Waterloo Bridge (1931): Pre-Code Edition

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Many might best remember Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in the 1940 version of Waterloo Bridge. It’s immediately obvious this movie has a very different flavor from the outset. It’s an earthier more boisterous version of Waterloo Bridge before the Production Codes took their axes to the original material.

James Whale’s camera pans across a gay gang of chorus girls on the stage — they are alive and bursting with perky energy — putting on a show for their patrons. Behind the curtains and after-hours, the girls maintain the buzz as they chat in their skimpy Pre-Code attire. One of their ilk is Myra Deaville (Mae Clarke).

It’s delightful how the camera takes such a shine to our heroine though it’s so obvious to see she might play second or third fiddle to the band of big wigs and aristocrats in the world at-large. She really does feel like a nobody far away from home. Still, there’s something to be said for her way of life.

As is, London has a lovely artificiality that we can breathe in and still enjoy as the characters amble along the streets with car horns and horse carts to go with the post boxes and street lamps.

Likewise, the beats feel raw and unkempt in a way the 1940 remake would never have dared or been capable of to begin with. Somehow it takes on a grander more chaotic scale in the hands of James Whale. And yet the characters and vernacular are more casual even familiar.

Douglass Montgomery feels like an honest-to-goodness callow soldier boy. He doesn’t have the slightest sense of what he’s gotten himself into and with anything he does, there’s a latent fallibility you don’t get with Robert Taylor. He never feels endangered in the same way.

Likewise, Mae Clark is affecting yet generally capable of exuding an everyday ordinariness. We hardly remember her star compared to the likes of Vivien Leigh, who headlined one of the most grandiose, decadent epics of all time. Their trajectories and legacies could not be more disparate This is just the film to raise her reputation above one crackerjack scene playing opposite James Cagney and a Lemon.

She’s no star (the film coincidentally features a young Bette Davis), and the story seems to like it that way. Because both Clarke and Montgomery, by today’s standards, are hardly highly touted figures, but somehow they fit so genuinely here within the provided context.

It’s a youthful dynamic with a 19-year-old doughboy and the dance hall performer who’s been around. She also carries the forlorn look rather well even as Montgomery’s face is fresh and boyish.

They meet helping an old lady pick her potatoes off of Waterloo Bridge. It’s the same air raid from the earlier film with a certain frenzied uncertainty of war in the atmosphere. The gas runs out in her shabby apartment, and they talk to each other about their lives, mouths crammed with food.

It also cultivates a different dimension of ex-pats away from home. Because both Roy and Myra are born and bred Americans, and so there’s this inherent otherness they engender. It’s the type of visible difference that makes it all the more believable they would gravitate toward one another.

Furthermore, the film is not just consigned to the urban cityscapes but finds its way out into the countryside far from the signs of tumult and war. Because whereas the later version had the reverie of dance and “Aul Lang Syne,” this version needs its own escape valve, a respite before the final act’s guttural finale.

Here Myra is thrown in with Roy’s mother and an avuncular old step-father, hard of hearing and loving a good whiskey and soda. He’s a puttering scene-stealer — mostly because Bette Davis has nothing of import to do as an amiable sister. Her time would come in due time.

Meanwhile, the drama goes on behind the scenes as Myra is a woman of such genuine conscience — she admits she picked Roy up on Waterloo Bridge — she is no chorus girl. Though she could marry him, she chooses not to. She understands the mores of society and is willing to abide by them, even when it hurts.

You can call it the hooker with the heart of gold archetype to be sure, but what it really brings out is a culture so quick to label people as pariahs and outcasts — dirty and sinful folks not fit to be seen with the rest of God-fearing humanity. Then, behind closed doors, there’s gossip and what-have-you in the guise of propriety.

In the end, between passionate kisses, a crowded truck of onlookers shipping out to the front, and zeppelins raining down incendiaries, there’s not a moment to breathe before the curtain falls. This might be very well by design. Still, this movie zips along with a raw vitality worthy of consideration.

3.5/5 Stars

Little Man, What Now? (1934): Borzage Vs. The Depression

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Little Man, What Now? is a curious title although Carl Laemmle seemed to believe in the tale even giving it a public service announcement to make the point very clearly. This is a story for every man even as it seeks to document the daily problems of the contemporary society.

From the opening vignette, the movie preaches a message of peace, tolerance, and minding one’s own affairs like an upright citizen. If you’re like this jaded viewer, you grow wary of a picture with a self-serving agenda, especially one done poorly. Thankfully, Little Man is about a lot of ideas, including the things that get jumbled up inside a person’s head as they try to make their way through the world. Or rather, when they try and make their way through the world connected with someone else in marriage. This is Frank Borzage, after all, so a romance must be key.

One is reminded instantly we are in the throes of the Depression though this is Germany. It’s true much of the western industrialized world was plagued by stagnation and poverty. Herr Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) is a clerk and his tyrannical boss might very well be Ebenezer Scrooge though bald, bearded, and more oafish.

His family lives in the adjoining room with a cackling freckle-faced son and his dowdy daughter, who’s not had any luck landing a husband. Her belittling father has tried to up her prospects by hiring three bachelor’s to work for him. She dislikes them all except for Pinneberg. The feelings are not mutual, and he’s already wed. To keep his job, he conveniently keeps this detail a secret. It’s out of necessity. He’s madly in love with his wife.

Margaret Sullavan has a youthful vigor and prevailing spirit of a newlywed about her to be sure, but there’s also something deep and wise layered into her performance. She’s steady as her husband seems to crumble in the face of every change in the winds.

Next to her, Douglass Montgomery at times feels weak-willed and green, almost deserving of the world’s ill-fortunes because he gripes about them so much. And yet it’s difficult to be too harsh with him lest someone puts the mirror (with its three panes) up to my face as well.

We are continually reminded of the world’s many ailings from bigotry to unrest and poverty. Against this, Borzage literally captures them frolicking together in the lap of nature. While they do model a slightly different cross-section of Depression society from say Man’s Castle, they still exhibit the same rapturous affections for their beloved. Throughout the entire film, they remain the deliriously fixated center. What remains to be seen is how the characters and situations around them evolve.

The old man starts feeling positively chummy even as his daughter becomes petty even vindictive criticizing the “other woman” he was seen with. Speaking from experience, it doesn’t matter the age, there is a helplessness, nay, a uselessness that comes with being unemployed, especially when others are counting on you. Hans remains resolute when it matters most. Maintaining his pride and the love of a good wife mean more to him than money.

There’s another wonderfully staged scene between husband and wife as the merry-go-round sends our heroine round and round through the frame as she responds to her husband’s questions about where she’s been. She sheepishly admits she got so hungry she ate all the pieces of salmon from the market and now they have no dinner. Far from being angry, he laughs riotously. This is what love is.

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The movie is melodrama in the way that a life is full of smatterings of drama, cycling through the highs and lows, the devastations and elations, that come with the daily grind. The picture never feels like it’s aiming for a particular peak. Instead, it’s content enough to offer up vignettes because we have a couple to hold onto and root for, even as the scenery, the jobs, and the hardships change. They remain our steadfast point of reference.

Next, they make their way to Berlin, which we come to realize is only one decision out of a whole host they will have to make. They meet Hans’s step-mother at the station, a bubbly absent-minded woman always holding onto her inseparable dog.

However, she’s not so genial when you get to know her, and their desperate financial straits don’t help matters any. Thankfully, they have one friend, a most curious fellow named Jachmann. He’s a close associate with Mrs. Pinneberg. His real title, I couldn’t say.

Alan Hale was always the good-humor man but, in this case, he’s also a man with means. He just might be able to set them up with a home and a job, when he’s not kissing hands and laughing his head off, that is. Certainly, he’s some kind of shyster but a generous one with a heart of gold, especially when beautiful girls and their downtrodden husbands are concerned.

Another impeccable image comes when the couple is crammed in bed together as the mother’s party hits full stride just outside their doors. If we talk about the wage gap between our parent’s generation and us, this image of contrasting social statuses within a single family says as much about the Depression Era. However, it turns out she advertises in the papers because her home is actually a house of ill repute, and it carries with it a local reputation. They must move on.

Hans is a naive idealist and yet he rarely seems ready to make the sacrifices and the allowances his wife is; he’s not really willing to live within his means. Their new home has a Seventh Heaven rooftop, though he fails to see its quaint qualities; it’s close to a barn or better yet a stable.

If it was good enough for the baby at Christmastime, it’s good enough for them in their own humble estate. After all, being a Little Man is only in the eye of the beholder. In the eyes of his devoted wife, there couldn’t be a greater, grander, more important person to fill up her world.

As for the “What Now?” only time will tell. They rightfully state, “We created life so why should we be afraid of it?” What it does supply is this renewing sense of hope in the face of uncertainty. Again, it’s akin to the foremost Borzage pictures. It’s a testament to his convictions that he’s able to remain a romantic during the dog days of the Depression, and he keeps us believing in the power of love even within these dire straits.

3.5/5 Stars