Waterloo Bridge (1940)

Individually, both Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne said Love Affair was their favourite of the films they’d acted in. Quite an achievement for a film—one reason why I’d put Waterloo Bridge in the same league as Love Affair. The two stars of this film, Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, also rated Waterloo Bridge as their favourite of all the films they’d acted in (yes, Vivien Leigh rated this higher even than Gone With the Wind!). Like Love Affair, this is also a love story. And it too takes a very tragic turn midway.

Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge

It’s 1939, and Colonel Roy Cronin (a distinguished-looking Robert Taylor, though with somewhat fake grey moustache and eyebrows) is getting ready to leave England for France to join the Allied Forces. On his way to the railway station, he gets his driver to stop at Waterloo Bridge. He instructs the man to drive on and wait for him at the other end of the bridge. Roy walks along the bridge, then stops and looks out over the river below.

Colonel Roy Cronin stops by on Waterloo Bridge...

As he watches the Thames roll by, Roy reaches into his pocket and retrieves a little good luck charm:

...and looks at an old good lcuk charm

…the sight of which instantly brings back memories of the First World War. In flashback, we see a young and handsome Roy Cronin on Waterloo Bridge just as the air raid sirens start their wailing. A group of girls (Roy thinks they’re a school party) flies into a panic and asks Roy for directions to the nearest air raid shelter. He points it out to them, and all of them—including Roy and other passersby—race for the shelter. One girl, Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), drops her purse and its contents spill across the pavement.

A younger Cronin meets Myra on Waterloo Bridge during a WWI air raid

Roy helps Myra gather up her belongings—including a good luck charm—and then both of them run to the shelter. Myra’s friends are lost somewhere in the crowd inside the shelter, but she and Roy soon get acquainted. Roy tells her he’s Scots (huh? With that unmistakably American accent?) and is due to leave for France the following day. He discovers that Myra isn’t a schoolgirl; instead, she and her friends are members of a ballet troupe. They’ll be performing that night, and Myra invites Roy to the show. He says he’d love to, but his colonel’s hosting a dinner he can’t afford to miss.

...and becomes friends in the shelter

The all-clear sounds soon after, and they part regretfully—but Myra insists on giving Roy her good luck charm: it’ll keep him safe in France.
That evening at the performance, Myra is pleasantly surprised to find Roy has arrived after all. They grin beatifically at each other, already quite enamoured.
So Myra isn’t really surprised to find that Roy manages to slip in a note for her when the show is over. Unfortunately, the girls’ dictatorial, hawk-eyed boss/instructor/manager/chaperone, Madame Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya) intercepts the note, and compels Myra to write a response refusing to meet Roy for supper, as he’d requested.

Madame intercepts Roy's note and bullies Myra into refusing

Myra, however, has a guardian angel in the form of the intensely loyal and sweet (yet strong-willed) Kitty (Virginia Field). Just as a disappointed Roy is leaving, she manages to sneak out and give him a verbal message from Myra: where should she meet him and when?

Kitty acts as messenger

Roy is delighted, and he and Myra end up spending a lovely evening together, dining at the Candlelight Club, followed by a dance—the Farewell Waltz, a rendition of Auld Lang Syne. For this, all the lights in the ballroom are switched off, the only illumination being provided by the candles beside each musician in the orchestra: each musician finishes his part and snuffs out the candle beside him in a poignant symbol of farewell. By the end of the waltz, the ballroom is in darkness and Myra and Roy are very much in love.

The Farewell Waltz

Roy escorts Myra home (she shares a room with Kitty in a block of flats occupied by the other ballerinas), and their farewell at the foot of the stairs is even sadder, because he’ll be in France the next day, and who knows when he’ll return…
Next morning, looking out on an appropriately rainy day, Myra is despondent—until she notices a familiar figure standing across the street and waiting for her. It’s Roy! Myra rushes down, helter-skelter, to be told that due to some logistical problems, Roy’s departure for France has been delayed by 48 hours. Will she marry him, please?

Myra receives a proposal

Myra tries half-heartedly to say that this might be a precipitate decision, they should think it over, etc. But both she and Roy know this is what they really want, so she finally agrees.
Roy, however, must get permission from his colonel in order to marry. He goes off to meet the colonel, who bestows his blessing on the match provided Roy gets the permission of the Colonel-in-Chief (C Aubrey Smith), a Duke who also happens to be Roy’s uncle.
So Roy goes to his uncle, who acquiesces.

Roy's uncle, the Colonel-in-Chief and a Duke, gives his permission

—And then Roy and Myra rush off to St Matthew’s, where all the regimental weddings take place. This is where their plans run into an obstacle: the vicar regretfully announces that according to law, wedding ceremonies cannot be performed after 3 PM; he won’t be able to marry them today, but if they will arrive at the church the next morning at 11, he’ll be happy to oblige.

...but the vicar throws a spanner in the works

Myra and Roy are disappointed, of course, but since they can’t help it, have to go along with it. It’s only a matter of a few hours, Myra tells Roy consolingly: tomorrow they’ll be married, and they’ll be able to spend some time together before Roy leaves for France.
A delirious-with-joy Myra spends all her savings on buying a new dress and hat for her wedding the next day, and shares the good news with Kitty, who’s equally thrilled.

Myra tells Kitty that she's going to be married

That evening, Myra tells the other girls too, just as they’re leaving for the theatre for their show. The girls are busy congratulating Myra and getting ready to leave, when Roy phones with awful news: the orders have been reversed and he has to leave for France immediately. His train will depart from Waterloo Station in 25 minutes.
The other girls try to dissuade Myra from going—if she skips the performance, Madame will be furious—but Myra is too distraught to listen. She rushes off, but her luck’s run out: she gets late, then is directed to the wrong platform. By the time she gets to the platform from which Roy’s train is to depart, the train’s pulling out. The two lovers get just one faraway glimpse of each other, and that’s it.

Roy's train steams out of the station

Myra trudges sorrowfully back to the theatre, and reaches just as the show finishes and the girls come backstage—with Madame. Madame, in her imperious and nasty way, tells Myra that she’s dismissed. Kitty jumps to Myra’s defence and gives Madame a piece of her mind, which results in Kitty being dismissed as well.

Kitty stands up for Myra - and gets fired

And since the two friends have been staying in accommodation earmarked for the troupe, they are forced to vacate that too, and move in to a more cramped room elsewhere.
Circumstances are not in favour of Kitty and Myra. The war’s on, so jobs are scarce, especially for dancers. They try for other jobs, too—in a teashop, for instance—but nothing comes of it. And with Myra’s savings spent on that never-worn wedding dress, their financial situation is, as it is, deplorable.

Myra and Kitty in dire straits

One day, though, there’s a bit of good news: a large and beautiful bouquet arrives along with a note from Roy. One of Roy’s men is on leave and has obliged by arranging for the flowers. Kitty, in a characteristically pragmatic moment, hints gently that if they sell the flowers, they could get quite a bit of money…? Myra isn’t listening, though, she’s so absorbed in reading Roy’s note.

Myra reads a note from Roy

Roy’s written that his mother, Lady Margaret Cronin (Lucile Watson), will be in London soon and would like to meet Myra.
Myra is nervous, but arranges to meet up with her prospective mother-in-law at a teashop. Lady Margaret is inordinately late, and while Myra’s sitting around waiting for her, she happens to glance at the newspaper a passing waitress has left at the table.

Myra glances at a newspaper while waiting for Roy's mother

—And notices, in the list of dead, missing and wounded, Cronin
Just then, Lady Margaret arrives. A heartbroken Myra is shattered and unable to think straight; Roy’s mother, who hasn’t received the news yet, only sees a strange, abrupt creature who seems to lack basic social skills. She gives Myra a curt set down before taking herself off.

Lady Margaret is abrupt with Myra

Over the next few weeks, life goes into a downward spiral for Myra and Kitty. The news of Roy’s death drives Myra into a serious physical decline, and she becomes very ill. Kitty, reduced to looking after her ailing friend while still searching for a job, ends up, in desperation, in the oldest profession in the world.
Myra is initially too ill to realise how Kitty is paying the bills and buying food for them both. When she recovers and discovers what Kitty’s been up to, she’s shocked and disapproving.

Myra learns how Kitty's been paying the bills

Kitty explains how and why she was reduced to prostitution, and Myra is forced to admit that keeping body and soul together can be a more important consideration than so-called morality. As the days and weeks go by, she changes too, until the sweet and innocent Myra of Madame Kirowa’s ballet troupe is gone forever, replaced by a tawdry tart in a clingy satin dress, a cheap trinket pinned to her décolletage, her lips too red and her walk exaggerated in an attempt to entice the soldiers alighting from the trains at Waterloo Station, looking for some female company.

A changed Myra

And one fateful day, among the soldiers getting off the train, she sees a familiar face:

Roy comes back from the dead

How has this man come back from the dead? Can things ever be the same again between him and Myra? Or have the misery and the sheer despair of the intervening days changed Myra too much for her to be once again the girl Roy had fallen in love with?

This is not a film for someone who’s looking for a light and frothy romance. It’s lovely and touching, but there’s a lot of sadness here too. Keep the Kleenex ready.

What I liked about this film:
Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. Leigh is, I think, the more accomplished of the two (her acting is very good), but Taylor is great in some scenes as well. Most of all, they make a wonderful couple: sweet, very much in love, and beautiful.

Virginia Field as Kitty.
The film is more from the point of view of Myra, so we don’t get to explore Roy’s character too much: he’s kind and loving, but otherwise pretty one-dimensional. Myra herself is sweet, submissive, and somewhat of an idealist. It is Kitty who, for me, is the most likeable character in Waterloo Bridge: she is understanding, practical, and unswervingly loyal to her friend. And though Kitty ends up a prostitute, it’s not at the cost of her humanity: she’s still a sensitive and gentle person whom I can’t help but like.

What I didn’t like:
Oh, the sadness of it all. I’m not a one for tragedy, and this has to be among the most tragic romances I’ve seen in Hollywood.

And yes, Robert Taylor is not in the least convincing as a Scotsman. What were they thinking of?

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19 thoughts on “Waterloo Bridge (1940)

  1. I watched this movie just once – I’d never heard of it before and I didn’t know anything about it going in other than that it starred Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, two of my all time fave actors. I bawled all the way through it and now never pick up a movie unless I know at least a little something about it. And I’ll never forget it.

    Btw, re: GWTW, I don’t know where I picked up this piece of info but I believe Vivien had a terrible time of it while shooting it because Clark Gable wasn’t particularly friendly and had horrible halitosis and she couldn’t complain because he was Clark freaking Gable and she was a newcomer. Poor thing. Although according to legend she did die with a copy of the book by her bedside table.

  2. This isnt his only Scot/Brit role! He played Wilfred of Ivanhoe and Lancelot, too – American accent and all!!!! I saw this long before I was able to distinguish between American/British accents and found him utterly charming. Knowing how it ends though, I’ve never been able to re-watch it. These two (Viven Leigh and Robert Taylor) were much better in A Yank At Oxford – where he played an American while she was the scheming and flirty young wife of a middle-aged shopkeeper in Oxford.

  3. Ooh, this was playing on the TCM channel a few weeks ago, but I missed it. Time to see if Netflix has it, though I do need my movies to have happy endings…

  4. Amrita: Yes, my main reason for seeing Waterloo Bridge was the two leads – I like Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh a lot too! But it’s so sad, I will probably never watch it again. :-(
    Hehe, I remember reading about Gable’s halitosis – must have been awful for Leigh! But she gets full marks for her acting: I’d never have imagined those passionate kisses were anything but passionate! (On a similar but deliberate note: I read that in A Many Splendoured Thing, Jennifer Jones made it a point to chew garlic before every kissing scene, because William Holden was a notorious womaniser and she didn’t want him getting too close to her!

    bollyviewer: Yes! He stuck out like a sore thumb in Ivanhoe too. And I agree with you re: A Yank at Oxford: it may not have been great cinema – definitely not in the same league as Waterloo Bridge, but at least it was fun, and Robert Taylor looked dishy! I must see that again some time.

    bawa: Me too! I can’t bear sad ends, especially those which have nothing to redeem the unhappiness of it all (Heaven Knows Mr Allison is also sort of sad, but not all through).

    Shalini: Yes, it’s good, but not recommended if you like happy endings. BTW, youtube has the entire film in 11 parts. This is part 1, just in case you’d like to see it online.

  5. Hahaha @ the Jennifer Jones story. I never got the William Holden fascination although it’s not as mind boggling as the wars fought over Franchot Tone of all people, but that’s because I’m much more of a Monty Clift girl. But he must have been doing something right if he was able to hook Audrey Hepburn… for a while anyway.

  6. I’m not mad about William Holden either, but there are some roles I really like him in – Stalag 17 and Rachel and the Stranger, for instance. And Escape from Fort Bravo. I don’t care much for his early films; his acting hadn’t yet matured, and frankly I think Holden was one of those men who looked better as they grew older.

  7. There were wars fought over Franchot Tone?!!! REALLY?!! That is mind-boggling.

    And me too, on not being mad over William Holden. He was handsome but nothing very remarkable – or perhaps he didnt have any particularly remarkable films except for Sabrina where he anyway gets bested by Humphrey Bogart!

  8. “There were wars fought over Franchot Tone?!!! REALLY?!! That is mind-boggling.”

    There’s no accounting for tastes. ;-)

    See Rachel and the Stranger for a cute Holden romance. Loretta Young doesn’t look her usual sultry self, but it’s a lovely little film – one I saw because it starred Robert Mitchum, but which I ended up liking because of Holden and Young!

  9. I have seen it – cant believe I forgot, considering how much I liked it. The rough Western pioneer though, was just not William Holden – he was meant to be one of those rich and suave playboy types! Mitchum now, he did rough and ready cowboy types pretty well, as well as sophisticated businessmen.

  10. I must watch it again, I liked it so much! :-)

    Holden did do quite a few Westerns – Texas and Arizona in the early days, and later Escape to Fort Bravo, among the ones I’ve seen… the last is my favourite of the three; he’s believable enough in that, though he just doesn’t come across as the tough cowboy in the other two.

  11. Though Vivien was determined to play Scarlett O’Hara and though she won an Academy Award for the role, Vivien did not enjoy filming it. The days were long and hard; there were constant rewrites of the script; proudcer David O Selznick micromanaged the film; Vivien’s beloved director George Cukor was fired early on and replaced by Victor Fleming (more of a man’s director; and ultimately, she was madly in love with Laurence Olivier (both were married to other people at the time) who was on the East Coast involved in a different project. The work load and stress on set coupled with the separation from her lover made filming GWTW painful. She and Clark were not the best of buddies but they had mutual respect for each other and often enjoyed a game of Chinese checkers between takes.

    Thanks for your pictorial review of this film. It’s one of my favorite VL films, besides GWTW.

  12. I must see Gone With the Wind again – it’s been ages, and I’ve forgotten most of it. What’s worse, I was really too young to understand the nuances of the story at the time. It needs a more mature mind than the average pre-teen’s to appreciate it!

    I’m impressed by Leigh’s devotion to her job – despite what sounds like awful conditions in which to work, she was magnificent in the film.

  13. I recently purchased Waterloo Bridge and it arrived today. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but I could put it off no longer. You see, my mother was a great fan of Vivien Leigh, and she passed that on to me. But, there’s more; my mother looked very much like Vivien Leigh and was just a few years younger than Vivien. During WWII, when my mother worked in the local dime store, the “soldier boys” who came in on leave to shop, nicknamed her “Scarlett.” My beloved, precious mother passed away at the age of 80 in 1999. Although she is gone from my sight, she is always close by — in my thoughts and in my heart. She took me to see Gone With the Wind when I was only about 11 years old — I’ve loved it ever since. But, my mother always spoke of Waterloo Bridge with a reverence and sadness, although I could tell it was one of her favorite movies. Just a few weeks after my mother passed away, Waterloo Bridge aired on television. I could barely watch it with the combined sadness of the movie and my own personal grief, but I made it through, drenched with tears at the end and drowning in grief. As I looked at sweet, beautiful Myra/Vivien, I felt so close to my mother. I was watching the same movie she had seen so many years ago when she was young and beautiful like Vivien. So, even though it is such a sad and painful movie to watch, there’s a mystical beauty about it for me, just as there was for my beloved mother. Evidently, it touched Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh as well, for they both declared it their own personal favorite. Now, Waterloo Bridge will hold a special place in my classic movie collection so that “old aquaintance” will never be forgotten — my mother, the war, the beauty of Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. Even though, as in the movie, the candles went out, Vivien and Robert Taylor will ever glow in youth and beauty on the screen. And by holding dear and close to me the things my mother loved, her candle continues to burn in my heart. They are all eternal — like the little good luck charm Myra gave to Roy. In the end, we see him take it from inside his coat, from a place close to his heart — the same place where we all keep everything we hold precious and dear. Maybe someday, before I grow too old, I can visit Waterloo Bridge and throw some roses in the water in remembrance — three red roses for three unforgettable people, two I loved but never knew and the other, loved more than words can describe, whom I was blessed to call “Mother.”

  14. And thank you Dustedoff for your kind words and your insight into what makes “Waterloo” so special for me.

    I just skimmed some of the previous postings and saw William Holden’s name come up. He wasn’t my absolute favorite actor, but I saw him in some films that he did well in — “Sunset Boulevard” comes to mind. However, I was wondering if anyone else, besides me, thinks he was grossly miscast in “Picnic.” That role just didn’t suit him persona-wise or age-wise. Even he, himself thought he was too old for the part. Just interested in other opnions. I liked the movie over-all and own it

  15. Ah, I have to admit I still haven’t got around to seeing either Sunset Boulevard or Picnic. But there are a couple of Holden films that I like a lot – most of all, Stalag 17, the first film of his I ever saw. I thought his acting was superb in that.

    But from what you say, I don’t think I’m going to be in any hurry to get hold of Picnic, now!

  16. I’ve just seen the movie the other day, and to be completely honest, I haven’t quite appreciated it. Perhaps there’s something that lacked in the film. However, I must say I am impressed with Vivien Leigh. Indeed, she is but a very great actress. And what charms she has held ever since! She has done well in GWTW, but even better in Waterloo Bridge. She’s one of a kind. <3 Vivien Leigh!

  17. I read somewhere that Leigh liked Waterloo Bridge more even than Gone With the Wind, so that’s some proof, at least, of how underrated this film was! I think her acting was superb. The story itself is too depressing for it to score very highly with me, but otherwise, a definite must-watch-at-least-once.

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