Mae Clarke and James Whale are both best remembered for the 1931 Frankenstein that introduced Boris Karloff to immortal fame as the Frankenstein monster. Mae Clarke was the fiancé of Dr. Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive), although she didn’t have much to do besides remonstrate earnestly with her fiancé and faint at the sight of Karloff. Frankenstein was also a turning point in the career of the director, James Whale. The movie was so successful that he was given a tremendous amount of artistic freedom for several years at Universal Studios and directed The Invisible Man (1933), The Old Dark House (1932) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
However, before Frankenstein was released in 1931, another movie was released that same year and shows that both Whale and Clarke are much more than makers of monster movies. In fact, Mae Clarke gives a very moving performance as a chorus girl turned prostitute who falls in love with a young soldier during WWI. This movie is not as well known as the remake in 1940 at MGM with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, but is an excellent, concise, grittier look at a particular moment in time. The movie is based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, which in turn was based on his memories of a chance meeting with a prostitute on Waterloo Bridge during an air raid, and the movie captures that sense of random chance throughout.
Mae Clarke is Myra Deauville, who came from America to England in the chorus of a show. But when the show closes and she is out of work and cannot pay her landlady (a constant problem in this movie), she resorts to prostitution. Her method, employed by many other women, is to go to Waterloo Bridge to pick up men.
It is at Waterloo Bridge where she meets Roy Cronin (Douglas Montgomery) during an air raid. I hadn’t realized it before, but London did endure bombings during WWI from zeppelins. Roy is a very young soldier, innocent and eager and a bit lonely during his leave in London. She sees him as a potential client and brings him back to her apartment, where they have dinner. He is so innocent, though, he doesn’t even realize that she is trying to pick him up and just thinks that she is being friendly, but he is smitten with her. He even offers to pay her landlady, who is demanding her rent and also assumes that Roy is there as a client. However, Myra quickly realizes that Roy just wants to talk and is touched by his innocence, and she refuses to let him pay the rent. Later that night, after he has gone, she goes out again in search of another man so she can pay the still looming rent.
Roy does not forget her so easily, however, and come back and meets Myra’s friend, Kitty, another lady of the night. Kitty can see that he is mad about Myra and tells Myra that she should marry him, but Myra feels that she would be using Roy and it would not be fair to him, who doesn’t know what she does for a living. However, Roy manages finally to get Myra to visit his family, where she meets his father, mother and sister (Bette Davis in a tiny role). They are very welcoming, but the mother can see what her son evidently cannot or doesn’t care about, that there is a huge gulf between Myra and the Cronins. The Cronins are very wealthy people, upper class, while Myra is just a chorus girl from America who has had to make her own way all her life. Roy proposes, but that night Myra tells his mother the truth. His mother is appalled, though sympathetic and appreciative; however, she does not want Myra to marry her son and Myra leaves, with Roy going after her.
It is a heartbreaking story, in it’s own way. It is not lushly romantic like the 1940 movie, but is more gritty, more like a straight-forward narrative of what could a real story, more explicit about the life that Myra is living and how much she hates it, though she does it every time she wants something (like a new dress) or must pay bills. There is a tragic little moment when her landlady has demanded her rent. Myra sits down in front of her mirror and begins to get herself ready to go out, with an expressionless face that still expresses so much. She gets up and goes out the door and the scene ends.
Douglas Montgomery is a little on the awkward and inexperienced side as Roy Cronin, but since the character is supposed to be young and inexperienced, his acting is not a serious detraction from the movie. Roy is a completely naïve, romantic young man who doesn’t really care where she came from or what she does. His view of her is a purified version of the real woman. Myra comes across as much older than he is, though not necessarily in actual age. She is the one who is painfully aware of the class differences between them, let alone the fact that she is a prostitute, and knows there is no future for them.
Mae Clarke really did lead a hard-scrabble life for a while, like she portrays in the movie, though without the streetwalking. She (her real name was Violet Mary Klotz) and Barbara Stanwyck (still Ruby Stevens) and one other girl all shared one shabby room in New York when they were in their teens, dancing at nightclubs, getting work in a chorus whenever they could, each washing out their one pair of stockings each night. She found some initial success, but her career never quite took off and almost all of her leading lady roles came in the pre-code era. The rest of her career was spent in bit parts. Ironically, she made her most famous movies in 1931. Along with Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein, she also appeared in another highly successful film, The Public Enemy, where she infamously gets a grapefruit shoved in her face by gangster James Cagney.
Waterloo Bridge was both a critical and financial success when it was released; however, owing to it’s frank portrayal, it was never released in theaters during the era of the production code and was overshadowed by MGM’s remake. The film was rediscovered in 1975, but because both Universal Studios and MGM owned the rights, they were not able to come to an agreement and it was not generally seen for another twenty years. It was not available for home-ownership until 2006, when Waterloo Bridge was released in the first of the TCM sets called Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 1. It was paired with Jean Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman and Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face and is really a movie worth rediscovering.