Waterloo Bridge (1931) Review

Danny Dislike BannerThe Particulars of the Picture

Waterloo Bridge Mae Clarke Waterloo Bridge Douglass James Whale
Mae Clarke
Douglass Montgomery
Directed by
James Whale

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Prostitutes! Plenty of them, all morally conflicted about their place in the world. Oh, and some scantily clad backstage antics for good measure.
  • As per the ever perceptive IMDB keywords, “Nipples Visible Through Clothing.”

Waterloo Bridge: The Bridge to Nowhere

There is one type of Pre-Code movie that frustrates me more than any other: the boring kind. I’ve spent a lot of time proselytizing to people about the wonder and excitements of the movies of the early 1930’s, and running into a snoozefest is simply frustration. If this is someone’s first experience with Pre-Code, God help them.

I’m going to lay a lot of that at the feet of James Whale, a director who gets great performances out of his actors but in many of his films can’t manage a staging that frees the movie from its own artificiality.

Artificiality is an issue with Waterloo Bridge, which is based on a stage play which lets the staginess hang heavy over the rather tired conventions it trots out. The good natured prostitute with a heart of gold meets a dumb young soldier and the clock is ticking to see which one will win the mantle of “Most Tragically Poignant Death.”

The titular bridge, hard at work.
The titular bridge, hard at work.

The story is of Myra, who we open on as a chorus girl in a stage show. She’s happy, but can barely contain a yawn as the audience’s applause rages on. She goes backstage (with all of the Pre-Code skin that entails) and leaves the theater with her beau, a higher up in the army.

Suddenly it’s two years later as we see that the sign on the front of the theater has changed. Myra watches as a wealthy woman enters the play and looks wistful at the place that held her disdain so recently. She grips on to her worn out mink and heads towards Waterloo Bridge to see if she can pick up a John from the disembarking soldiers returning from The Great War.

An air raid is sounded instead (those German zeppelins abound), and she and a soldier help an old woman with a bundle of potatoes make her way off the bridge. They discover that they’re both Americans, and, as the raid ends, Myra invites the cute and sweet young buck, Roy, back to her place. He accedes, but doesn’t realize why she’s doing it.

Waterloo Bridge 1931
A bridge to romance!

When there, they both probe each other, and it’s revealed that Roy is a rich young scion who fights the war because it’s the right thing to do. He’s so impossibly handsome and wonderful that he doesn’t even realize what Myra’s current and obvious career aspirations entail.

Thus a game of pursuit ensues, as she dodges his advances and comes to find his naivete unbelievably charming and sad. He keeps pursuing her, tricking her into visiting his family’s estate on the outskirts of London and showering her with affection. She resists out of social impropriety, feeling that he certainly deserves much better than her.

And so Waterloo Bridge comments on the rich and the poor, nobility and hopelessness. Myra’s bleak assessment of her life, and her constant struggles against her own desires, make for a telling look at how the poorest of the English got tossed under the machines of war like so much trash.

"She's not a prostitute! Nah huh! I want my mommy!"
“She’s not a prostitute! Nah huh! I want my mommy!”

The real tragedy in all of this is how undeniably excellent Mae Clarke is in the main role. It’s rare to see a character so torn by desire and strained nobility, and her every mannerism and guarded smile is just that of a person so broken by the system that they’re mortally terrified at the chance of bringing another person to their level.

I think if she wasn’t stuck in such a cockamammy story– or hell, maybe if she wasn’t stuck with someone as flatly dull as Roy to push against– the movie could have been stronger. Roy, for his end of the bargain, spends most of the movie clumsily carrying around his rifle and constantly losing or mishandling it; we get it, James, he’s not so good with his penis.

The silliness of things like this are counterbalanced by Whale giving Clarke a lot of maneuvering room. After she expels Roy for the first time, we get to watch her primping in preparation of another night on the street. In one long continuous shot, we watch Myra decorate herself with a bevy of unassailable self loathing, almost enough to make the audience wince.

Insert Jaws theme.
Insert Jaws theme.

I’m going to briefly touch on the end, so if you want to stay unspoiled, please skip down to the ‘Trivia’ section.

The ending may be my biggest problem of the film. Yes, it’s a tragic romance and someone is going to die. But the manner in which Myra is killed– almost comically with a long shot chasing her down from above– comes across less like a natural dramatist decision and more like a final ‘fuck you’ to the audience.

She’s finally accepted love, and promised to marry Roy. The reason she’s finally killed off can only be for one of two reasons:

1) She doesn’t really deserve Roy’s love, so she must be punished.

2) Social stratas are so heavily encased in England that even this film’s narrative must bend to their whims.

The latter is less appalling since it’s at least commenting about how horrible the dichotomy between the rich and poor really is, and is backed up by the only remaining piece of Myra’s corpse left behind: her mink. But that could just as well indicate that the rest of her didn’t deserve Roy just as much as it suggests that only the proletariat survives.

No, I think the first point may have been why the story ends the way it does. It’s cold and sad, and makes all of the rote drama before it seem even more moot now.

Too good for this film.
Too good for this film.

Trivia & Links

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  • If you can read French (which is probably a pretty big ‘if’), this is a nice review over at DVD Classik.
  • This film was remade in 1940 with Vivian Leigh in the Mae Clarke role. Mick LaSalle uses a compare/contrast between the two movies to define Pre-Code in his book Complicated Women. However, since I don’t have a gun currently pressed to my temple, there’s no way you’re going to get me to sit through a Vivian Leigh movie any time this century and will have to check out the book for more details.


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