Continuing my Bette Davis project; this was her third film. Her second, Seed, is basically unavailable; there’s at least one existing print at UCLA, but it’s too fragile to be even viewed. Her part in Seed is the smallest of her entire career, so I’m probably not missing much. Her part here is also really small; she plays the sister of the male lead and she’s not in the movie much at all.
But the film itself is of great interest. Waterloo Bridge, the story of a World War I soldier and a prostitute that fall in love, is more well-known because of the 1940 remake with Vivien Leigh, but this is the original. This one, being pre-Code, is able to deal more affectingly and more explicitly with the fact that the main character is a prostitute. And it was the success of this film that gave director James Whale the freedom to choose his next project; he chose, of course, the film that made his reputation, Frankenstein.
Anyway, this movie has some problems. Some of the supporting performances are cartoonish, but the really crippling one is Douglass Montgomery as the male lead. He’s pretty bad, really. That’s too bad because the script is solid and it doesn’t go the usual route of the high society family not being open to a prostitute being part of their family, etc. Instead, it’s Myra’s deep, deep self-loathing that stands in the way of her happiness. The film has some really painful scenes of Myra picking up men and you can see that she hates herself right down to the bone for who she has to be in order to live. Mae Clarke, an actress I was not familiar with prior to seeing this film, is nothing short of phenomenal as Myra. It’s a surprisingly naturalistic performance, often quite minimal. She has her hysterical scenes, of course, but by then she’s earned our buy-in and they’re actually pretty disturbing. To the degree the movie works, it’s almost all down to Clarke; she’s really phenomenal at creating a dark character, but one that has the audience’s sympathy. It’s a layered performance and Myra is a surprisingly well-written and emotionally and psychologically complex female character. Much as I’m not into remakes, I’d kind of like to see this one remade (as a period piece, of course) with Brie Larson. There were scenes from Short Term 12 that kept popping into my head watching this movie, just in terms of the self-destructive self-hatred that the main characters in those films share. Ultimately, the movie is too flawed and only Clarke’s character/performance is really good at all. It’s another one of those movies where the lead performance elevates the film a whole star (if not more) all by itself. But even that can’t get this one up too far. 2 ½ stars.
tl;dr – tragic wartime romance of soldier & prostitute has a lead performance from Mae Clarke that’s nothing short of brilliant, but she’s unfortunately the only thing that’s much good here. 2 ½ stars.