Though remade a couple of times since, the original film adaptation of the play by the same name remains a definitive romantic film from the 1930’s. Made at about the same time as many of Maurice Chevalier’s little escapist romances and musicals, Waterloo Bridge plays as a sort of romantic pre-coder with a more pessimistic core. It captures the same sorts of time-pressured romantic entanglements that have been one of cinema’s greatest romantic interests: That of two lovers or would-be lovers who do not have time on their side. There’s also a fascinating emotional transparency on display and a rather inquisitive nature to observe interaction and dialogue without intent to over-dramatize or over-sensationalize the scenario, especially when considering the era in which it was made. Let’s face it.... falling in love with a prostitute isn’t exactly something we’ve never seen before. But it was never approached with the degree of subtlety and lack of sentimentality than it was here in Waterloo Bridge.
Waterloo Bridge stars Mae Clarke as an American showgirl named Myra, living in London, who is down on her luck and selling herself to soldiers to make ends meet. One evening, she has a meet-cute with a WWI American Soldier named Roy (Kent Douglass) on Waterloo Bridge during an air raid. She portrays herself to him as a showgirl and not a prostitute. They both return to her apartment where they spend the evening talking and getting to know each other, whereupon Roy decides he wants to help her out by paying her rent. She is insulted and nearly throws him out, but is already smitten and attached to him so she apologizes. They begin a hot and cold relationship that is threatened by Roy’s future return to the battle lines, and by Myra’s refusal to tell him about her past, which keeps her from opening herself up to his marriage proposals. At one point, he goads her into spending some time with his family at their large home where she feels threatened by her own conscience as she still hasn’t confided to Roy. Myra continues to run and Roy continues to pursue despite the challenges, bringing them to a tear-filled departure on Waterloo Bridge as Roy must head to the battle lines. Unbeknownst to them, this moment will be the last time they ever see each other.
James Whale, he of Frankenstein fame, directs this pre-coder with a large degree of restraint. There’s actually very little of the ubiquitous cleavage and lingerie of the era and potential scenes of prostitution are few and far between, with precious few minutes actually devoted to her professional endeavors. So although the film is about a woman who is a prostitute, this never becomes a preachy film about prostitution. Instead, most of the focus is on the face to face interaction between Myra and Roy as they flirt and retreat, plead and yearn, laugh and cry. Both Mae Clark and Kent Douglas give unaffected and emotionally fragile performances. These are both two relatively inexperienced, young actors whose insecurity onscreen translates into fragile portrayals of individuals who are yearning for a connection but afraid of being hurt and of hurting others, relegating their emotional states into something resembling a paralyzed love, a yearning and an intention that lacks the blunt truth to survive. Both Clark and Douglas have terrific chemistry together and both look great onscreen. Each has this way of naturally hanging out and feeling comfortable. They don't have to be speaking to be communicating. There is a strange, beautiful, and poetic infusion of un-rushed sincerity to their scenes.
What on paper feels very much like cliché is realized in such a way that the emphasis is on character development and emotional context. Pressures of war and hunger drives each to believe they are making decisions that are in the best interest of the other. As the audience understands slightly more than the characters do, there is a hushed and tragic suspense to this romance that really never seems to get off the ground in proper fashion. Denial though, is often more romantic than coupling itself, as examples from Casablanca to Brief Encounter remind us of that old question...... “Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all?” Are the brief memories of beauty that are coupled with deep pain to be preferred over nothingness and numbness? This is a central question common to many a love story both in real life and in the movies. As far as the romantic movies go, Waterloo Bridge is one of the best.