The first version of three film adaptations of Robert Sherwood’s 1930 play, Waterloo Bridge is a film presenting a different problem for the Hollywood studios in terms of public condemnation. Instead of the promiscuity of young women as ‘gold-diggers’ in Red-Headed Woman or Baby Face this time it is a young woman forced into prostitution. Even so, this is handled discreetly and if anything it is a moral story for the time (i.e. it reads very differently now) with a man attempting to ‘save’ a woman through the prospect of marriage. Otherwise there is only the chorus girls’ changing room which might raise an eyebrow if young women in their underwear is a problem. Sherwood was one of those Americans who joined the Canadian Army in the First World War and he used his own experience of meeting an American girl in Trafalgar Square during the celebrations for the end of the war in November 1918 as the inspiration for his play. By all accounts the play was not a great success on Broadway but the rights were bought by Carl Laemmle Jr. who saw the possibility of a film adaptation for his studio Universal.
Laemmle had been made head of Universal by his father at a tender age. He appointed the British director James Whale, who had just signed a contract at Universal, to shoot the picture using a script by the British playwright/screenwriter Benn Levy and the American Tom Reed. The cast was headed by Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Clarke is possibly best remembered as the woman who received the grapefruit in the face at breakfast time courtesy of James Cagney in Public Enemy (also 1931). For that role she was uncredited but in Waterloo Bridge she is top-billed.
The narrative begins with the closing performance of ‘The Bing Boys’, a London show with Myra (Clarke), a chorus girl who finds a white fur stole waiting for her in the chorus girls’ dressing room, left by an admirer. This is after an audacious moving camera sequence by Arthur Edeson, a pioneering cinematographer whose work graced several major pictures (including Whale’s Frankenstein, also in 1931). The shot starts in the gallery and moves down onto the stage for a series of close-ups, finishing on Myra. The narrative then jumps forward two years to 1917 and Myra has been unable to find another show. She’s been forced to turn to prostitution, hoping to pick up trade outside a theatre presenting Chu Chin Chow and then deciding to try Waterloo Bridge in the hope of finding soldiers who have just ‘detrained’ at Waterloo Station straight from the front in Flanders. But when she gets there a Zeppelin raid ensues and she stops to help an old woman to a shelter. This is the point where she meets Roy Cronin (Douglass). What follows is a succession of scenes in which Roy attempts to show Myra that he has been smitten and she struggles with her conscience, recognising that she needs his money, but also feeling she can’t face starting a relationship, partly because of her shame. The slightly odd twist is that Roy’s mother has re-married – to a wealthy British man who is also a major in the British Army. Roy’s mother and sister (an early role for Bette Davis) are living in splendour in Roy’s stepfather’s country house in the Home Counties and he tricks Myra into visiting the family. This affords the chance for some social class prejudice and once again Myra resolves not to continue the relationship, but Roy presses on. What is really unusual about this film is that there is no happy ending to the romance, in fact it is a tragic ending that goes against the later Hollywood conventions.
I did enjoy the film, mostly because of Whale and Edeson and how they present the young couple. Douglass is a rather beautiful young man who seems unworldly but earnest and polite. I’ve read that Whale had to work hard with him since this was his first leading role. On the other hand Clarke seems very much at home. She would go on to have a long film and TV career. It’s important that both actors were young. She was just 21 and he was nearly 22 when the film was released. She appears much more mature (she had starting performing at 13). The story is set in London and mostly it worked for me as a representation of England in 1917 as the Zeppelin raids began. I’m not sure how much this is down to Whale.
I’ve noted recently that there seems to be some kind of revisionist academic debate about the concept of ‘pre-Code’ and what it actually meant in practice. I’m not going to go into that here but it does seem that after 1934 this film was shelved and the rights and the archive copy of the film were bought by MGM who then proceeded to remake the film in 1940 with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor playing the couple. I haven’t seen that film though I’ve always known about it. Leigh had just made Gone With the Wind and Taylor was a big MGM star. It must have been a much ‘bigger film’ in many ways. I believe the narrative was altered to flashback to 1918 and have the two lovers meet again in 1940 after thinking they would never see each other again. MGM then adapted the play a third time in 1956 under the title Gaby with Lesley Caron and John Kerr as the couple. In both the 1940 and 1956 versions, Myra is a ballet dancer rather than a chorus girl.