Until recently James Whale's 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge has been virtually impossible to see since it was designated as “indecent” by the Catholic Legion of Decency and violated the Hays Code, which listed three general guidelines:
- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Specific restrictions were also spelled out and written in 1930, but Hollywood had no means to enforce the Code until 1934. Thus, the only film version based on Robert E. Sherwood's original play available over the years has been the much sanitized 1940 remake starring Vivien Leigh. No longer! Turner Classic Movies has released a Forbidden Hollywood Collection DVD set that includes this once “lost” film.
Although the overall film remains highly melodramatic, Mae Clarke shines as the conflicted and ill-fated protagonist, Myra—a down on her luck East St. Louis native stranded in London at the start of WWI. Scratching enough schillings to pay the rent is a continual challenge. While she gets occasional work as a chorus girl, Myra's regular income source comes from hanging out around Waterloo Bridge to engage in the world's oldest profession.
During an air raid on the bridge, Myra hooks up with naïve 19 year old Roy Cronin (Kent Douglass), an American who has just joined the Royal Canadian forces to fight in the great war. With just few days furlough before shipping off, Roy falls “hook, line, and sinker” for Myra and has no idea that she's a hooker. She's touched by his innocent devotion and his immediate trust and generosity as he offers money to pay her rent and buy a desired dress—so much that she refuses the money. She also turns down his offer to meet his parents at their country estate, but inevitably ends up there.
Roy proposes marriage, throwing Myra into more conflict. Although she has grown to possibly love him, she feels unworthy and still hasn't revealed that she's a working prostitute. Roy's mother (Enid Bennett) instinctively perceives Myra as a “good girl” but does initially advise her to not jump into her son's marriage bed. She continues to trust the young woman even after Myra confides her profession, even pronouncing that her honesty and deliberation only proves her deep down goodness.
Also noteworthy are Bette Davis' small role as Roy's sister and Frederick Kerr's comic role as deaf curmudgeon Major Wetherby. Davis doesn't have much to do here and you hardly get to see her famous eyes, but Kerr's likable character brings welcome chuckles to the rather drab dialogue.
With Roy adding marriage pressure, Myra escapes back to the city but of course the young soldier continues his pursuit. With just hours to go before departure, he gets Myra to agree to elope, only to have her disappear again. This is when he finally learns about Myra's line of work from her sardonic landlady (Ethel Griffies). Undaunted, he pays off her back rent and combs London's streets to locate his true love, culminating with a tearful embrace on Waterloo Bridge before he must ship out and a rather predictable denouement. At least it's a pre-Code ending more like foreign films today than current happy Hollywood.
Not the greatest film of the era, but Waterloo Bridge contains a great deal of historical interest for film buffs. Although sexual matters are hinted at, none are shown—only proving how inadequate the restrictive Hays Code was in shaping public morality. This is also the film immediately before Whale's most famous work—Frankenstein. So you can see elements of his visual style in evidence here, notably the shots of the searchlights over London during the air raid.
In keeping with the period, the acting remains stagey and melodramatic, but Clarke does achieve occasional conflicted nuance in between her over the top head tosses and abrupt character shifts. She does demonstrate that she can do more than get smashed with a well aimed grapefruit (a la Cagney) in her most famous film (Public Enemy).