Before we started this blog, we viewed this version of Waterloo Bridge with a group of other Pre-code films. We decided to revisit it, but will be pairing it (next week) with the 1940 remake starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. Given the conclusion of this film, it's almost hard to believe that it is a pre-code film, as there is a sense of cosmic punishment being visited on Myra for her actions. Since Myra is a good person who has made some really poor decisions in her life, the ending is quite shocking and unexpected.
Based on a play by Robert Sherwood (which was based on an encounter in his own life in London during the WWI. See this TCM article for more on the story) that ran for 64 performances on Broadway, Waterloo Bridge has been on the screen three times - this film, the Vivien Leigh version we'll discuss next time, and Gaby (1956), starring Leslie Caron. It was also done as a radio play in 1941 with Brian Aherne and Joan Fontaine, in 1946, with Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead roles; and in 1951 with Norma Shearer as Myra.
Mae Clarke is quite good at Myra. Ms. Clarke does not try to whitewash the character a bit. When we first see Myra, she is quitting her job in the chorus of a West End play to take up with a wealthy man. He's given her a fur wrap, and she expects more gifts from him, as well as support in the style to which she would like to become accustomed. But, in the next scene, we see that play that she left is still running, but Myra's affair is not. Unable to get a job in another show, she has turned to the streets to support herself. Ms. Clarke plays Myra as selfish and ignorant. She doesn't like working the streets, but primarily because she wanted wealth and leisure for herself and doesn't have either. The morals - or lack thereof - of working as a prostitute does not bother her until she falls in love with Roy. And Ms. Clarke makes that transformation realistic and understandable; we watch the Myra lose her gold-digging instincts to become the person that Roy envisions her to be. Ms. Clarke was not the first choice for Myra - Rose Hobart was originally considered (AFI Catalog); to our thinking, the right casting choice was made.
That we believe Ms. Clarke's love for Roy is a credit to her ability as an actress. Kent Douglass, however, is not a great actor, and we have to believe that Roy is so obtuse he can't see what Myra does for a living. Mr. Douglass would later change his name to Douglass Montgomery, the name he'd used on the New York stage (MGM didn't want him using Montgomery to avoid confusion with Robert). With 32 credits to his career, he did not have a wide range of roles, though he is remembered today as Laurie Little Women (1933). In 1934, he was the victim of an attempt on his life, when someone sabotaged his car; no suspects were ever found. Following service in the Canadian infantry during World War II, Mr. Montgomery relocated to the UK. He returned to the US in the 1950s, to do some television. In 1966, at the age of 58, he died of spinal cancer (he was living in Connecticut at the time). He was survived by his wife of 14 years, British actress Kay Young.
Bette Davis has a small part (this was her third film appearance) as the generous Janet Cronin, Roy's sister. The whole Wetherby/Cronin family are shown as loving, caring people - not only towards Myra and Roy, but for each other. Though we are informed early on that Mrs. Wetherby (Enid Bennett) remarried and moved with her children to the UK to be with her husband, Major Wetherby (Frederick Kerr), there is no wicked stepfather here. The affection between the Cronin children and their loving - and rather dotty - stepfather is apparent immediately. It makes a nice touch, and helps to explain Roy's rather innocent attitudes.
At one point in the film, allusion is made to the practice of women marrying several times to collect the salaries (and hopefully death benefits) of their soldier husbands. We found it interesting that the practice would be discussed regarding both wars, as we saw in Allotment Wives.
The New York Times review was complimentary of both Mr. Douglass and Ms. Clarke, and enjoyed the story. Danny at Pre-Code.com did not; however we agreed wholeheartedly on Ms. Clarke's inspired performance. As promised, next week we will look at the Vivien Leigh version of the film, which you'll find has a lot more exposition. We'll leave you with this scene from the start of the film, and hope you will join us again next time.