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Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Waterloo Bridge (1931), the first of three film versions of Robert E. Sherwood's 1930 play, is a pre-Code film that doesn't idealize or glamorize the tale of Myra, an American prostitute in World War I London and her doomed romance with Roy, a callow Canadian soldier. Directed by James Whale, it contains a revelatory performance by Mae Clarke, the best of her hapless career.

Sherwood's play had been based on an incident in his own life. He had joined the Canadian forces during the war, and during a London air raid in 1918, he had met an American chorus girl turned streetwalker. The meeting was brief, but he never forgot her, or his experiences in wartime London. The play had been talky and not very well developed. It received poor reviews, and closed after 64 performances. Universal Studios, however, was looking for prestige projects. Carl Laemmle, Jr., the son of the studio's founder, had been put in charge of production in 1929, and initiated a new policy emphasizing "quality" films. The success of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) confirmed the wisdom of this course, and in early 1931, Laemmle bought the rights to Waterloo Bridge.

Laemmle didn't have any director under contract that he felt could do justice to Waterloo Bridge. But he had seen the film version of another play with a wartime setting and theme, Journey's End (1930), the first film directed by James Whale, who had directed the play in London and New York. Laemmle hired Whale and gave him a first draft of the screenplay of Waterloo Bridge, which had "opened up" the intimacy of the play, inserting bombing scenes and turning it into a war movie. Whale was appalled, and insisted on a new screenwriter. Benn Levy returned the story to a character drama, adding scenes that cinematically showed Myra's descent into prostitution, as well as scenes with Roy's family in the country. The studio was having severe financial problems, however, and Laemmle gave Whale a minuscule $252,000 budget and a 26-day shooting schedule.

Universal contract player Rose Hobart had been assigned to play Myra, and was looking forward to it. But when she found out that the studio was not planning to renew her contract, she refused to do the film. (She later admitted she regretted that decision.) Whale chose Mae Clarke, then under contract at Columbia, to replace Hobart. "I think Whale saw something I know I had then," Clarke later recalled, "and that was a basic confusion and insecurity I didn't mind projecting into my work." Since Clarke had recently gained fame playing the moll who has half a grapefruit shoved in her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931), Laemmle agreed to the casting. Clarke found Whale's direction collaborative and sensitive. "He wanted to see what you thought of it," she said. "He wouldn't say how to do it, he would tell you what was happening."

Co-star Kent Douglass was another matter. (Douglass, whose real name was Robert Douglass Montgomery, had changed his name when he was signed to a contract at MGM to avoid confusion with Robert Montgomery. He would soon change it again to Douglass Montgomery.) Although the blond, strapping Canadian-born Douglass was physically right for the role, he was awkward and inexperienced as a film actor. In spite of the tight shooting schedule, Whale shut down production for three days while he worked with Douglass. Another Universal contract player had a small role in Waterloo Bridge as Douglass' sister. It was Bette Davis' third and final film at Universal before leaving to join Warner Bros., and her role was so inconsequential that it didn't rate a single mention in any review. The ambitious young Davis longed to play Myra instead, "and I could have!" she later told a biographer.

Whale finished Waterloo Bridge almost $50,000 under budget. Laemmle was so impressed with the results that he invited Hollywood Reporter editor Billy Wilkerson to screen a work print, just days after production ended. Wilkerson's review was a rave. "It is grown up entertainment, not sophisticated, but moving and believable as to send any audience out talking and raving in appreciation," he wrote. Other critics agreed, and so did playwright Robert Sherwood, who felt the film had improved on his play. He had visited the set during production, and had his picture taken with Clarke and Whale. On a copy of the photograph he signed for Clarke, he wrote, "for Mae Clarke, who did right by Waterloo Bridge." But in spite of the good reviews, the subject matter proved too controversial for some audiences. Censor boards in Chicago, New York, and Pennsylvania demanded extensive cuts in the film. In England, in spite of extensive cuts by the censors, the film was a big hit. But once the Production Code Administration was established in the U.S. in 1934, it became impossible to re-release Waterloo Bridge.

Laemmle was so happy with the film that he gave his new director the choice of any property that the studio was planning. Whale chose Frankenstein (1931), which became a huge hit, and for the next several years, he was one of the studio's top directors. But Universal's financial problems overwhelmed the Laemmles, and after Whale left the studio in 1940, his career just seemed to fade away. Clarke worked with Whale in Frankenstein, but the role was thankless. Although she worked consistently through the 1930s and sporadically after that, she never again had a part as challenging and riveting as Myra in Waterloo Bridge.

In 1939, MGM bought the rights to Waterloo Bridge, and received the negative of the 1931 version. MGM made its own glamorized and sanitized version in 1940, starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor (a 1956 remake, Gaby, starred Leslie Caron), but the original remained hidden away and forgotten in the MGM vaults for 35 years. It was re-discovered in 1975, but a joint ownership agreement between MGM and Universal prevented it from being widely seen until the mid-1990s.

Director: James Whale
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Screenplay: Benn W. Levy, Tom Reed (based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood)
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Editor: Clarence Kolster, James Whale
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Val Burton
Cast: Mae Clarke (Myra Deauville), Kent Douglass (Roy Cronin), Doris Lloyd (Kitty), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Hobley), Enid Bennett (Mrs. Wetherby), Frederick Kerr (Mr. Wetherby), Bette Davis (Janet).

by Margarita Landazuri



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