Thursday, November 12, 2009

'Bridge' Worth Traveling

When most people refer to the film "Waterloo Bridge," they are thinking about the 1940 version with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

But there's a lovely 1931 version that few people have seen, directed by James Whale -- yes, that James Whale, the man who directed "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein." This is no monster story. It's a very good melodrama. In fact, one thing that distinguishes this version from its more famous remake is that it was made during the pre-Code (aka pre-censorship) era.

The story is straightforward: Myra (Mae Clarke) is an American in London, a chorus girl who can no longer find work and is now a prostitute. Roy (Kent Douglass) is a World War I soldier on leave in London. They meet one night on Waterloo Bridge during a bombing raid. They fall in love, but he doesn't know what she does for a living. His respectable family lives in the English countryside, and he wants her to meet them. She likes Roy but is ashamed of who she is.

In these early days of talking films, the action is fairly confined, with some longs scenes that take place in Myra's apartment. For Whale, a former set designer, this is one of his first films, and despite the limitations, he makes an elegant little gem. This may not be as stylish as "Frankenstein," released the same year, but this mainly two-person drama feels intimate rather than claustrophobic. Without the constraints of the Production Code that would be implemented in 1934, Whale can make Myra both a prostitute and a good person, even if she loathes her position and desperately wishes she were a better person for Roy. Compare this film's frankness to the 1940 version, made after the Code was in place. While the 1940 film is fine, this one is grittier.

Clarke is wonderful. Her best scene comes after she first invites Roy to her apartment and sends him off. She sits in front of her mirror, and her face registers sadness, disgust and resilience as she prepares to go back out into the night and earn her keep. This was a banner year for Clarke, as she had roles in three other major films: "Frankenstein," as Molly Malloy in "The Front Page," and most famously on the receiving end of a grapefruit in the face thanks to James Cagney in his career-defining "The Public Enemy." Unfortunately, her career faltered and she was reduced to bit parts by the end of the decade.

Douglass is a fine match for Clarke. His youthful good looks and naive manner are effective, and the two make a fine couple.

Also of note is the actress in a small role playing Roy's sister. It's Bette Davis in just her third film as a contract player at Universal before she moved to Warners and became a star.

Outside of a melodramatic finale that adds a morality tale mentality to an otherwise lovely dramatic romance, "Waterloo Bridge" is a terrific find during this early-talkie period and one worth seeing.


  1. I love that you post information about movies that may not be as well known. I've learned a lot! Keep it up! :) From: Queenie

  2. Thank you, Queenie. Glad you like the entry. You'll have to get the movie and watch it!