Love is a Battlefield: Review of James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931)

waterloo bridge

By Heather Babcock

“You don’t stay boyish very long in this war.”

 Ever since I saw her get the grapefruit in the kisser, I’ve always felt rather protective of Mae Clarke. She was undoubtedly one of the finest actresses of the Pre-Code era, delivering strong performances in films such as Frankenstein (1931) and The Front Page (1931). Yet today if she is remembered at all, it is for her (unfairly) un-credited role as the moll who gets a grapefruit smashed in her face in The Public Enemy (1931).

Strong willed and intelligent, there always seemed to be a cloud of sadness hovering behind Mae’s pretty eyes; this may explain why she went largely unappreciated by the studios and directors of her time, most of whom were more interested in a bouncier, less complicated version of femininity.

Director James Whale however was smart enough to recognize and appreciate Clarke’s juxtaposition of sensuality and sorrow. In 1931, he chose Mae to star in two of his movies: Frankenstein (1931) and Waterloo Bridge (1931). The admiration went both ways: according to film historian Gregory W. Mank, in the Universal Studios documentary The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster (2002), Clarke described Whale as “a perfect gentleman and a genius.” It is her knock-out performance in Waterloo Bridge (1931), and not that damned grapefruit, for which Clarke would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered. The setting of the film is London during World War I but the real war rages within Clarke as Myra Deauville, a chorus girl turned prostitute whose self-loathing runs so deep that she truly believes herself unworthy of kindness and love. In 1940, Waterloo Bridge would be remade by MGM with Vivien Leigh in Clarke’s role. Whether you prefer the 1940 or the 1931 version all depends on whether you like your movies glittery or gritty. James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931) has plenty of grit.

The film opens with a rousing finale of the stage musical The Bing Boys are Here, where Myra (Mae Clarke) is a chorus girl. It is all cheers, rhinestones, frills and flowers and Myra can’t help but yawn. Still, it’s a charmed life, made no less charming by the “stage door Johnnies” (nickname for male chorus-girl groupies), one of whom gifts Myra with a white fox fur stole (claws and beady eyes still intact). The show has ended but Myra isn’t worried – “I’ll get a job soon,” she confidently declares but “soon” never materializes and three years later she finds herself outside the theatre, the fox fur now looking a little ragged. This being a Pre-Code film, Waterloo Bridge (1931) makes no secret of how Myra makes her living as she strolls the sidewalks with her friend Kitty (Doris Lloyd) hunting for a trick. Pre-Code films, a term which refers to movies that were made and released from 1930-1934 before the enforcement of the amended Production Code (aka censorship), often dealt with prostitution frankly – with a little less wink and a lot more nudge. In one scene, Myra tells a prospective john that she’s just a girl “looking for a good time and wondering where the rent’s coming from.” After she names her price, the john looks her up and down. “Rents come pretty high these days,” he remarks drolly. Compare this to Vivien Leigh’s Mona Lisa smile in the 1940 remake or to Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), where a viewer could be forgiven for not understanding why men give Holly “fifty dollars for the powder room.”

In Waterloo Bridge (1931), the only one who doesn’t “get” that Myra is a sex worker is Roy, a sweet young soldier whom Myra “meet-cutes” during an air raid. Roy is played by Douglass Montgomery, an actor so pretty and with features so fine that he looks like he belongs on a Victorian postcard. The boyish actor, probably best known for his turn as Laurie in Little Women (1933), does a wonderful job here as Roy, the yang to Myra’s yin. At first, Myra mistakes Roy for a trick but she soon discovers that he is a decent, albeit naïve, fellow with a genuine interest in her and that what’s more, he has no idea that she’s a prostitute. “You’ve never been around with girls much, have you?” Myra asks him, smiling sadly. “Not much,” Roy admits. He then asks Myra if she will be his girl – if she will wait for him while he fights oversees and “knit socks” for him. Myra isn’t really a “sock knitting” kind of girl but she tries. However in spite of their mutual attraction and budding friendship, the secret of Myra’s true profession hovers between them like a dark cloud, no more so than when Roy introduces Myra to his upper-class family in Buckinghamshire (played by Enid Bennett as his mother Mary, the wonderful character actor Frederick Kerr as his charming stepfather and a very young Bette Davis in a small role as Roy’s little sister). Although his family is warm towards her, Myra is wary, particularly of Roy’s mother, a woman who is basically a razor blade hidden within the frothy confines of a triple tier platinum cake. Even believing that Myra is a chorus girl, the class conscious Mary does not think she is a “proper” mate for her son and she goes so far as to tell Myra this, albeit it in kinder words. “I’m not fighting you, dear,” Mary tells Myra. But Myra knows better.

Mirrors are used to powerful, symbolic effect in two scenes in Waterloo Bridge (1931): After her initial meeting with Roy, Myra sits before her looking glass, making herself up for another night on the prowl. Clarke’s face in this scene is a battlefield of pride and pain. Clarke is so emotionally raw that it almost hurts to watch her.

When Myra confesses to Mary that she is not really a chorus girl but a prostitute who “picked Roy up on Waterloo Bridge”, Mary watches her in a vanity table mirror, only turning around to face the “real” Myra after the confession is made.

Myra then escapes back to London where she is soon walking the streets again. Roy, whose leave has just been cancelled, goes looking for her, hoping to convince her to marry him before he goes off for war. He meets up with Myra’s landlady who cruelly tells Roy that Myra is a prostitute who will “contaminate” him. Stunned, Roy pays Myra’s overdue rent (instructing the landlady to write the receipt out in her name) before angrily telling the woman to “shut your dirty face!” With Zeppelins soaring overhead, Roy finds Myra on Waterloo Bridge. He tells Myra that he knows she is a prostitute but he doesn’t care; he still wants to marry her – “It wasn’t your fault. You had to do it.” Myra melts into Roy’s arms as he promises to always take care of her. The two kiss passionately in the middle of the air raid – it is their first kiss and it is nearly as explosive as the bombs going off around them. “Goodbye darling, I’ll think of you every minute,” Roy promises as an army officer instructs him to move on. After they bid adieu, Myra walks down Waterloo Bridge, the fur stole beginning to fall from her shoulders. She is too happy, too in love to be paying proper attention. A bomb falls and we hear a woman’s scream. Myra is dead. The camera zooms in for a final shot, not of her dead body but of her purse and fox fur stole, abandoned on Waterloo Bridge.

The film’s ending still shocks and upsets audiences today. “I loved the movie but hated the ending,” seems to be the common viewer consensus. Indeed, the ending is brutal. If Waterloo Bridge (1931) was a conventional romance, it would end with Roy’s declaration of love. Is the film keeping with the golden rule of movie-making that bad girls don’t deserve happy endings? (One glaring exception being Jean Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman (1932)). That explanation, while plausible, seems a bit too simple for a character as complicated as Myra and a director as innovative as Whale. Besides, the idea that classic movies always end happily is usually held by people who don’t actually watch them. In 1931 alone, many films – such as The Public Enemy and Safe in Hell – delivered bleak endings. That the movie’s final shot is of Myra’s purse and fur stole is surely of importance – is this Whale’s damning criticism of a capitalist, materialistic society? I.e. live by the fur stole, die by the fur stole? Perhaps.

I have another theory though – although at times Waterloo Bridge (1931) has the aesthetic of a Warner Brother’s movie, it is in fact a Universal film and Universal Pictures was the home of the great monster movies. Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) was a warning of the dangers of man attempting to play God – and when does man play God more so than when he declares war – or when he dictates the lives of others? The imprisoned monster in Frankenstein (1931) reaches his arms in vain to touch the sun, just as Myra reaches helplessly – hopefully- towards Roy from inside the confines of her own fear and self-hatred.

The ending of Waterloo Bridge (1931) brings to mind a scene in James Whale’s masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where the “monster” befriends an elderly blind man, a hermit who lives alone in a shack in the woods and who does not scream at the sight of him. The blind man teaches the monster, both literally and figuratively, the meaning of the word “friend”. They are two lonely outcasts who consider each other a blessing but their happiness is short-lived – ripped away in an angry blaze of fire and bullets by the monster’s captors.

Whale’s films seem to say that the world – the world that man has constructed, one of prejudice, hate and war – is dangerous for outcasts (interestingly in the aforementioned Bride of Frankenstein , as the blind man tenderly tucks the monster into bed, a crucifix glows on the wall above them – Jesus Christ of course being the original outcast, whom the world was not kind to either).

In Whale’s Frankenstein movies, the villain is not the monster but rather greed, ignorance and man’s insatiable hunger for power. In Waterloo Bridge (1931), the monster is war – both the ones that soldiers go to fight in and the personal wars we battle every day.

“You don’t stay boyish very long in this war,” Roy observes in one scene.

As Myra knows, you don’t stay girlish very long in this world, either.

Gods and monsters, indeed.


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