The pre-Code Waterloo Bridge doesn’t boast early Barbara Stanwyck, but it’s a lot more fun than Baby Face. And auteurists may suspect the reason why — the man behind the camera was no less a heavyweight than James Whale. Granted, when he made Waterloo Bridge he was not yet the James Whale — but it’s said that when he finished this one his studio bosses at Universal were so impressed they gave him the run of the studio to select his next film, and of course he opted to make Frankenstein, casting his Waterloo star Mae Clarke as Elizabeth and working again with ace D.P. Arthur Edeson, who would go on to shoot They Drive By Night, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca.
It’s no Bride of Frankenstein, but Waterloo Bridge is real good stuff nonetheless. As the film begins, stage sets are being struck and Myra is saying goodbye to her gig as a chorus-line girl and setting off into the London night. A couple of years later, the rent is past due, England is at war, and Myra is still walking the streets, selling her body to dallying soldiers on leave. One of those soldiers is Roy (Douglass Montgomery, then billed as Kent Douglass), a cute but sappy blonde too dull to identify a prostitute when he sees one. It turns out to be a happy mistake, since he’s likable enough, and by the time he’s fallen in love with her, the feeling is starting to be reciprocated. But Roy lives among the swells (Bette Davis shows up there, too), and Myra feels deeply unworthy.
This could be torturous, didactic stuff, but Whale’s touch is light. An early scene set backstage at Myra’s theater is played for pure bubbly sex appeal — a troupe of singers and dancers making lots of noise in their underwear — and it contrasts with the chilly joylessness of her later life in the city, where sex appeal is a commodity. Clarke plays Myra as a sensible woman, but worried, inwardly tortured, and prone to outbursts. Montgomery’s Roy is a big earnest lug, all strong silence and masculine lumpiness. Whale stages the dialogue with considerable finesse for an early sound filmmaker (I was amused to see the original New York Times review — written by one Mordaunt Hall, which sounds like a pseudonym for Joel Coen — devoting most of a paragraph to cataloging exciting elements on the soundtrack), and the photography is generally lovely and evocative — including impressive optical/miniature shots looking across Waterloo Bridge, over the water, and into the city at night, floodlights swinging back and forth to illuminate the sky.
It’s fun all the way up until the very last scene, which amplifies and terminates the melodrama with alarming speed and clumsiness. Again, that’s the price of life in the pre-Code era, when a woman’s foolish and immoral ways were met with a stern lecture or a sudden bout of profound remorse if she was lucky; the wages of sin if not. (Myra, it turns out, is especially luckless.) The result is a deeply unsatisfying climax to a very well-tooled, if lightweight, romance. B