I’ve been in bed for three days with a cold. After two days I badly needed something to pass the time. I called my father who recommended the 1940 movie Waterloo Bridge starring Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh.
Despite being, so I like to think, at least somewhat well-versed within the movie classics, I’d never even heard of this movie before, which really got me thinking about how arbitrary it is that some movies continue to be thought of as classics, while others sink into oblivion. Waterloo Bridge certainly deserves status as a classic as much as, say, Casablanca does, if you ask me. I expected an old-fashioned romantic movie, but I got a lot more than that.
Not that the romantic story of the movie isn’t fulfilling in and of itself – it is. It’s the story of Captain Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) and ballerina Myra (Vivian Leigh), a young couple who have a chance encounter on Waterloo Bridge around the time of the on-set of World War I during an air-raid. After having spent some time together seeking shelter in the underground for the duration of the raid, the two are sad to part, and Roy goes to see Myra in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, taking her out afterwards. The two fall in love and Roy, destined to leave for France two days later, proposes the next day that they marry right away. Myra accepts, but before the two can be wed, Roy is given order to leave a day earlier than expected.
Taylor is dashing and Leigh displays a wonderfully sweet mien that will surprise anyone who associates her chiefly with the proud and capricious Scarlett O’Hara, and the two have great chemistry. Director Mervyn LeRoy has wisely chosen to let their quick attraction towards one another be shown through clever dialogue, which always seems more convincing and less forced to me than the lingering gazes movie directors sometimes resort to when depicting love at first sight. You really believe that these two people feel singularly comfortable with each other right away. The dialogue allows us to get to know the two main characters and the two characters to get to know each other:
Myra: What was it that you started to tell me in the restaurant that you didn’t understand about me?
Roy: No use getting into it now…
Myra: No, but tell me, please, I’d like to know.
Roy: Well, it struck me as curious ever since I met you… that you’re so young and so lovely and so… defeatist, you know? You don’t seem to expect much from life.
Myra: Well, aren’t I right? For instance, I met you. I liked you. And now so soon we have to part – perhaps we’ll never see each other again.
Waterloo Bridge as a “womance”
Myra is late for a ballet performance as she has to rush to the station to say goodbye to her war-bound fiancé, and for this misdemeanor she is excluded from the company by the strict manager Madame Kirowa. Myra’s best friend Kitty (Virginia Field) steps into character here as she stands up to Madame Kirowa trying to explain the urgent nature of Myra’s errand that night – and is thrown out along with Myra. This marks the beginning of the second half of the movie which is what really makes the movie stand out to me.
Because apart from being a romantic drama about boy meets girl, the movie is actually also a bit of a womance – the story of loving friendship between women. Kitty and Myra seem to be depicted deliberately as opposites: Brunette Myra is demure and meek, while blonde Kitty has a fiesty, outspoken temperament. Yet the two remain close and loyal friends to each other, and after Roy has left to fight in the war, they move in together in a humble flat trying to make a living as dancers. The war leaves very few job opportunities for two young women ballet dancers, and as Myra is led mistakingly by a note in the newspaper that Roy has been killed, she sinks into depression and illness, leaving Kitty to desperately trying to support the both of them.
Kitty lies and tells Myra that she has got a job in a dance theatre production, but Myra catches her in the deception and confronts her. This leads to the most tremendously moving scene of the film:
Myra: Where is the money coming from? Where are you getting it?
Kitty: Where do you think I’ve been getting it?! …I tried to keep it from you, but… Well, you know now.
Myra: (sits down shakily) You did it for me.
Kitty: No, I didn’t! I’d have done it anyhow! C’est la guerre: No jobs. No boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours because they know it may be their last…
Myra: Kitty, you did it for me, to buy me food and medicine. I’d sooner have died…
Kitty: No no, you wouldn’t. You think you would, but you wouldn’t! I thought of that. But I wasn’t brave enough. I wanted to go on living. Heaven knows why, but I did, and so would you. We’re young, and it’s good to live! Even the life *I*’m leading, though God knows, it’s… I’ve heard them call it ‘the easiest way’. I wonder whoever came up with that little phrase. I know one thing: It couldn’t have been a woman. I suppose you think I’m dirt…
Myra: Oh, Kitty. (embracing her)
My quoting the scene doesn’t really do justice to it. The direction is absolutely ingenious here. The dialogue balances just on the verge of becoming an argument, and you think it will, but then it doesn’t, and it ends in an embrace. The feeling of solidarity between women that you sense in this scene is all the more important because of the subject matter, and it is also echoed significantly in Myra’s interaction with her mother-in-law Lady Margaret (a superb Lucile Watson) as the two share a scene of great compassion towards the ending of the movie when Myra is in a desperate state.
“If I were only casting the white swan…”
And the movie goes even further with that solidarity. Rather than letting Kitty play the part of the whore opposite Myra’s virtuous Madonna (like Kim and Amanda in the 2008 flick Taken which I recently reviewed), Myra, too, descends into prostitution in the aftermath of this scene. Kitty is right: Myra really does want to live, and there’s only one way to do that in their situation and it’s not the Madonna way. Surely it’s significant that Roy sees Myra dancing Swan Lake of all ballets. More than half a century before Black Swan, this movie explores the interesting duality that lies implicitly in the title character of the Tchaikovsky ballet – the white and the black swan embodied by one dancer.
In this movie, produced during the trying times of World War II, the theme is not, as in the Aronofsky movie, the destructive fulfilment of true art, but the hardships of women left behind as their men go off to the trenches. The reference, though kept very subtle, is most apparent in the heartbreaking scene, beautifully played by Leigh, when Roy returns as a war hero and is overjoyed to find an astonished Myra there to receive him at the train station. He remains oblivious to the tragically ironic fact that she was really there to pick up customers . Once a white-clad ballerina, Myra is now wearing dark dress and a pitch-black hat. “It is you, isn’t it? It’s really you” Roy says, embracing her – as the swan theme from the Tchaikovsky ballet is struck up mournfully by the orchestra in the soundtrack.
Roy’s question goes unanswered by Myra who simply bursts into tears. This puzzles Roy – “This is a happy ending!”, he insists. In Mervin LeRoy’s directing, the returning war hero is optimistic and triumphant. But for the ones who have been left behind there is little triumph, the movie seems to say, and they have good reason to be, well, defeatist. For Myra and Kitty the war has been a humiliating defeat to the black-feathered side to them that has had to take over in order for them to go on living, and the home-coming of Roy assigns to Myra the impossible task of having to be the lily-white maiden that her war hero expects to find waiting for him.
Oh, ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road
The ending of the movie is concerned with the question of whether Myra will tell Roy what’s happened to her and whether Roy will be willing to accept and love Myra for what she is now. This makes for a satisfying ending to the romantic storyline, but it isn’t an urgent question. We have already been led to accept Myra and love her. I really like that, and I’m impressed that a movie from this era of partriachy, and directed by a man at that, got such a message through. I’m sure that the movie was marketed in part as an exploitation film because of its scandalous subject matter, but the prostitution storyline hardly gets an exploitation-like vulgar feel to it at any point in the actual movie.
Finally, the film has a very good soundtrack. Apart from introducing a fetching original love theme and, as mentioned above, remnants of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the orchestral score includes fragments of Scottish sentimental ballads such as “For Auld Lang Syne“, and “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, thus emphasizing discretely and effectively the themes of Myra’s metamorphosis, scottish-born Roy’s somewhat nostalgic approach to the world, as well as the moving story of affection and loss between two lovers.