Saturday, September 19, 2015

Waterloo Bridge (1931)


TCM Discoveries Blogathon hosted by The Nitrate Diva.

The truth is, except for a handful of classic films - Gone With the Wind, Miracle on 34th Street, Roman Holiday, Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, and a Shirley Temple movie or two - all of the classic films I've discovered and grown to cherish, have come by way of Turner Classic Movies, and each new-to-me film discovery is an abiding pleasure.

Which brings me to Waterloo Bridge, the pre-code version from 1931, not to be confused with the 1940 version starring Vivien Leigh which, up to this summer, was the only version I knew existed until TCM ran it in August as part of their Summer Under the Stars film festival tribute to Mae Clarke. Frankly, I wasn't inclined to watch.  I believed I'd seen everything there was to see in the 1940 "definitive" version.

Phfffbbtt. How wrong I was.

The plot of our film, simplified: Roy Cronin, an American serving in the Canadian Army on leave from the trenches of WWI falls in love with fellow American Myra Deauville, an out-of-work chorus girl turned prostitute.  They meet on Waterloo Bridge in London during an air raid as they help an old woman gather her spilled basket of potatoes and guide her underground to safety.  The rest of the film is devoted to Myra reconciling her shame about her situation to Roy's feelings for her (and hers for him) and Roy's attempts to marry and save her, all the while fighting against circumstance as his leave whittles down the time they have to create a happily ever after for themselves.

What struck me about this film wasn't the story, necessarily, but the characters and their renderings by two actors I had never heard of.

Mae Clarke plays Myra Deauville, and does a brilliant job of conveying the contrasting Myras – playful, sassy, confident chorus girl (and sporting a darling heart-shaped beauty mark on her cheek) and steely eyed, edgy, jaded prostitute (and sporting a once stylish fur around her neck that now just screams cheap). This isn't just a change of clothes, mind you. The transformation is in her eyes and in the few, impeccable mannerisms Clarke employs. 

In an early scene, Myra has invited Roy to her flat after the all clear and after wheedling him out of a shilling for the gas meter and sack of fish-and-chips for dinner, they talk, have a few laughs (and one misunderstanding, quickly resolved) and we see Myra softening towards Roy. After escorting Roy out with promises to meet the next day, she shuts the door, walks to her vanity and sits down in front of the mirror. In the reflection we see her now flat eyes as she yanks her cloche over her head, jabs her curls underneath, and applies three slashes of lipstick to her mouth that bears the merest trace of a of a snarl.  Any lightheartedness of a few moments before is – poof – gone. She’s determined to get her rent, and resigned to her means of doing so.

Other small moments that Clarke writs large:

Cronin at one point asks Myra if she has anyone particular overseas, someone she maybe knits socks for and if not, maybe she’d like to be that for him.  A day or two later, alone in her flat, she’s wearing a little house dress, sitting in front of her little table, puffing on a cigarette dangling from her mouth, taking frantic sips of tea, all the while squinting at a how-to-knit guide with needles and a half completed something in her hands.   It’s a funny moment and charming –  the hard-edged Myra testing out something homey and hopeful.

In another scene, she spills the beans about her circumstances to Roy's mother and when his mother asks if she loves Roy, Myra looks at her, widens her eyes, and gives two tiny nods – yes – and walks quickly out the door.  Some actresses might have gone all melodramatic here, but those two little nods – perfection.

For Clarke, the entire film involves the push and pull of Myra moving towards the love Roy is offering and withdrawing out of shame, the tension of telling him she loves him and denying it and repeating this tug-of-war within herself over and over. On multiple viewings of the film, this back and forth explains a few moments that could be considered melodramatic, but no.  For Myra, the struggle is real.

Our soldier, Roy Cronin, is portrayed by Kent Douglass (billed in other films as Douglass Montgomery).  In Featured Player: An Oral Biography of Mae Clarke, Clarke relates a story about director James Whale’s attempts to work with Douglass’s clumsiness with props of which there are significant number in this film: his military uniform, satchel, swagger stick and rifle, an enormous and ungainly bouquet of flowers and a box from a dress shop.

Whether a credit to director, Douglass’s quickness on the uptake, or dumb luck (or combination thereof), it’s this awkwardness (hacking the bread he shares with Myra, neglecting to wring a soaking wet compress before applying it to Clarke’s forehead and drenching her in the process) that brings earnest Roy Cronin to life.

It doesn’t hurt at all that Douglass is achingly handsome with an infectious laugh and a bright smile fit for toothpaste adds.  Awkward and somewhat naive though he may be, there is a moment when he professes his love to Myra and stutters half a beat, that is quite possibly the most endearing moment in the entire film.

Cronin eventually discovers the truth about Myra’s means of support from the mouth of her shrewish landlady Mrs. Hobley. As he is absorbing the newly revealed truth of Myra’s plight, Mrs. Hobley lectures on about associating with fancy girls with painted faces (like Myra) leading to sin and pain, and he shuts her down, barking “shut your dirty face” and walks out the door. One gets the feeling he could’ve clocked her and one almost wishes he would have.

If you haven’t seen the film, the happy ending is achieved only fleetingly.  After confirming he knows the truth about her (and to our Roy it matters not at all), Myra finally agrees to marry him. A few hasty kisses in front of a truck full of jeering soldiers and under the beginnings of an air raid, Roy boards the truck to return to the front and drives away, and mere moments later, a few steps away from where they first met on Waterloo Bridge, Myra is obliterated by a German bomb.  

A close up of her raggedy fur and the M medallion on her purse, and fini.  To add insult to the injury of a decidedly non-happy ending, the outro music is the jaunty and tinny chorus number that opens the film.  Talk about discordant. 

There is no happy ending, but like me, you can always misremember the real ending, watch and enjoy the film one more time, and try to convince yourself - as I do - it surely will end differently this time.

Other notable players in this film:

Bette Davis plays Roy Cronin’s younger sister.  Davis is charming in this small role – light and girlish with a sweet smile.  By some accounts, Davis was incredibly upset that she didn’t land the role of Myra and was not friendly with Clarke during filming.  Clarke is so good in this part, I really can’t envision Davis in it at all.

Myra’s friend and fellow prostitute, Kitty, played by Doris Lloyd, provides much needed comic relief as she does her best to convince Roy that Myra is helpless and needs marrying, and speaks in a British accent, dropping all h’s so in one line referring to a fictional dead husband she says, “he was young, ‘andsome, and full of ‘ope”. One can almost envision Elsa Lanchester in this role if one were recasting. This one also thinks it might be fun to talk like this for an entire day.

Both Rita Carlisle (the old woman on the bridge) and Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Hobley) reprise similar roles briefly in the 1940 version.