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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE...: Love [in/and/is] War

Carole Landis and soldier hubby Thomas Wallace, 
wed January 5, 1943 in London. 

To pay homage to Carole Landis's wartime marriage to soldier Thomas Wallace, I thought it only appropriate to explore a similar cinematic theme: Love and War. This plot has revealed itself through multiple storylines in movieland, but there is one very specific tale that has metamorphosed over three different films. The plot mutated with each interpretation, but in essence the story is thus: a young woman and a soldier fall in love in the midst of war-torn London only to be ripped apart by fate... and the fact that the girl is a prostitute. All is fair...

~  ~  ~

Hollywood has decided, thus far, to take a stroll down Waterloo Bridge thrice. It first adapted Robert E. Sherwood's play in 1931, then remade it in more glamorous terms in 1940, and took a final stab in the plush studio bonanza of 1956's Gaby. As always, different directors, actors, and circumstances produced vastly different outcomes. The instigation of the censorship code in 1934 caused a stark contrast between the 1931 and 1940 version, but while little is changed plot-wise in the story between 1940 and 1956, the final film too bears the highly recognizable stamp of its time and conditions. 

In 1931, James Whale, the visionary and off-kilter director most renowned for his work on the horror classic Frankenstein, was assigned the task of directing the first Waterloo Bridge. At this time, America had long been at peace after WWI, the roaring twenties had been enjoyed and lost with the crash of 1929, and movies were daringly and provocatively reflective of the current human condition. As the cushy melodrama and slap-stick comedy of silent films matured into sinister and sometimes violent celluloid opuses and edgy testaments of darker humor, the time was ripe for filmic exploration. Directors were taking chances, writers were ruffling feathers, and for a brief time, studio heads were letting it all fly. Audiences needed to relate more than they needed to be elevated, which made a script whose main character was a "lady of the night" a welcome dish for salivating viewers.

In the lead role of Myra Deauville is Mae Clarke, who for whatever reason was never able to reach superstardom, but whose solid performances with relentless conviction allowed her to make a mark on many top films of the day, including The Public Enemy and Frankenstein (again with Whale).  Yet, her appearance in this picture may be her most striking. As Myra, Clarke is jaded, streetsmart, and emotionally damaged. Working as a chorus girl in London, her late night activities include picking up men on Waterloo Bridge with her friend Kitty (Doris Lloyd and Clarke, right).  A tough-cookie and survivor, Myra's mettle is threatened by the appearance of Roy Cronin (Douglass Montgomery), a young, American soldier on leave who is her very antithesis: innocent, naive, and romantic. Not realizing Myra's scandalous profession, Roy becomes quickly smitten with her, and the prospect of turning him into her next "John" disappears as Myra's cool heart starts melting. 

United by their American nationality, they are both lonely and isolated. Their connection is instant and intense, but Myra is goaded by her conscience. In a touching scene, she becomes threatened by her young suitor, whose kindness and genuine human interest she has not experienced in some time, if ever. Angered  by and envious of his sweetness and equally afraid of the damage she could do to him, she throws a tantrum to chase him away. As he picks up his things to leave her apartment, she slouches in the background, looking very small and meek, aware that she is letting the only pure thing in her life get away. An apology quickly follows, and soon Myra finds herself in love, though the cynic in her refuses to believe it at first. A woman mired in reality, she compartmentalizes these two conflicting parts of her life. After Roy finally leaves her apartment, she goes to the mirror and gives herself a hard look, applies her trashy lipstick, puts on her hat and sad little fur, symbolically dims the light, and returns to the bridge to find a paying prospect. The silent scene is pure, Whales-ian poetry.

The story thus becomes an internal struggle: a battle of right and wrong amidst the larger battle of war, which is essentially all the same. Myra cannot admit who she really is to her beloved, whose pure heart she cannot bear to break and whose honest love she cannot bear to lose. But, after Roy asks her to marry him, things become even more complicated. Her two lives, the light and the dark, threaten to collide. With his family involved-- including Bette Davis in an early role as Roy's sister, Janet-- Myra's paranoia at being discovered and her personal shame at her deceit of a good man haunts her (see repercussions, right). Any small hope of being revitalized by love and made clean again is quickly revoked by her would-be monster-in-law, (Enid Bennett) who delivers perhaps the most polite smack down in cinematic history. Sensing who Myra really is, Mrs. Cronin refuses her blessing on the upcoming union, and the martyred Myra agrees that this is the best decision. Thus, Myra flees, returning to her beloved bridge-- the only home for a streetwalker is the street. But, despite all logic, even after Roy has discovered who she is, he still loves her. When he comes looking for her on the bridge, he begs her to promise to marry him. As he is literally being pulled away to battle, she concurs, more to ease his mind than because she intends to keep her promise. The lovers are parted amidst the explosions of war, and Myra runs for safety, though it is not certain whether she runs from fear of death or fear of a future she doesn't believe in. It makes no difference, for it is the former that claims her. Struck by an explosion, Myra is killed-- her fur wrap lying like roadkill on the cluttered sidewalk.

What can be gleaned from this harsh and sudden conclusion is debatable. Are we to take that there is no love in war? Is that the height of its brutality? Is Myra a symbolic bad girl who cannot be redeemed? Or is her sacrifice more reflective of reality and how no one can be made new again? You cannot undo your experiences, good or bad, and your innocence is the price you pay for your life. Her death could be a tragedy, but it could be her salvation, her release. The hugeness of war and the immediacy it demands of its victims made the differences between Myra and Roy seem small in the midst of their romance, but could such a love truly exist in the daylight? Perhaps not. Perhaps Myra knew this all along.

The gritty, oppressive nature of this 1931 version stands in sharp contrast to what would occur in 1940. Mervyn LeRoy was this time at the helm, directing Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor (left). In every aspect, this Waterloo Bridge would be emblematic of the heights of studio splendor... and control. After the establishment of the censorship code, women of ill-repute were no longer considered favorable heroines. Indeed, any suggestive or controversial subject matter was unduly given the kibosh while whitewashed, glamorous, euphoric presentations of human life were created. When the decision to revisit the earlier film was thus made, it was equally decided to alter the script a bit. It begins in flashback, with Taylor asking to be taken to Waterloo Bridge, where the aged soldier stands, fondling a strange token that his true love gave to him-- a good luck charm-- and thinking back to the day they met. Thrown together on the bridge in the midst of attack, Taylor saves the beautiful young woman from being struck by a car after she bends heedlessly to pick her dropped charm off the street-- a premonitory event. After spending some time together, Myra gives Taylor the charm for good luck in his battles. They part, but-- struck by her beauty-- he later comes to see her perform. This time, Myra is not a chorus girl but a genuine ballerina. Portrayed as innocent and pure, her role is essentially switched with that of the youthful soldier of the former film, while the man who captures her heart is just that, a man and not a boy: charming, assured, masculine, and knowledgeable. The qualities that remain in both characters are the somewhat melancholy demeanor of Leigh's Myra, whom is jokingly referred to as defeatist before her fate has even been tested, and the boyish thirst for life extolled by Roy, whom Taylor injects with vigor and idealistic passion. 

The combination of these two qualities and the able performances of Leigh and Taylor create a perfect chemistry, which is very important in establishing an impossible romance. The difference, certainly instilled by studio stipulation, between this vehicle and the first is the belief that they are in love. Whereas the fates of Clarke and Montgomery seemed doomed from the beginning-- a forbidden love only able to thrive in the even darker casualties of war-- the audience is led to believe that Leigh and Taylor are truly meant for each other. This is vital, as their courtship, as opposed to the '31 film, is extremely fast. Having just met, they opt to marry after one date, although this attempt is interrupted after much effort when Taylor is called to service. He promises to return; she promises to wait. Unfortunately, Leigh's recklessness and negligence of her dancing over this three-day courtship has cost her her place with the ballet company, where the unforgiving Madame Olga Kirowa, played by the always superb Maria Ouspenskaya, makes it known in no uncertain terms that a true ballerina must put her craft above everything else. Of course, in the studio era, when a woman is given the choice of husband or career, she must choose a husband, which is what Leigh does. However, her penalty is shared by her martyr-like friend, Kitty (Virginia Field), who more closely resembles Mae Clarke's character in the first film. A true friend, Kitty vows to leave the company with the fragile Myra, whom-- as the stronger female-- she feels she must protect. Kitty's presence will become very important to the plot as it escalates (both women, right).

Despite her current unemployment and poverty, all seems well, until Myra reads in the paper that Roy is dead, which is doubly unfortunate, since she discovers this news while waiting to meet her soon-to-be mother-in-law for the first time. Emotionally destroyed and unable to communicate the information she has just learned, Myra is evasive and rude to Lady Margaret Cronin (Lucile Watson), purposely forcing a wedge between herself and the woman she now knows that she will never call her mother. Distraught and hungry, Myra learns that Kitty has resorted to prostitution to support them both. With a broken heart and nothing left to lose, Myra now finds herself doing the same. Leigh's actions, unlike her predecessor Clarke, are therefore fully explained and forgivable. Her virtue becomes the sacrifice of war, whereas love was Clarke's sacrifice. However, a wrench is thrown into things when Myra is casing the train station for Johns only to find her beloved-- who is very much alive and very much still in love with her-- stepping off a train (left). Myra is beside herself with shock. Again, she is forced to hide the self that she has devolved into from the man she no longer feels that she deserves. Clarke's heroin had to protect Montgomery from the woman she was, Leigh must protect Taylor from the woman she has become. Roy brings her home to meet the family-- the fairy tale is aided by the fact that Roy appears to be loaded-- and she and Lady Cronin reconcile, though Myra's guilt forces her to confess all of her sins to the matriarch. When a shocked but compassionate Lady Cronin questions Myra's chastity, Leigh pathetically utters: "Oh, Lady Margaret, you are naive." With that, Myra flees to Waterloo Bridge, and again Roy chases after her, enlisting the aid of Kitty who tells him the whole truth.

The ending proposes several distinct differences from '31, one of which is Taylor's dismissal of his fallen angel. When he cannot find her, he seems to accept the fate he knows is coming. Of course, he still loves Myra, but he knows the woman she has become is one he can no longer be with. He thus lets her go before she's gone. Myra finds herself alone on Waterloo Bridge (right), utterly broken and destroyed. Doomed. The same war that brought her and Roy together has in another way split them apart. Her shame in herself overpowers her love, and as military trucks pass by, one after the other, in rapid succession, she hurls her body in front of them. (This fallen, martyred woman is a role Leigh was familiar with and repeated in Anna Karenina and That Hamilton Woman). The lesson, again, may make a feminist cringe-- soiled women apparently don't deserve love. This theme of carnal crime and punishment runs rampant in the immediate post-code era. However, the tragedy can still be felt, as we return to Taylor, who stands on the bridge reminiscing about the woman he knew and the love that could have been had fate not been so unkind. He stands sadly-- older, wiser, world-weary-- showing that Myra was not the only victim of the war's harsh toll. Someone else died that day on the bridge. When Myra jumped, she took too the last of Roy's innocence with her. This is the film's true commentary on war, which mirrors 1931: it stifles and kills all that is good, and those who witness it cannot get that same goodness back. Only time and the cushion of future generations can create enough distance to rejuvenate these qualities.

Thus we come to the final installment, Gaby, produced in 1956 and directed by Curtis Bernhardt. If the '31 film exposed the sense of immediacy caused by war, and 1940's version was a psalm to the immediacy of true love, the obstacle and instigator in Gaby is the immediacy of youth. The film's stars are, unlike their predecessors, (save for Montgomery) young. And they look young. Everything about the movie is fresh and alive, completely absent of any of the grittiness of the aforementioned films, and very indicative of 1950s studio cinema. But, while it is stylish, coming on the heels of Rebel Without A Cause and the loosening censorship code, it is also more indicative of an increasingly rash and daring society. The ravishing Leslie Caron and boy-next-door John Kerr  take on the roles of the now named Gaby and Gregory, and while the location remains London, Caron of course maintains her true nationality to explain her luscious French accent. This makes her all the more enticing to Gregory, who finds her in all her porcelain beauty to be an exciting and exotic dream come true. The naivete and raging hormones of the lead characters are the driving force of the plot, which perhaps makes this version more believable in at least these terms. The plot remains almost identical to the 1940 version, putting Caron's dancing ability to use by again making her a ballerina, and again her loyalty to her passion to her craft is tested by her sexual and romantic passion for Gregory.

An interesting scene also identifies another quality in Gaby, heretofore undiscovered in previous versions: her sympathy. At a club, she finds a soldier crying fearfully, and based on her interaction with him, we not only see her sweetness but are given a glimpse into the intensity and stress of war, which masculates and emasculates its men at once. The desperation for human contact and the need to feel safe thus immediately comes into play and will be reflected in the romance of Gaby and Gregory, as will her compassion. It is clear from the beginning that Gaby in fact only entertains Gregory because she feels sorry for him, however as she becomes attached to him, she soon finds herself caring more than she ought. Because Caron lends her performance much more spirit and independence than her predecessors, the effect is more striking. When Leigh forsook her career for love, she didn't consider it a great loss, but Caron's more ambitious heroine is taken for a loop when she finds herself in love and forced to choose between the two. Again, it is her good heart that leads her to sacrifice all for a near stranger, and Gregory's thirsty soldier never lets up on her for a minute until she says "I do."

However, the same complications keep the duo from being married before Gregory is again forced to leave, but-- thanks to Gaby's best friend and roommate Elsa, who gives them her absence on what she thought would be their wedding night-- Gregory and Gaby find themselves alone in her apartment on what would have been their honeymoon. The audience feels the intensity of their mutual desire, particularly Gregory's, who-- polite as he may be-- clearly wants to be joined to Gaby in flesh if in nothing else before he goes to battle. The audience wants it too. However, the more practical and in some ways mature Gaby demurs, forcing her embittered fiance to leave for battle without the knowledge of her body. Disappointed, but not deterred, Gregory again swears to return and finally marry her. When he leaves, the same tragedy befalls. This time, after losing her place in the ballet and thinking that she has lost her beloved to death, Gaby's path to prostitution becomes, similarly to Leigh's voyage, one of self-flagellation (though it is never clearly ascertained whether Gaby is being paid for her transgressions or is merely committing them to assuage her guilt). The interesting difference, is that when confronted by her friend Elsa about her scandalous new life, Gaby admits that she is perfectly conscious of what she is doing and is doing it on purpose. Every soldier she makes love to, in her mind, is Gregory. She thus, punishes herself with sex because she refused sex to the only man she ever loved. So fully and passionately does she throw herself into her unreasonable atonement, that it has a devastating effect upon her when Gregory indeed returns unscathed, expecting to find the perfect and virtuous woman he left behind. Again he takes her home, again she admits her sins, only this time she does it directly to Gregory, who is crushed and angered by the destruction of the dream which has kept him alive.

Yet, what is indestructible is their love (see left), naive and hormone-driven though it may be. Even the knowledge of Gaby's betrayal cannot prevent Gregory from coming after her. This time, he finds her. As bombs explode around them, intensifying the surging, chaotic passion between them, he hurls his body against hers to save her life. They both emerge from the rubble unharmed. It seems that this time they shall have a happy ending. At first, such a tacked-on studio-mandated conclusion makes one balk, especially after enduring the more tragically palpable, and thus wartime befitting, endings to the other films. Yet, perhaps this time it makes sense. After all, why should Gaby be punished further? Why should she be shamed for the forfeiture of her purity when it was Gregory who demanded it of her in the first place? He is just as guilty, and his acceptance of his own guilt finally matures him into the man who is worthy of her love. Their life, their innocence, gives them the ability to survive the obstacles that the other couples of Waterloo Bridge could not.

Yet another interpretation of Waterloo Bridge by Monet.

Each film is fascinating and unique in its own way. Each too possesses its own precious offerings. The most interesting is the more controversial 1931 Waterloo Bridge, whose intense texture alone makes it a worthwhile picture. Waterloo Bridge of 1940 is for the true romantic, presenting the gossamer haze of studio splendor that all movie buffs drool over. Gaby of 1956 gives us a superb performance by Leslie Caron and a surprising deconstruction of the sexual (ir)responsibilities of youth. In all films, War is too a dominant force, a character in itself, whose macabre presence can bring all life to a halt, threatening to snuff out even the most prized of human abilities-- to love. In each version, it could be argued that it succeeds, but in truth it fails miserably. The fact that any romance could find a way to blossom and thrive at all is proof enough that man's horrid mistakes are no match for his most divine aspirations. 


  1. who else is going to remember and write about Maria Ouspenskaya but you Meredith. You're the best! Thanks

  2. Haha, at least I know one other person has some love for her!

  3. Meredith, you have to hear the killer impersonation I do of Maria from The Wolfman with Lon Jr. You know the line : "when the wolf bane blooms...". It doesn't go over real big here in Chicago but you would love it! )