra, as played by Mae Clarke, is hard-bitten from the beginning, constantly trying to head off the romance which she knows can only end in disaster. Emotional scenes develop, but with no big love scenes. Douglas Montgomery has an extremely difficult role to handle, since most of it consists of silent reactions, and he has to convey the sense of hurt rebuff and overwhelming love via, in many cases, nonviolent facial expressions. Mae Clarke’s performance is quite outstanding, and makes one wish all the more that she had become a major star and given better roles by Hollywood.


There is one particularly touching scene where Myra has returned to her streetwalking profession, picked up by a rather agreeable office and then, suddenly conscience-stricken, turns on him and sends him away. Moments later she laments, not only because she needs the money, but more because she genuinely regrets her rudeness to a man who seemed a decent sort. But it is too late” his taxi carries him away, while her cry – “I’m sorry mister, I didn’t mean it!” – echoes in the street. Many of her big emotional scenes have the camera tracking in to a full closeup, to duplicate the effect of an actress spotlighted on stage, and she carries these difficult moments off with extreme skill. Underplaying is clearly not called for at such moments, but, probably under Whale’s direction, she manages to hide most of her face with her arms, so that the scenes are not overwrought and the audience still has a chance to bring its imagination to bear. Mae Clarke’s remarkable performance has a great deal to do with the film’s surviving emotional validity.


Pictorially the film is extremely handsome, with a good deal of camera mobility and some extremely effective overhead shots. As was Whale’s style – still only formulating, and to be developed and refined over the next few films – the details are realistic, yet the composition and the art direction somehow suggest the artifice of the stage. Whale’s use of offstage sound is likewise theatrical, and for 1931 quite experimental. One at least one occasion Whale’s use of sound effects if sardonic as well as functional: the moo of a cow is heard just as the soldier settles down in his car seat, his wide eyes and happy countenance an exact parallel to cowlike contentment!



Bryant Frazer for Deep-Focus:

The pre-Code Waterloo Bridge doesn’t boast early Barbara Stanwyck, but it’s a lot more fun than Baby Face. And auteurists may suspect the reason why — the man behind the camera was no less a heavyweight than James Whale. Granted, when he made Waterloo Bridge he was not yet the James Whale — but it’s said that when he finished this one his studio bosses at Universal were so impressed they gave him the run of the studio to select his next film, and of course he opted to make Frankenstein, casting his Waterloo star Mae Clarke as Elizabeth and working again with ace D.P. Arthur Edeson, who would go on to shoot They Drive By Night, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca.


This could be torturous, didactic stuff, but Whale’s touch is light. An early scene set backstage at Myra’s theater is played for pure bubbly sex appeal — a troupe of singers and dancers making lots of noise in their underwear — and it contrasts with the chilly joylessness of her later life in the city, where sex appeal is a commodity. Clarke plays Myra as a sensible woman, but worried, inwardly tortured, and prone to outbursts. Montgomery’s Roy is a big earnest lug, all strong silence and masculine lumpiness. Whale stages the dialogue with considerable finesse for an early sound filmmaker (I was amused to see the original New York Times review — written by one Mordaunt Hall, which sounds like a pseudonym for Joel Coen — devoting most of a paragraph to cataloging exciting elements on the soundtrack), and the photography is generally lovely and evocative — including impressive optical/miniature shots looking across Waterloo Bridge, over the water, and into the city at night, floodlights swinging back and forth to illuminate the sky.


James Curtis in James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters:

Sherwood himself, in town to write dialogue for Howard Hughes, had visited the set of Waterloo Bridge. The play, albeit a minor work form the author, was intensely autobiographical and Sherwood said he a hard time “choking back the tears” when he saw Kent Douglass in his Canadian uniform. When the film was completed, he caught an advance screening and admitted that Whale and Levy had not merely translated the play, but considerably improved it. He told Mae Clarke he was “moved and thrilled and overcome” by her marvelous performance, and when she asked him to a sign a still of them on the set, he inscribed the shot “for Mae Clarke – who did right by Waterloo Bridge.”


Clarke herself said that she owed her performance to the sensitive direction of James Whale, a verbal painting of mood and purpose that was quite different from the dictatorial approach he had developed on stage. “He wanted to see what you thought of it,” she said.



And a few teaser stills from the other half of Film Forum’s double bill: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Director Rouben Mamoulian seems to have thrown out the rule book on this one, performing unprecedented experimentation with POV, sound design, and mobile camerawork. Plus Miriam Hopkins as a deliciously Pre-Code Cockney dancehall girl!




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