Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and our first semi-regular return to Pre-Code cinema. As teased several months ago, we’re going to be engaging in a series of posts that compares the Pre-Code and Under-the-code versions of several classic films, starting this week with Universal’s Waterloo Bridge (1931), starring Mae Clarke, and the 1940 MGM remake with Vivien Leigh. (There’s also a slightly similar and differently titled ’56 adaptation, which is excluded from the discussion intended for today’s post.)
Based on the play by Robert Sherwood, here’s the premise of the ’31 adaptation, courtesy of IMDb: “At the beginning of the film, American Myra Deauville (Mae Clarke) is working as a chorus girl on the London stage. The film jumps ahead two years to find Myra working as a streetwalker, along with her friend Kitty (Doris Lloyd), who lives next door. Myra is having trouble paying her bills, and is behind on her rent to her landlady Mrs. Hobley. Roy Cronin (Kent Douglas – a.k.a. Douglass Montgomery), a Canadian soldier, falls in love with Myra, whom he meets during a German bombing raid on Waterloo Bridge during WWI. Roy does not know about Myra’s current profession. Thinking she is still working as a chorus girl on the stage, he proposes to her, and takes her to meet his mother, sister, and step-father. Myra confesses her past to Roy’s mother (Enid Bennett), and decides she cannot marry him due to their differences in social situations. She flees Roy’s home and tries to avoid seeing Roy again. He comes to her apartment, finds out her true profession from her landlady, and pays her back rent, plus two weeks in advance. Roy finds Myra on the bridge again, and presses her to accept his marriage proposal as he returns to the front, but minutes later she is killed by a German bomb.”
The 1930 stage play had been a turkey, but Universal purchased the film in the hopes that it could be turned into a prestige picture. James Whale was attached as the director and a screenplay by Benn Levy and Tom Reed both opened up the action and made Myra’s fate unambiguous. Rose Hobart was originally attached as Myra, but after learning her contract wasn’t to be renewed, she declined, leaving the part open for Mae Clarke, the pretty young actress who had recently gained notoriety for getting a grapefruit smashed in her face in The Public Enemy (1931). Clarke has always spoken well of Whale, who brought in the picture on time and under budget, and it’s easy to see why she would like him so — his direction treats her with so much humanity. A standout moment shows us Myra’s transformation as she goes from a date with Roy to preparing for her “night job” on the streets. With each move Clarke makes in the mirror, she becomes a little harder, a little colder, a little sadder — until she’s almost like a completely different woman.
But Clarke’s performance is consistently solid throughout, a combination of softness and toughness, and always realistically played. She shares able chemistry with Kent Douglas (that’s how he’s credited here), but his character, by design, is far less interesting: wide-eyed, optimistic, and without nuance. The supporting cast is much more exciting, and modern viewers will delight in seeing a young Bette Davis, in only her third film, as Roy’s sister. But by far the most notable supporting player is silent film actress Enid Bennett as Roy’s mother, who encourages Myra to give up Roy because their different backgrounds will ultimately prove destructive. It’s both a manipulative and genuine play on her part, and this questionable shading makes for good drama. And speaking of drama, the film uses the harrowing circumstances of WWI, the bombings, to raise the stakes and craft an ending, alluded to above, which cements the property’s existence as a tragedy. I think it’s a fitting conclusion, for it gives a sense of heightened importance to everything that transpired previously.
Audiences liked the film then as much as I do today, and when MGM purchased the rights in 1939, they used a lot of the changes made in Whale’s version. Chances are you’ve seen their 1940 adaptation more often than you’ve seen Universal’s ’31, which was considered lost for a long time. Mervyn LeRoy’s 1940 Waterloo Bridge is precisely what you’d anticipate: more gloss, more romance, more melodrama. The biggest narrative change, and the one that clues us in about the changing views of morality in the Pre-Code and Code era, is that May doesn’t become a streetwalker until AFTER she’s already met and fallen in love with Roy, played here by the much sturdier Robert Taylor, who is presumed to have died in battle. (The film is framed with his return to Waterloo Bridge in 1939 at the start of the Second World War, but the action is still set in the First World War — although you maybe couldn’t tell by the visuals.)
This change is clearly designed to keep Myra from being condemnable. While Clarke’s character was a hooker just for the money, Leigh is a hooker because she’s devastated by the death of her love (and the money too, of course). And although one appreciates the grit of the Pre-Code take on the story, this version actually does make the whole tale more tragic — so narratively, it’s not a disappointment. Yet this does alter the entire structure of the story, and Myra’s whole interaction with Roy’s mother is different, as is her ultimate death (suicide this time — gotta love that melodrama). As with the original film, there are several guest stars who shine; this time it’s Virginia Field’s Kitty, whose choice to go into prostitution is the catalyst that begets Myra’s own descent. (Another excuse, of course, and never are any of the actual words used — not even “escort.”)
As you must know, Leigh was just coming off of Gone With The Wind (1939), for which she won an Academy Award shortly before this film premiered. She’s beautiful — maybe even more radiant than she was as Scarlett O’Hara, and there are some shots in here that will take your breath away. In fact, all of LeRoy’s direction is stunning, exactly what you envision when you think of studio era MGM. Most of the studio’s hallmarks are in place — the elegantly lit faces, the sweeping score, and the effortless movements. So this is simply a better made film than its predecessor, with a higher budget, and more polished production practices in place. Furthermore, Leigh and Taylor share a chemistry that their predecessors can only feign. By far, the most haunting moment is their silent dance to “Auld Lang Syne,” as the room becomes darker and darker. That‘s cinema.
So although I love the 1931 film and think both Whale’s direction and Clarke’s performance are really well done, the 1940 film is overall a better viewing experience. And unlike upcoming subjects, the latter’s story changes as a result of Code-era censorship don’t hamper the story; instead, the new beats surprisingly enhance the drama, giving new sources of genuine feeling. Thus, were I forced to choose between the two films, I’d choose MGM’s. But, because the stories are divergent, and the modes of direction are utterly unalike, my recommendation is to watch both. The kernels of story are the same, but the executions make them almost entirely different properties — ones that can be enjoyed individually and on their own terms.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post and check again in a few weeks for another Pre-Code and Under-the-Code comparison! Tune in on Monday for another Jerome Kern musical!