Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931)

1931 was a busy year for Mae Clarke. She had dues to pay on screen. Among other things, she had to take a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney and be menaced by the Frankenstein monster. At the end of the year, however, she could be excused for not believing that these would be just about the only two events for which she'd be remembered 84 years later. Wasn't this the year she became a star in her own right in one of the most acclaimed performances of 1931? Of course, Waterloo Bridge was a lucky break for Clarke, who replaced Rose Hobart (who would achieve a sort of immortality in another, indirect way) in the lead at the last minute. She would never be so lucky again, apart from those fateful encounters with Cagney and Karloff. Within two years (after a nervous breakdown) she was getting thankless roles like the gold-digger in Fast Workers. By then she had run the gamut, for the heroine of Waterloo Bridge is the antithesis of the gold-digger.

In this tale of Americans in Britain during the Great War, we meet Myra Deauville (Clarke) on the closing night of The Ring Boys, a musical in which she was part of the chorus. In the festive farewell atmosphere she pulls faces during the finale and seems pretty hard-boiled about her misfortune. Two years later we see her outside a theater wishing she'd done the show now entering its third year, and by her banter with a friend it becomes apparent, without the dread word being said, that Myra has become a prostitute. She works Waterloo Bridge (shown by director James Whale and the Universal effects team in a rather spectacular process shot and there finds an American, Roy Cronin (Kent Douglass) in the uniform of the Canadian Army. After taking shelter from a German air raid they go to her apartment, the innocent American boy still ignorant of her profession. Now she seems less hard-boiled than she had been, because she can't take money from Roy, even though all he wants, smitten on sight with her, is to help her with her rent. Presumably she responds to something guileless about the lad that compounds his appeal, and fortunately Whale gets a guileless, natural and likable performance from Douglass (aka Douglass Montgomery) in a role that could easily end up contemptibly obtuse. She isn't going to stop working, mind you, but she isn't going to go to work on him.

Roy doesn't take no for an answer, however, and finally convinces Myra to meet his family: his mother, his Whale-worldly father-in-law (the inimitable Frederick "Baron Frankenstein" Kerr) and kid sister Janet. In this last role, Bette Davis steals every scene she's in, in retrospect, just by being in it, though she really has very little to do, still having years of dues to pay, and is relegated at one point to an offscreen tennis match with Kerr while the rest of the cast watches. They're all lovely, classy people, and while the true gold-digger might do a Walter Huston dance upon hitting paydirt, Myra, the veteran prostitute, can't pull the trigger. Waterloo Bridge is based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, a sophisticate of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, but when all is said and done it's the same old pathos of renunciation we know so well from Hollywood hokum. Confiding in Roy's mother, Myra admits her love for Roy but also confesses her unworthiness. The old lady is sympathetic and understanding, assuring Myra that she's a good girl after all by virtue of renouncing Roy. But since no one's going to tell Roy flatly that Myra won't marry him because she's a hooker, he keeps on trying to win her until Myra's nasty landlady (Ethel Griffies is like a more malevolent Una O'Connor) blasts him with the truth. Douglass's best moment in the film is when Roy interrupts the harridan's moralistic tirade by shouting, "Shut your dirty face!" That same inner goodness that inspires Myra to keep her distance from Roy keeps inspiring him to close the distance -- but now it's making her worthless as a prostitute. She seems to land a john, only to rebuke him before entering a coach with him, only to plead as he rides off that she didn't mean it. Numbly she returns to Waterloo Bridge, where Roy finds her and demands that she marry him, regardless of everything. With an army truck idling to take him back to the front, Myra finally consents just to be rid of him, or to get him out of harm's way as a zeppelin raid begins, while she idles on the bridge as if uncertain whether she wants shelter or not. She finally seems to pick up speed just as a bomb, seemingly meant for her and her alone, finds her. Boom. Dead. The End. It's a Universal Picture. A Good Cast is Worth Repeating.

What the bloody hell...? Was that supposed to be just desserts or cruel irony, or are we meant, like old-time superheroes, to look on death and mutter, "It's better this way?" The abruptness of it, the quick close without further commentary, reminds us that Whale is still somewhat raw as a director, though Waterloo Bridge is overall a slicker film than the perhaps deliberately rougher Frankenstein, released two months later. It also underscores that the scene doesn't really stand interpretation. It's a contrivance that should have grown increasingly intolerable as Depression audiences wanted to see scrappy heroines win and propriety be damned. If it didn't launch Mae Clarke into lasting stardom that's probably because, despite the versatility she shows, the role really is too good to be true, her fate too neat to be good. Or so it seems now, but the story was popular enough to be remade, with compromises required by Code Enforcement, twice over in the next quarter-century. Either it made sense then in a way it doesn't now, or the figure of the martyred prostitute had an appeal for quite a while that it has no longer. Whale's Waterloo Bridge -- long unseen after M-G-M bought the rights in order to remake it with Vivien Leigh -- is a historical artifact of a particular sort. Certain aspects of it have timeless virtues, and it will always have interest as part of Whale's filmography, but overall it has become a lesser film the less willing we are to believe it.

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