WATERLOO BRIDGE (Mervyn LeRoy, 1940)

War service at the advent of the First World War separates an upper-class Brit and a working-class ballerina who, in wartime’s pressure cooker, meet and fall in love in London. Myra, along with her best friend, Kitty, is dismissed from Olga Kirowa’s ballet company for a curfew violation and cannot find work; Kitty descends into prostitution to save Myra, who, shamed by Kitty’s self-sacrifice, follows suit. When Roy, who had been listed as killed in action, returns, they reunite; but Myra sacrifices her happiness, and ultimately her life, to protect the British class system from the moral taint she would bring to it by marrying Roy.
     Robert E. Sherwood’s play condemning war and classism becomes a rush-job weepie, simultaneously threadbare and glossy (which only M-G-M could manage), whose one aim is to “get out” Vivien Leigh in something, anything, to capitalize on her enormous success in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming et al., 1939). Mediocre despite Mervyn LeRoy’s stylish, swooningly romantic direction, Waterloo Bridge is, nevertheless, far more evocative than that other film, and Leigh, poignant, brilliant, won a “best acting” accolade from the National Board of Review for both roles.
     It is a pathetic, crippled film, however, nonsensically framed as Roy’s reminiscence from the vantage of the new war. Perhaps the most interesting character is Madame Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya, vivid), who, under the duress of a different kind of prostitution (her cut-rate company), has become a petty (though funny!) tyrant. But what do characters mean in a film like this? Virginia Field’s warm-hearted Kitty, Robert Taylor’s wooden Roy, and Lucile Watson’s Lady Margaret, Roy’s fat-assed mother, are an improbable lot. It’s not always clear that LeRoy opposes classism to the same degree that F.D.R.’s future speechwriter did. Or that M-G-M would let him.

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