Based on the stage play by Robert E. Sherwood, Mervyn LeRoy’s Waterloo Bridge (1940) marked the first occasion that Vivien Leigh appeared in a movie following her meteoric rise to super stardom via Gone With The Wind (1939). With its obvious reflections to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and timely appeal as a prelude to the looming conflict in Europe, the film became a megawatt hit, propelled by a four hanky weeper of a screenplay written by S.N. Behrman, Hans Rameau and George Froeschel.
The tale opens on the eve of bombing raid in London with one of MGM’s most popular leading men, Robert Taylor starring as Capt. Roy Cronin. Aged and carrying a small lucky charm in his pocket, Roy strolls the length of Waterloo Bridge, reminiscing over the love that was so divine. Flashback to another time and another war: Roy, once again on the bridge and this time coming in contact with the innocent Myra by happy circumstance and moments before another bombing raid hits the city.
The two duck into a nearby and very crowded shelter, cautiously flirting with one another. Roy learns that Myra is a ballet dancer and, against the direct orders of his colonel (Gilbert Emery), skips out on a dinner engagement to attend the theater instead. Myra’s ballet master, Madame Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya) is not impressed. There can only be one love in a young woman’s life: the ballet.
All evidence to the contrary for Myra who, against Madame Olga’s direct edict, goes dancing with Roy and then, the next afternoon rejoins him in the pouring rain to rekindle their passionate romance. Forced to choose between love and the ballet, Myra is fired from her job along with another dancer, Kitty (Virginia Fields) who sides against Madame Olga’s tyrannical authority. Roy proposes marriage to Myra but is called away to the front lines before he can make her his wife.
Forced to survive, and unbeknownst to Myra, Kitty turns to prostitution to pay the bills on their cold water flat. Myra receives a letter from Roy instructing her to meet his mother, Lady Margaret (Lucille Watson) at a fashionable tea room. However, Lady Margaret is late and in the interim Myra reads a report in the local papers that falsely lists Roy among the soldiers killed during battle. Unable to quantify her emotions when Lady Margaret finally arrives, Myra is distant and rather cruel. Lady Margaret departs the tea room and Myra returns home to learn the truth about Kitty’s ‘profession.’
Turning to prostitution herself, Myra becomes jaded by life – a turn of events made all the more bitter when she and Roy are reunited at the Waterloo Train Station. Unable to see what their separation has done to Myra, Roy believes that their reunion means a return to the carefree romance of yore. Myra desperately tries to convince herself of as much but, upon arriving at Roy’s ancestral family estate in Scotland, realizes how far removed she now is from the sort of culture and decorum that once might have ideally suited her.
Struggling with her own emotions, Myra confides in Lady Margaret the truth. Lady Margaret is not judgmental, but Myra realizes that she and Roy can never marry now. Disappearing into the night, Myra does not return to the cold water flat she once shared with Kitty. In search of Myra, Roy and Kitty go slumming in London’s seedy lime house district where Roy finally realizes just how cruel a fate their separation has been.
Myra, who has completely given up on life, strolls the precipice of Waterloo Bridge. As a caravan of Red Cross Army trucks go by, she throws herself beneath the wheels of one of the vehicles and dies. The story flashes forward again to the aged Roy Cronin on Waterloo Bridge, still forlorn and love soar after all these years – continuing to wonder how such divine happiness went so utterly wrong.
Waterloo Bridge is compelling melodrama of the highest order. The screenplay packs a lifetime of romantic longing into a scant 109 min. Vivien Leigh is tragically marvelous as the ballet dancer who turns to prostitution to keep body and soul together. Robert Taylor is amply sustainable as the devil-may-care soldier. Virginia Field makes the most of Kitty. Character actors C. Aubrey Smith, Maria Ouspenskaya and Lucille Watson are superb in their cameo appearances. In the final analysis, Waterloo Bridge is a grand romantic tragedy – a cautionary tale that blames the death of a woman’s fragile purity on the conflicts of war.
Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is middle of the road. Previous bootlegged editions of this movie available around the world have been abysmally bad. However, Warner’s transfer does little to restore the image to its rightful glory, apart from stabilizing and removing previously inherent chroma bleeding.
The B&W elements appear to suffer from lower than usual levels of contrast. Certain scenes are quite dark, with a loss of fine detail evident throughout. Dissolves and fades contain a considerable amount of film grain. Age related artifacts, a reoccurring vertical scratch in the center of the frame, and, even a hair caught in the bottom of the lens during one particular scene all add up to a less than stellar home video presentation. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Apart from a theatrical trailer, there are NO extra features!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)