Director: James Whale
(Available on the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1)
Unfortunately, this first filmed version of Waterloo Bridge has for a long time stood in the shadows of Mervyn LeRoy‘s more clean-cut 1940 remake with Vivien Leigh (Bio) and Robert Taylor (bio). The Hays Code was a sneaky invention, successfully covering up the naughty pre-code films they couldn’t morally stand for, and hiding them in the darkest corners available – which probably was one of the reasons that the superb leading lady Mae Clarke didn’t receive the immortal stardom she really deserved.
This war melodrama takes place in London during World War I. We see Myra Deauville (Clarke) working as a chorus girl on stage. The backstage scene is very interesting in the subject matter of the pre-code era – even though the dancers do wear clothes (or at least, underwear), they are quite transparent and provocative.
Myra’s stage career is however not too successful, and she is soon forced out on the streets to make “play for pay” her business in order to get money for the rent. But then a 19-year-old soldier Roy Cronin (Douglass Montgomery, billed as Kent Douglass) turns up during an air raid. He follows Myra home, and they instantly fall for each other. This soldier is however very genuine and naive, and fails to understand Myra’s profession – and Myra doesn’t want to ruin their relationship by telling him. Her guilt makes her try to convince Roy not to see her anymore, but she fails to change his mind. He eventually tricks her into meeting his loving family (with Bette Davis in an early role as his sister), and they immediately understand that Myra is not a chorus girl as she says. When Roy proposes to her. Myra is haunted with guilt and ambivalence. She wants nothing more than to live a clean, normal life with the man she loves, but she is horrified about ruining Roy’s feelings about her if he finds out about her dirty secret.
Overall this is a perfect melodrama. The two main actors, Clarke and Douglass, have a wonderful chemistry, and their down to earth way of identifying with their characters really put their claws into you – and being a woman I of course got tears in my eyes as Myra became torn apart by her guilt and Roy’s unconditional love for the fallen woman. Some comic relief is delivered with perfection with the supporting characters, for example Myra’s probably-too-old-for-her-job fellow worker Kitty (Doris Lloyd), and Roy’s nearly deaf and senile stepfather Mayor Fred Wetherby (Frederick Kerr). It is beyond me how Clarke and Douglass (especially Clarke) wasn’t more appreciated. 1931 was of course a quite productive year for Mae Clarke; outside of Waterloo Bridge, she played Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée in another James Whale produced classic, Frankenstein, and also got a grapefruit pushed in her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy.
Lolita Kane is a film fan whose views on cinema can be read at Lolita’s Classics.