Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Myra and Kitty in Waterloo Bridge, 1940

*Minor Spoilers*

I'd been fiddling with the idea of entering a post in the Dueling Divas Marathon I saw advertised on Rachel's page at Girl with the White Parasol, and I might still do that. However, when I tried thinking of famous catty broads, my treacherous brain kept thinking of great female friendships instead (I was going to put "great film female friendships," but who wants to encounter that much alliteration this time in the evening, or whenever you're reading this?). Well, I thought of one friendship in particular, at any rate--that of ballerinas turned fallen women Kitty and Myra in 1940's Waterloo Bridge, as portrayed by Virginia Field and Vivien Leigh, respectively.

This film is the Gone with the Wind of China, apparently, with subtitled versions used in universities for students studying English. As for contemporary America, this movie certainly isn't as well known as Casablanca or any of the other great wartime tear-jerkers. Part of that could be Robert Taylor as male lead Roy Cronin; though he does a competent, charming job as the Scottish (?) Captain who wins Myra's heart, maybe he's too charming, too nice, too perfect, too much the distant, idealized, do-nothing hero, with no enticing conflict to generate as much interest as, say, moody and cynical Rick Blaine.

Plus, let's face it, the plot is Camille'd in a big way, more sentimentalized than the grittier 1931 version directed by James Whale. Sweet, innocent ballerina+Presumed dead fiance=A LIFE OF SHAME ON THE STREETS IF YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYIN'. But then, oh then, she finds out her presumption was maybe premature....

The movie is emotionally manipulative, and after awhile you want to shoot poor, harmless Tchaikovsky for ever having written Swan Lake, or the producers for thinking "Auld Lang Syne" wouldn't make a monotonous love score, given the way both tunes are used ad nauseam whenever Leigh gets misty.

Yet somehow the movie works, and is legitimately touching for all its manufactured syrup. Part of that may be due to the fantastic cinematography, and Mervyn LeRoy's comparatively quiet directing and the screenplay that doesn't hit you over the head with any sugary sweetness, and has some surprisingly sharp lines. Plus, you've got imperious coldness in the form of Maria Ouspenskaya as brittle ballet mistress Madame Kirowa, blustering stuffiness with C. Aubrey Smith as the duke, and Lucile Watson as a multi-layered Lady Margaret Cronin, the protective mother of Taylor.

But mostly, I think the movie works based on the sincere performances of Leigh and Field, and the friendship their two characters share.

This was purportedly Leigh's favorite film, and it's certainly her most sensitive, realized performance outside of Blanche. Myra is more grounded in reality than any character she's ever played, even with the stereotypical weepy-sad-prostitute shit she has to muck through. Coming right after Scarlett, a performance that you could argue bordered on the broad for all its immense awesomeness (which rightly fit the source material), Myra was truly the window into just what Leigh could do with a role--inhabit it completely. Was there ever an actress with a more expressive face? A face that could pull you into what she was feeling with a minimum of any actual facial contortions? There was an undeniable energy radiating from her face, that shone through even when perfectly still, filling you with what she felt.

Myra is a character that so easily could have been saucer-eyed and sticky, were it not for Leigh's ability to truly humanize her. Myra is totally affectless, completely guileless, and thus we more than just stomach her. We love her.

Then there's Virginia Field. Dear, undeservedly forgotten Virginia Field. This blonde stunner was just as tart and breezy and likable as Ginger, Una, and Blondell, with a saucy cockney twist and legs that went on forever. Yet she's able to get at deeper, more emotional places, that might have made you cringe if you saw one of those aforementioned ballsy dames try for them. Her Kitty is someone you'd want in your corner. Kitty is a former showgirl who finds herself in an uptight ballet company due to the war (another example of Hollywood's skewered take on reality--so a showgirl can pass herself off as a ballerina, eh? And getting into a ballet company is a last resort choice for her?). This cocky, streetwise dame, despite all logical odds, becomes inseparable pals with the shy, virginal Myra. And she'd do anything for Myra, anything: pretend a note sent to Myra that disrupts Madame's lecture is actually for her, then get fired for standing up for Myra, and ultimately, become a prostitute in order to support the ailing Myra, stricken after reading that Roy's been killed overseas.

Is Kitty almost too much the idealized friend, as Roy is the idealized man? If so, we don't notice it as much or feel half as manipulated, since Field as Kitty is so brass and raw that she doesn't come off as a caricature of maternal, wisecracking camaraderie, but instead she's the real thing. Of course, sadly, she's unable to shield Myra from her way of living for long.

Waterloo Bridge is undeniably packaged as a sweeping romance, from its swelling score and candlelight, to its distraught, separated lovers. Myra and Roy's relationship is indeed effective. Leigh and Taylor do have lovely chemistry together, for all his shiny over-perfection. But nothing beats the sister-chemistry between timid Myra and boisterous Kitty, and theirs are the most electric scenes. Kitty undeniably gets the best lines, and delivers them with zip. The energy rises whenever she's onscreen. And Myra is so touchingly charming that we want her to have a defender like Kitty; honestly, Roy is steeped way too much in his fantasy land of invincible happiness that we wonder how anything not rose-colored could ever get through to him.

Sandwiched into this tragic love story and war drama is a buddy picture. Without it, maybe we would have thrown up our hands in disgust at the swoony couple and hokey, tired plotline; as it is, Kitty and Myra's struggles and courage remind us that hard things happen to real friends, too, not just film lovers.

Instead of ending on the film's sad note, let's go with Myra and Kitty at their happiest, earlier in the movie. Here's my favorite scene, both for the movie and for showcasing Myra and Kitty's friendship. Roy has reappeared after Myra thought he'd gone back to war, and she sees him through the window. Myra was never giddier, and Kitty never more excited for and amused by her pal, as she helps her get ready to meet him.

Scene starts at 10:00--

Were it not for the Hayes policy that fallen women must fall all the way down flat on their faces no matter how pure at heart, how delightful would a Myra & Kitty Wartime Fun Hour serial have been? What's that? Now I'm the hokey one? Rude.


  1. Thanks for the name-check, Laura.

    I love this movie. Which surprises me since on paper, it's the kind of plot which, on paper, might make me roll my eyes til they spun. Apparently the only options for women in wartime is to be be either dancers or prostitutes? And pretty near every plot twist is designed to make Myra suffer? But it works beautifully and I give Vivien Leigh most of the credit. She inhabits Myra, doesn't condescend to her and doesn't demand our pity. The moment when Myra spots Roy at the train station and Leigh's face completely transforms...it send shivers down my spine every time.

    Robert Taylor isn't an actor I seek out, but thus far, I think this is the best acting I've seen from him (maybe Leigh inspired him). Although the whole Scottish aristocrat thing always throws me a little. Not only does he sound American but he acts like every cliche about the naive, romantic American guy who goes to Europe and gets his illusions dashed. I don't know, nothing about him reads "aristocratic" to me; he's too...well, American.

    To get back to your original point, I agree that Virgina Field does an excellent job as Kitty. She's warm and compassionate without coming off as a sap. You get the feeling she's been looking out for Myra for a long time.

    To sum up, great post!

  2. Thank you, Rachel! On some levels Taylor's performance works for me, others not so much. He does seem too much the "gee, golly" American good boy type, but at least we're spared his attempt at a Scottish accent. Like Leigh, he also claimed this as his favorite movie, so perhaps that combined with Leigh's stellar acting helped inspire him.

    This is certainly my favorite performance of his, too. He acted well in Camille but still came off a little bland, and I thought he made a simply dreadful Ivanhoe. But here he's dashing and spirited, and we can see why Myra falls for him. That's really all you can demand from a role like Roy's, unfortunately.

    I agree this movie wouldn't have worked without Vivien. The plot, as you say, is all sorts of sexist, patronizing ridiculous. Mae Clarke was fantastic in the clips I've seen from the 1931 version, but like I said, the Myra in that was a hardboiled wayward girl from the start. For a version that's much more sentimentalized, you need someone with Leigh's genuine pathos. And you're definitely right, the lack of condescension and pity in her performance is a breath of fresh air, especially for this genre.

    Leigh and Field established that kind of rapport that makes you think they've been chums a long time, that's true. A solid female friendship, without backstabbing or cattiness, was sort of rare in movies back then (and hell, even now). That's why Kitty and Myra stand out for me so much, and are more touching to me even than Myra and Roy.

  3. Oh God yes. Taylor with a Scottish accent is too painful to contemplate.

    One thing I didn't mention before, but that I think is key to my enjoyment of this film, is the fact that there are no bad guys in Waterloo Bridge. Sure, the ballet instructor is overly strict, but she has her reasons for it. The duke is stuffy but nice and Roy's mother is genuinely well-intentioned and understanding. There are no mustache-twirling villains or catty female rivals--it's just a combination of bad luck and bad decisions that doom Myra.

    Well, maybe the "How about a little stroll?" guy is our villain. I just love that line. For God's sakes, not a stroll! Don't you know that's one step from the gutter?

    On a final and frivolous note, I dare you to come up with a caption for this Waterloo Bridge publicity still.

  4. In a way, I wish I'd devoted a whole section of my post to Ouspenskaya's Madame Kirowa. You're dead-on about how no one's a completely bad guy here. You could start thinking so with Madame, but there is the scene right before the one I mentioned in that YouTube video where she says she's strict because she cares for the dancers and wants their careers to blossom. Unfortunately, neither Kitty nor Myra care that much about dancing.

    Which is another plus in the movie's favor: not only is Madame multi-layered, but Kitty and Myra are not only charming and kind, but also foolhardy and headstrong. When Kitty speaks her mind to Madame and is subsequently fired, it's a noble move, but also foolish. What sort of behavior did she expect from Madame? That's the world of classical ballet, that Kitty's obviously not in tune with. At least Hollywood is realistic in that respect: ballet is a bitch, but needs to be. Just as with most noble acts, Kitty's stand is tinged with naivete. That's realistic, too.

    The "how about a stroll" guy is great, but my personal favorite sleazo is the guy who says, "Thanks, ducky!" to Myra and then rushes by carelessly after she says "Welcome home". Yeah, as if most guys wouldn't just stammer awkwardly when hit on by Vivien Leigh at a train station.

    As for that hilariously WTF still:
    TAYLOR: "What do you mean my Scottish accent's not good enough for the final cut? And shut up, Vivien, I do not sound like a drunk Sean Connery underwater. We don't even know who he is yet!"
    VIVIEN: "Heh heh. '40s equivalent of pwned."