(spoilers ahead, but you don't care, right, it's a 1940 movie)
Waterloo Bridge is an odd film to judge. On the surface I liked it. The acting was quite good, the dialogue is well written and the direction by Mervyn LeRoy is good. It is an entertaining movie, apart from its plot development and moral, especially concerning women. I have rarely seen such a strange mixture of serviceable filmmaking and questionable ethics. Interestingly, for a movie made in 1940, it is set mostly during World War I but also includes Britain declaring war on Germany in World War II, clearly appealing to audience’s emotions at the time. Anyway, there are worse old movies you could watch and this one at least offers the opportunity for interesting post-watching discussions.
It is the story of Roy (Robert Taylor), a British colonel, and Myra (Vivien Leigh), a ballerina. They meet accidentally and fall in love quickly. They are both nice, good people that are pleasant to watch, even when they fall in love. Myra is shy and mousy but it becomes clear after a while that she has just been waiting for a man to find her and pick her up. She has no discernible free will and lives under the tough rule of her ballet instructor (Maria Ouspenskaya, a Russian of course): she is not allowed to see men, is in fact at times dressed like a nun and likes to say: “I pray it will [happen]”. She is the perfect innocent angel, which makes her later transformation even more poignant. To be fair, Roy is always nice too, really romantic and only gradually decides to decide her life from now on, which she is willing to accept. When they say goodbye for a long time, he tells her “Please leave me first” and the obedient girl she is, she doesn’t say a word, but turns around and leaves. When he proposes to her, he uses the telling words: “You’re going to marry me!” It’s a classic gender role distribution and anything else would be surprising in 1940.
But then the movie progresses and becomes darker, but also almost malevolent towards Myra. She is dismissed from her ballerina, together with her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field) and they share an apartment. When she learns that Roy has fallen in the war, she becomes desperate. As she and her friend need to support themselves now, they turn to, it seems, only solution: they become prostitutes! This turn is handled so casually, that it is insane. It is even crazier by the fact that the word prostitution could not be said in 1940, so everyone in the movie is talking around it in the strangest ways. Here’s the introduction of the topic:
Myra: Where’s the money coming from? Where are you getting it?
Kitty: Where do you think I’ve been getting it? Tried to keep it from you, but… well, you know now.
Myra: You did it for me.
Kitty: No, I didn’t. I would’ve done it anyhow. C’est la guerre. No jobs, no boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours cause they know it may be their last.
Myra: Kitty, you did it for me to buy me food and medicine. I’d sooner have died.
Kitty: No, no, you wouldn’t. You think you would but you wouldn’t. I thought of that. But I wasn’t brave enough. I wanted to go on living. Heaven knows why, I didn’t and so would you. We’re young and it’s good to live. Even the life I’m leading. God knows… I heard they call it ‘the easiest way.’ I wonder who ever thought up that little phrase. I know one thing: couldn’t have been a woman.
It’s very interesting to see both how Kitty justifies her action and how her distaste for it and most men still comes through. It’s a bitter speech and despite the weird circumstance of not talking about what she is talking about, it’s effective. But the scene where Myra turns to prostitution is amazing. She walks along a bridge, alone when a man, off-screen, talks to her about the weather and then asks her for “a little stroll.” She pauses for a second, then goes with him, with a face and a smile that suggests she is detached already and does what she has to do. There is no choice for her, again, her life is constantly determined by others and she follows along. But she does with a fucked up smile that is an amazing actress’ feat by Vivien Leigh.
Well, the movie tortures her more because Roy eventually comes back from the dead of course and wants to continue their happy life together immediately. Thus follows scene after scene in which he is happy to be alive and in love and her devastated because she can’t tell him what she did when he was gone. Everyone tells over and over what a good person she is. It is out of the question that she explains herself to him, that she tries to make him understand the desperate situation she found herself in. She eventually decides to tell her mother-in-law Margaret (Lucile Watson) and it’s another piece of extraordinary beat-around-the-bush dialogue.
Margaret: My dear, why don’t you tell me what it is? I’m sure I can help you.
Myra (crying): No one can help me.
Margaret: But, my dear, what can it be that is so terrible? Has there been someone else?
Myra: Oh Lady Margaret, you are naïve.
Margaret (shocked): Myra!
Myra: Yes. Yes! Yes!
Myra: Yes, that thought which is now in your mind, which you are telling yourself can’t be true. It is true.
In Lady Margaret’s favor, she is very understanding and even blames herself, but it is amazing how people easily understand what is going on without a word said.
So, clearly, there is only one way out for Myra, right? Does she tell him? Does she run away to live a new life? Does she not tell him and marry him? No, none of the above. The only way for a woman to get out of an unpleasant situation, especially one where she ruined her honor, is of course suicide. So one night, she walks (almost, well, strolls) along a street of army trucks driving by, desperate, absent, distant and as the editing gets incredibly fast for a 1940 movie she somewhat falls in front of a truck. It almost seems like an accident but the intention is very clear. As with prostitution, it’s mostly light and shadow and implication when it comes to suicide.
The lesson of this movie is that woman can do anything they’re old by men (if it’s the right man), that they have no real possibility of a decent life on their own and that if their stained once, there is no going back. So, there you go, very problematic morals in a well-acted and nice enough movie. I would probably less forgiving if this was a new movie, but something about this movie makes me sympathetic, which is not its age as we will see later this week when we talk about movies I didn’t like.