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Waterloo Bridge began life as a bittersweet stage play by Robert E. Sherwood about a romance doomed by war and social injustice. In WWI London, a showgirl named Myra falls on hard times and becomes a common streetwalker. She meets and falls in love with a handsome British officer who doesn't know her secret. Their plans to marry turn sour when she travels to his fancy country home to meet his family.
In 1931 James Whale directed a fine version of Waterloo Bridge for Universal, Starring Mae Clark of Frankenstein and The Public Enemy. Unlike more salacious films from the Pre-Code era, Whale's adaptation uses the lax censorship to present prostitution in an adult context. Myra must choose between sin or starvation, and hates herself. Her eventual decision to run away from the soldier's proposal of marriage comes after a talk with her fiancé's sympathetic mother. Myra becomes a victim of society's cruel code of conduct.
This disc's version of Waterloo Bridge is the glossy MGM remake from 1940, directed by Mervyn Le Roy and starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. Promoted as Leigh's first film since Gone with the Wind, it was an immediate success and has remained a favorite "women's film". Nothing could be more basic: a hopeless love affair begins under wartime conditions. Actors Leigh and Taylor have the film mostly to themselves, and the story allows Ms. Leigh to convey a wide range of emotions.
Of course, a few changes had to be made. The first Waterloo Bridge was barred from exhibition with the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. From then on movie adaptations would disguise women of the night as maids, hostesses and seamstresses, without explaining why they wander into the fog to meet men under streetlamps.
Le Roy's version alters the story to appease the censors and to maintain the MGM tradition of quality entertainment. Vivien Leigh's Myra doesn't begin as a common showgirl but as a ballerina in a touring company run by the unyielding Maria Ouspenskaya; just stepping out with Robert Taylor's Roy Cronin costs Myra her job. Not helping is the fact that Roy identifies Myra to his social peers as a dancer (common showgirl) as opposed to a ballet dancer (cultured artist).
From then on Myra's story is a bit unclear. Her descent into the sex trade is addressed only in a couple of oblique exchanges with her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field). Besides wearing a slightly flashy dress and loitering around Waterloo Station looking nervous, we see nothing of Myra plying her trade. She remains glamorous and healthy, her new profession reflected only in her unhappy facial expressions. Myra meets no unsavory characters and isn't pestered by customers following her home. In short, it's hard to imagine this Myra having sex with anyone.
But the fact that Myra is a fallen woman is a death sentence; the moment her status changes, her fate is sealed. Sherwood's play and the 1931 version examine this injustice and make a plea for understanding; MGM's version simply accepts it as The Way Things Must Be. Roy's Mother (Lucile Watson) clearly has great affection for her future daughter-in-law yet offers no encouraging words when Myra reveals the truth -- a piece of clever screenwriting, considering that nobody ever states anything directly. Myra is damaged goods, so "case closed". I suppose there are no wives in mother's society circle hiding tainted pasts or lurid indiscretions? MGM's Waterloo Bridge reinforces a harsh status quo: "He must never know!"
Viewers looking for romantic tragedy will find this Waterloo Bridge more than satisfying. Vivien Leigh has no real chemistry with her leading man, a recurring problem within the sterile MGM pantheon. But Leigh projects her feelings directly into the camera, inviting us to share her every emotion.
We empathize with Leigh's Myra as long as we don't question the social details. MGM probably skirted the censors by stressing the film's high-toned trappings, e.g., ballet performances, Roy's "quality" family. The film is also careful to stipulate that Myra and Roy's few meetings involve no sexual hanky-panky, thereby establishing a firm boundary between the "good" Myra and the "bad" Myra. A flashback framing device has Roy remembering Myra 25 years later, back on Waterloo Bridge. He may still love her, but his love was never put to the real test.
MGM's Waterloo Bridge has a number of similarities with, of all things, the horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both movies were first produced by other studios in the racy Pre-Code years. The remake rights were purchased along with the films themselves, from Universal and Paramount respectively. MGM concocted glossier, sanitized versions of both properties as vehicles for its biggest stars, while the originals were kept almost completely out of circulation. Oddly, Waterloo Bridge has an obvious thematic parallel with Dr. Jekyll. Neither Jekyll nor Myra wish to do harm, but they turn both into antisocial "monsters". Under the Production Code, puritan society has no place for monsters or fallen women. Just by being what they are, we know that both must die.
Of incidental note: actress and prolific cartoon voiceover artist Janet Waldo (the voice of Judy Jetson) has a brief bit as one of Myra's fellow ballerinas.
Warners' stand-alone release of Waterloo Bridge presents the film in a fine B&W encoding that flatters the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg. His moody lighting sets Vivien Leigh off beautifully, without resorting to extreme filters or other tricks. Herbert Stothart's music score was also nominated, but all we remember from the clear audio track are snippets of Swan Lake. A second French mono track is included as well.
A re-issue trailer is the disc's only extra. Waterloo Bridge may be a classic only for the handkerchief set but both of its stars list it as their favorite picture. Robert Taylor was quoted as being happy to finally be allowed to fulfill his potential as a serious leading man. Vivien Leigh is on record as wishing that Laurence Olivier had been cast instead of Taylor, but said that Waterloo Bridge is her favorite as well. Perhaps it was an untroubled production, and thus less painful to revisit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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