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.