Waterloo Bridge (1940)

Toronto Film Society presented Waterloo Bridge (1940) on Sunday, December 6, 1981 in a double bill with Mrs. Miniver as part of the Season 34 Sunday Afternoon Film Buffs Series, Programme 5.

Production Company: MGM.  Producer: Sidney Franklin.  Director: Mervyn LeRoy.  Screenplay: S.N. Behrman, Hans Rameau and George Froeschel, based on the play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood.  Director of Photography: Joseph Ruttenberg.  Editor: George Boemler.  Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons.  Music: Herbert Stothart.  Ballet staged by Ernst Matray.

Cast: Vivien Leigh (Myra), Robert Taylor (Roy Cronin), Lucile Watson (Lady Margaret Cronin), Virginia Field (Kitty), Maria Ouspenskaya (Madame Olga Kirova), C. Aubrey Smith (The Duke), Janet Shaw (Maureen), Janet Waldo (Elsa), Steffi Duna (Lydia), Virginia Carroll (Sylvia), Leda Nicova (Marie), Florence Baker (Beatrice), Margaret Manning (Mary), Frances MacInerney (Violet), Eleanor Stewart (Grace).

Waterloo Bridge: a beautiful ballerina and a handsome army officer, London fog and Scottish manor-house, desperate prostitution and heartless snobbery, eternal love and tragic loss–such are the ingredients of Mervy LeRoy’s 1940 adaptation of the Robert E. Sherwood play.  All this and Maria Ouspenskaya too!

LeRoy’s is actually the second of three filmed versions of the play.  In 1931, James Whale, more often associated with the horror genre at Universal, had starred Mae Clarke as Myra, the heroine, and had included in his cast a young Bette Davis in a minor role.  Clarke’s Myra, however, was a cheap chorine packaged much as she was in Public Enemy with James Cagney in the same year.  A far cry from the exquisite ballet-hopeful that Myra would become when played by Vivien Leigh.  When LeRoy upgraded Myra’s cultural status, he upgraded the whole production with her. Replete with expensive Cedri Gibbons settings, Waterloo Bridge is a number-one example of LeRoy’s work at MGM in the 1940s.  Rather surprisingly, director Mervyn LeRoy appears to be just as comfortable in this, the opulent Random Harvest and Madame Curie phase of his career, as he had been in his sojourn at Warner Brothers, where he had made his name in the 1930s with such hard-hitting, less expensive films as Little Caesar and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.

LeRoy tells us in his autobiography that many have called Waterloo Bridge his finest film, adding that Vivien Leigh always said it was the best thing she ever did.  If Leigh did say this, her attitude was rather the reverse during the film’s production when, her biographer indicates, she would have preferred to have been playing Elizabeth Bennet to Laurence Olivier’s Darcy in Pride and Prejudice at the same studio.  She wrote cryptically to her then husband, Leigh Holman, that she was not enjoying her ballet lessons for Waterloo Bridge, and that Robert Taylor was miscast in a role written for Olivier.

While Vivien Leigh was coming to Waterloo Bridge directly from her triumph in Gone With the Wind, Robert Taylor was attempting to regain his box-office and critical stature that had been slipping in the previous year.  Both stars and the production as a whole received gratifying reviews.  Leigh proved that her performance in GWTW was not a fluke, and Taylor rose nicely above his Tyrone Power/Errol Flynn pretty-boy image.  The justified pride Taylor took in the finished film was unequivocal, and eventually, in the last sentimental months before he died, Waterloo Bridge was the film that he often asked to have screened for him, rather than such other successes as Magnificent Obsession (with Irene Dunne) or Camille (with Garbo).

So deceptively captivating is the atmosphere of the film that all but British audiences tend to ignore how artificial the sets really are.  St. Paul’s Cathedral seems to be visible from every window in London, and studio-manufactured fog conceals the fact that the bridge of the title consists of nothing more than part of a sidewalk and a few strategically-strung lights.

The varied camerawork of Joseph Ruttenberg may well be the unsung star of Waterloo Bridge.  The shadowy streets and luxurious interiors that this film shares with the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Gaslight that Ruttenberg also photographed suggest a strong artist’s (if not an auteur‘s) hand at work.

But undoubtedly Waterloo Bridge is not meant to be analyzed so much as savoured.  Who will forget the two lovers’ dance in a candlelit cabaret the night before the hero’s departure for the front, in which LeRoy eliminates all dialogue to heighten the emotional impact?  This is the stuff from which Hollywood dreams used to be spun.  But probably, for better or worse, this particular dream will not surface again.  The third filmic adaption, Curtis Bernhardt’s Gaby, with Leslie Caron in 1956, was likely the last return to Waterloo Bridge.

Notes by Cam Tolton

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