' ' Cinema Romantico: Waterloo Bridge

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Waterloo Bridge

Let us consider the climate of the country into which Mervyn LeRoy's feature was released. It hit theaters on May 17, 1940. Hitler and his Nazi thugs were running roughshod across Europe. Brussels fell to them on May 17, 1940. 18 days later Britain's evacuation at Dunkirk would end. Another 18 days after that France would surrender to Germany. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, FDR was trying to navigate America's way into the global brawl. So on and so forth. It must have been turbulent and terrifying. And then, in the middle of it all, came "Waterloo Bridge."

It was set in England during World War I and opens, essentially, with the first ever Meet Cute during an air raid. As Capt. Roy Cronin (Robert Walker, dashing) stands on, ahem, Waterloo Bridge the air raid sirens sound. A group of passing girls panic and Capt. Cronin advises them to hurry to the nearest shelter. One of the girls, Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh, striking and phenomenally brilliant - more on that later), drops her purse. Sweet Lord, no! Bombs are about to fall! Roy helps her scoop up her belongings, including her good luck charm, a billiken, and they hurry to the shelter where the two of them pass what ordinarily would be tense moments flirting like a couple in a 1940's melodrama. She's a ballerina and has a performance once this pesky air raid concludes and invites him. But he has an officer's dinner, a dinner which he will ultimately choose to skip for the performance.

The action moves to dinner for two at the Candlelight Club which concludes brilliantly, luminously, perfectly, to a waltz to "Auld Lange Syne", as, one by one, band members bow out, snuffing a candle as they do, soon leaving Roy and Myra in the near pitch-black, their glowing attraction lighting up the room all on its lonesome, the audience unconditionally surrendering to the elaborated perfection, and leading, of course, to the First Kiss, which is The Best Kiss In Movie History 1(A). This is to say that Hawkeye and Cora in "Last of the Mohicans" is still officially #1 but that the kisses are so different. The kiss in "Waterloo Bridge" is gentle and gently melodramatic and the kiss in "Mohicans" is passionate and full of infatuation.

But this is to be merely a one night rendezvous as Roy is set to ship out with his unit the following day. Except fate, as it must, will intervene and will continue to intervene, a la "Romeo & Juliet" (which contains as many serendipitous occurences as "Serendipity", not that Shakespeare scholars will ever admit this), throughout, as Roy's unit is delayed for 48 hours, allowing him to track down Myra, who defies her crotchety, yet ultimately, kind of, prophetic, ballet instructor, and propose to her. She accepts, except fate intervenes and the otherwise kindly priest explains the law forbids him from marrying anyone after three o'clock. Come back tomorrow, he says. Except fate intervenes and Roy's unit is sent to the front a day early, preventing the marriage, and causing Myra to ignore her important balletic performance to partake in the grandest of all melodramatic traditions - chasing after your loved one as the train pulls away. Sigh....

Anyway, Myra gets the heave-ho from the company and her loyal friend Kitty joins her and the two make due as best they can in a tiny little apartment while Myra waits for her one true love. Except fate intervenes when Myra happens upon the obitutary section of the daily paper listing one of the casualties of war as.....Capt. Roy Cronin. Naturally, she has a complete meltdown and, naturally, desperate for money, becomes a streetwalker (yes, a streetwalker) where as she waits one day at Waterloo Station for the boys comin' home fate intervenes and she runs into, naturally, Roy. He lives! And he promises to marry her, just like he always promised, but can she go through it in the face of the ruin her life has become?

Is this is a war movie? It's set during a war, yes, but the war is never really seen. The audience never senses grave danger to Roy when he talks of the front lines or is shipped out. Heck, in the opening scene we see the older version of Roy - the film is a flashback - and so we know he hasn't died even while Myra thinks he has. Yet, despite that and despite a first act marinated in the most fabulous sort of (aforementioned) melodrama, the film, in the end, is something far more sinister.

Vivien Leigh's performance here is a force with which to be reckoned, in some ways making her much more famous turn as Scarlett O'Hara seem mushy. Robert Walker is just kind of genial, an off season resident of the Corn Palace, beaming, laughing, taking life as it comes. He's an optimist, and says so, but Leigh's character is the realist, even wondering aloud after that first kiss if this is not love but a stolen season. She employs her eyes - as all the great ones do - to extravagant effect, often looking down and away, even in the early-going, as if to clue us into the later passages when she can't bear to look her one true love in the eye, ashamed of her transgressions. The final scene finds her marching down Waterloo Bridge, her eyes steeled, staring down oncoming traffic, and you see what's coming and you know what's coming and she and Leroy draw it out and draw it out and draw it out.........you're helpless.

Did Americans on May 17, 1940 feel helpless? Did they see what was coming and did they know what was coming? Did they assume there was no way they would not eventually be pulled into war? Did they feel like Leigh stalking Waterloo Bridge? The ending on a technical level is fairly dark, yet one cannot help wonder if there was a certain form of catharsis for audiences to witness this startling conclusion.

Then again, perhaps "Waterloo Bridge" is merely movie testament to the way in which true love, however long gone, whatever may have went wrong, never fades. Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Hell no.


Unknown said...

My favourite film of all time

Unknown said...

My favourite film of all time