Appreciation of the Waterloo Bridge
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, based on Robert Sherwood's play, with a screenplay by S.N. Behrman, Hans Rameau, and George Froeschel, this classic, tear-jerking wartime love story, starring Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, was Oscar nominated for its Cinematography and Original Musical Score.
Leigh plays a melancholy dancer, Myra, who meets soldier Roy Cronin (Taylor) during an air raid in World War I London, just before he's to be shipped off to the front. Given a 48-hour leave, the carefree and romantic Roy, captivated by her beauty, sweeps Myra off her feet until she too is optimistic about their future. He receives permission from his uncle, the Duke, to marry her. Unfortunately, due to some officialese, they are unable to get married before Roy must leave for France. Myra attempts to return to the ballet, but her tough boss refuses to accept her back into the company, and fires fellow dancer Kitty for her outburst in support of her friend.
Myra and Kitty take an apartment together where they struggle to make ends meet until Roy's mother, Lady Margaret, who had been working with the Red Cross, is able to come for a visit. Just before this meeting, however, Myra reads Roy's name on a casualty list in the newspaper. Frightened and in shock, Myra is unable to make a good impression on her would-be future mother-in-law. After being comforted by the restaurant's hostess, Myra returns to Kitty who supports her financially during her depression by the only way a girl who can't find a job otherwise can. Soon, Myra comes out of her funk and realizes that Kitty has been selling herself to soldiers on leave. Naturally, she then joins this oldest profession herself. Tom Conway is the uncredited voice one hears as her first client.
Later, as Myra is "greeting" the latest batch of soldiers arriving from the front at the train station, she sees Roy. Apparently, there was a reporting
error made when he'd lost his dog tags. Ignorant of what has happened in her life, Roy is thrilled to see Myra and figures they'll just pick up where they left off. Promising never to leave her again, Roy insists on taking Myra to their country estate, to more properly introduce her to his family and friends. Though Myra struggles with what to tell Roy of her recent past, she also sees an opportunity to finally "make it" and promises Kitty, before she leaves, to set her up well when she returns.
Though things do not go smoothly initially at the Cronin estate for Myra; some of the local families had hoped Roy would marry one of their daughters and are not very accepting of the newcomer from outside their caste. However, with help from Lady Margaret, who'd given her another chance per Roy's obvious love for Myra and the Duke, who insists on a showy dance with her, Myra is accepted. It is at this point that Myra's conscience gets the best of her and she comes clean to Lady Margaret, whom she asks never to tell Roy. Myra then departs early the next morning, leaving Roy clueless.
Of course, Roy must find out what happened to the love of his life. He returns to London where he finds Kitty. Convinced of his love for Myra, Kitty reveals the truth of Myra's nightlife to Roy by taking him on a search for her through one seedy bar after another. Meanwhile, Myra is on Waterloo Bridge, where she's seen giving up; she walks rapidly past several troop trucks as they drive by before she throws herself under the wheels of one of them. The film ends with Colonel Roy, many years later at the beginning of World War II, fingering the good luck charm Myra had once given him.
Waterloo Bridge is one of those rare films that never seem to strike a false note or put a foot wrong. There is not a wasted moment in the screenplay -- every shot has meaning, every scene plays its part -- and the dialogue gains its power through the lightest of touches. The single scene that brings me to tears every time is that brief, banal interview in the cafe,
with the dreadful unknowing irony of every word Lady Margaret says. Yet for a tear-jerker, and one that centers on wartime separation and hardship, in an era where unemployment could mean literal starvation, the film contains perhaps more scenes of unalloyed happiness than any modern-day romance. The script is understated, sparkling with laughter and even at its darkest salted with black jest, while no-one can doubt the central couple's joy in each other. They themselves acknowledge, and repeatedly, the sheer implausibility of their romance: but war changes all the rules, makes people -- as Roy says -- more intensely alive.
Waterloo Bridge has a touch of everything: laughter, tears, tension, misunderstanding, sweetness, beauty and fate. It couldn't be made in today's Hollywood without acquiring an unbearable dose of schmaltz; in the era of Pretty Woman, it probably couldn't be made at all. But of its kind it is perfect.
In my mind this eclipses so many other more acclaimed wartime films. Find some way to watch this -- at least once in your life.