Of all her respected filmography, Vivien Leigh had one film as her favorite. And I agree with her because it’s mine: Waterloo Bridge. Released the year after she broke out as Scarlett O’Hara, the smaller classic is dramatic, it’s beautiful and it’s perfect. A movie to cry and watch thousand times over.
Inspired by a true story, the film addressed the anguish of the time, with the 2nd World War and uncertainties about the future, and included a taboo topic at the time: prostitution. The biggest scandal was having a lady like Vivien playing a “corrupted woman”, but let’s go back a few steps.
American Robert E. Sherwood, a friend of Dorothy Parker years later, served in England during World War I. In 1930 he wrote a play about what he lived in Europe. Waterloo Bridge was based on his own wartime experience of a chance meeting with an American chorus girl in London in November 1918. Robert was recovering from battle wounds, when he went to Trafalgar Square to attend the armistice celebration, he met a young woman who shared some circumstances the author passed on to the character of Myra (Vivien Leigh). This young woman invited Robert to her apartment, but he forgot her address and never found her again. Years later, through Roy (Robert Taylor) he rambled on about what might have been while recounting the tragedies of civilian casualties of the war.
In the play, and in the film, Colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) makes a stop at London’s Waterloo Bridge before heading to France to fight in World War II. He reflects on the past and how, in 1914, he met ballerina Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh) during an attack on the city. In the shelter, the lightning-fighting courtship of war arises, as well as the proposal of marriage. But at the same time, he is moved to the front before making the union official, Myra is fired from the ballet company for having gone out with Roy on the sly. Her friend Kitty, who defends her, is also fired. Unable to find work in another company, the two are starving and in need. Just when she is supposed to meet the groom’s aristocratic mother, Myra reads a story about Roy’s death in the newspaper and faints. Without the courage to tell her mother-in-law the truth, the young girl falls ill, almost dying of sadness. To help, Kitty prostitutes herself, but the two “guard” Myra. However, touched by her friend’s sacrifice and, unwillingness to live, she also becomes a prostitute.
A year later, Roy reappears, finding Myra at the train station, not suspecting that she was there looking for soldiers. Picking up where he left off, Roy takes her home to Scotland, with Myra trying to believe her recent past can be erased. Realizing that it would be impossible, she confesses everything to her mother-in-law and runs away. Roy follows her, ready to forgive her, but she commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a truck on Waterloo Bridge. And he spends his life saddened by the consequences of the War in the lives of good people.
The play was successful and turned into a movie in 1931, but was censored in major American cities because of the taboo topic of prostitution. Without much exposure, MGM bought the rights to reshoot just 9 years later. Even with the advancement of time, many details tried to soften the story so as not to be censored. The nationality of the protagonists – Americans – changed when British stars Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh were hired. In the play and film, Roy doesn’t see how Myra makes money. To ease the choice of the woman, who became a prostitute to overcome hunger, the character only sells herself when she loses hope and wants to die after she believes her boyfriend is lost. In the original film, Myra is accidentally killed after her situation with Roy has apparently been resolved, but in the 1940 version, she commits suicide when her inner conflict becomes insurmountable.
Audiences were shocked to see “Scarlett O’Hara” as a prostitute, but critics were impressed by Vivien’s acting and courage. She knew the author, Robert, because he had been working on the screenplay for Rebecca, a film starring Laurence Olivier, who was claiming the lead role for his fiancée, Vivien. Joan de Fontaine won the role and Vivien (producer David O’Selzinick thought the actress was too strong for the role of the shy Mrs. De Winter) also had hopes that Waterloo Bridge could put her on-screen again with her love, but Robert Taylor took the role. The obstacle at the time was due to his schedule, Laurence Olivier was recording Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson.
In fact, Laurence and Vivien never got the American film that brought them together. They tried Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Waterloo Bridge, and Pride and Prejudice, but they either found him or her inappropriate. I agree with his expectation that Vivien would have been perfect as Cathy, Mrs. De Winter, or Elizabeth Bennett. Good thing they later made Lady Hamilton in England.
Back to Waterloo Bridge. Robert Taylor at the time was one of MGM’s top stars and just two years earlier he had worked with Vivien when they recorded A Yank at Oxford. At 29, he loved playing Roy, who was a complex and mature romantic lead as opposed to brash youngsters like the one he played opposite Greta Garbo in Camille, to name one. But he was aware that his co-star, by this time taller than him thanks to Gone With The Wind, was frustrated that he would be in Laurence Olivier‘s shoes.
To his credit, he reversed the situation. “It was the first time I actually had a performance that met the often unattainable standards I always set for myself,” Taylor later said. About Vivien? “She made me look better,” he confessed. In fact, like Robert, Vivien has come to consider Waterloo Bridge her favorite film and work. “MGM has provided Miss Leigh with a story and role that allows her to vary, to employ all the grace and mobility that springs from her frail body and all the expressiveness of her vital face,” wrote The New York Times. “[Vivien] Leigh casts the role of the girl with such superb understanding, progresses from the innocent and frail dancer to an empty, numb slut with such assurance of characterization, and creates a person of such attractive naturalness that the image takes on considerable substance as a result.”, says the article.
The movie has several classic and perfect scenes to this day. The kiss in the rain or in the darkness of a candlelit restaurant. It’s a typical 1940s drama, but a deep, sad and perfect story.
For the New York Times, the film gained relevance because of the actress. “Let there be no doubt about it: Vivien Leigh is a good actress that we have on-screen today. Perhaps even the best, and that’s a lot to say,” wrote the New York Times at the film’s release. We know it to be right.