The story of Waterloo Bridge (1940) has all the hallmarks of your archetypal romantic melodrama. We get the couple who meet by chance, who are then beset by bad timing and miscommunication, turning their courtship into a feature-length tragedy. They get occasional reprieves—e.g., reports of the soldier boyfriend’s death are greatly exaggerated—but that just makes their ultimate freefall so much more heartbreaking. This is efficient melodrama. It squeezed tears out of me like a fist around a sponge. It distills the pain of being madly in love, of believing that “love conquers all” when, in fact, pretty much anything can conquer love.
The female half of this equation is Myra, a would-be ballerina in WWI-era London, part of a troupe ruled by queen bitch Maria Ouspenskaya. She’s played by Vivien Leigh, fresh from Gone with the Wind, but her performance here is the opposite of her fickle, demonstrative Scarlett: it’s internal, concentrated in her eyes and delivered half in whisper. Myra’s a victim of her own inexperience, taking a single meet-cute as the signal to bank her whole life on this new relationship. The wartorn Real World, however, will not abide her lovesick impulsiveness, and therein lies the tragedy.
Her male counterpart is Roy (Robert Taylor), who endures a stint in a German POW camp, yet remains even more oblivious than Myra to the cruel realities of life. I’ve always found Taylor painfully bland, and here he’s like a puppy dog in uniform, with this blithe smile plastered on his face until the truth smacks him at the very last second. Taylor’s complacency befits a child of privilege, but he still feels miscast; he’s an earnest Nebraskan who’s ostensibly a scion of Scottish gentry and nephew to C. Aubrey Smith. (Smith, incidentally, was the face of British nobility. You can spot him wearing a suit of armor in my “One Hour Mark” image from Love Me Tonight.)
But Taylor’s banality doesn’t impinge too heavily on the film’s power. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the Warner Brothers journeyman behind some of my favorite Pre-Code classics (like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Gold Diggers of 1933), and he knows well enough to rely on the situation’s innate unfairness, frequent close-ups of Leigh’s face, and resonant snippets from Swan Lake and “Auld Lang Syne.” The result is an elegant, suggestive movie that also works as a trusty emotional sledgehammer. Two kids in love, both bound to institutions that drag them apart. What could be sadder?
For me, the film hits its tearjerking zenith long before Myra descends into the demimonde around Waterloo Bridge. It’s when Roy learns that he’s shipping out a night early, and she insists on seeing him off at the plaform even though it’ll mean certain dismissal from the ballet. I expected to see a drawn-out goodbye, a kiss, anything. But instead Roy just wanders through the crowded station, glancing around for Myra until he’s forced to board. She gets there, sure, but with only enough time to wave and call his name as he chugs off for France. The moral here? No matter how bad circumstances will be, things can always get a little worse.