When I first watched the movie Waterloo Bridge from 1940 with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, my reaction was twofold; I reacted to the movie itself and to it as a remake of the 1931 Waterloo Bridge with Mae Clarke and directed by James Whale. I wanted to compare the movies, but I also thought that both movies deserved to be analyzed on their own, as individual movies, so I’ve decided to write a three post series about each movie and ending with a comparison of the two, with each post being released on a Monday: the 22nd (today), 29th, and the 6th of October.
The original story was a play by Robert E. Sherwood who is said to have based it loosely on events of his own life while he was stationed in London during WWI. The play was released in 1930 and was made into a movie only a year later, and was remade nine years after that when MGM bought the rights to the play from Universal (who made the first one) for the first movie Vivien Leigh made following her Oscar winning, fame-catapulting and fiery performance as Scarlet O’Hara the year before.
The 1940 Waterloo Bridge is by far the most beloved and well-known of the two movies. In fact, it is a highly beloved movie, period; inspiring real affection and not just liking in many of its viewers.
The movie opens with Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor), an officer in the British army during WWII, who must leave London and stops at Waterloo Bridge to remember another time, during the first world war, when he was young and first met the woman he loves on that same bridge. The rest of the movie is a flashback, and I don’t believe I am giving anything away when I say that you just know by the way the older Roy is reminiscing that the story does not end happily. The entire movie is drenched in gentle, yet tragic, remembrance; most of the movie taking place in the evening or at night, as if to say that the story was over even before it began. The song “Auld Lang Syne” is the theme of the movie, gently playing and foretelling the inevitable end of the story.
Except the end isn’t inevitable, really. And that’s why it is also so frustrating, because it is also about the inherent defeatism that we impose on ourselves, which defeat does not come from the outside world.
At the beginning of the flashback, Roy meets a group of ballerinas on their way to the theater and when there is an air raid, they all take refuge in a shelter, where he meets Myra Lester. He is instantly attracted, and she is too, but because he must leave the next day, she assumes that they will never meet again. However, that night he puts off a dinner with his colonel and goes to see her dance. Despite being forbidden to go out with him by the director of the ballet troupe, (Maria Ouspenskaya – highly memorable, as always), her much more worldly, though kind-hearted, friend Kitty (Virginia Field) arranges for Myra to meet Roy.
They have dinner and dance and talk and fall so deeply in love that you know no one else could ever do for these two people, no matter what happens. In many ways, though, they are quite different in their attitude towards life. He is eager to embrace life and to make life happen. He is brash, warm-hearted and confident and unwilling to ever let her get away from him, no matter if there is a war. She is young, very innocent and trusting, but with a much less aggressive attitude towards life. She assumes that life happens without her and when he says that she is a defeatist and that she could imagine never seeing him again, she agrees. She does not expect to see him again.
But when Roy is given unexpected leave for two days, he rushes to Myra’s house and proposes. It is so unexpected and magical and wonderful for Myra and it is as if she were infused with the same spirit as he is as they both rush to get married. It is too late in the day, however, for the reverend to marry them and before they can marry the next morning, Roy’s leave is canceled. Myra then misses the ballet performance because she had rushed off to say farewell to Roy, and she is fired along with Kitty, who stood up for her.
And then Myra reads in the newspaper that Roy has died. After she falls ill and finally recovers, she realizes that Kitty has resorted to prostitution to pay the bills, including Myra’s medical ones. Myra doesn’t want the burden to fall on her friend and soon becomes a prostitute as well. But Roy was not really dead and he comes back completely unexpectedly to carry her off to meet his family without knowing what has transpired.
Spoiler Warning: the rest of this post contains spoilers.
This was quite interesting because the main obstacles in this film to the couple’s happiness are the war and her own defeatism. The war constantly drives them apart, but it is not insuperable. And unlike the first Waterloo Bridge film, there is no class or family prejudice against her. Everyone who meets her absolutely love her. The only thing that stands in her way is the fact that she is hiding from him that she worked as a prostitute during the time he was away and her own guilt over it. She is afraid to tell him and ultimately she is the one who decides that she is not worthy of him and his great family name; and because she can no longer imagine living without him, she walks in front of an army truck on Waterloo Bridge and kills herself.
Roy does find out, however, about her past. After she had left him he goes to Kitty and hears the whole story and what is so tragic is that it would not have mattered to him if she had been a prostitute or not. He loves her and he knows that she always loved him and all he wants is to be with her. It is so sad because she did not realize just how much he loved her and she never even gave him the chance to tell her. She makes her decision far to quickly and takes the irrevocable way out of the situation. Even if she had simply chosen to leave Roy – without killing herself – the simple act of choosing to live would probably have meant happiness for them both since Roy would have found her and they could have been happy.
Going along with the sense of defeatism is also the sense that Myra had that all her happiness was unreal. She asks several times in the movie if it is real, as if she can hardly believe that so much love could really come to her. The irony is that every time she says it, it is because of something Roy has done to make her happy. He works to make happiness. He is the one who puts off his duty so he can see her again and he is the one to propose so quickly. When he was presumed dead, he was really in a German prison camp and he escapes, returns to England, and brings her to his family home. She has trouble accepting what would essentially be a fairy tale ending for her; and one wonders if she never, in her heart, subconsciously believed in happy endings.
And in the end, in a tragic twist, it is now Roy who echoes Myra’s defeatism when he says that he knows he will never find her again. He says it the same night that she kills herself.
I still can’t decide whether or not I enjoyed it. It’s a very haunting film and the pathetic tragedy of the theme song, “Auld Lang Syne” stayed with me long after the movie was over. Of course, it didn’t help that afterwards I was reading about the tragic death in prison of Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Franz Ferdinand of Austria – which sparked WWI – and about the love between Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia and how their final thoughts before they died were of each other and about how their two sons were sent to Dachau in the late 1930s when they opposed the Nazi takeover of Austria. It put me in a regular, reflective funk about life, loss and suffering. And how the greatest tragedies in life – like WWI – are often self-inflicted.
However, there is a slight, hopeful note at the end of the movie, despite the tragedy. After Myra kills herself, we flash forward to WWII where Roy Cronin is remembering her. It is clear that, despite the tragedy, what he is really remembering is her and how much he loves her and how much he knows she loved him. Their love has endured, despite her death. It is another cosmic romance.