Thursday, January 6, 2011

Waterloo Bridge v. Waterloo Bridge: The Death-Match (Hint: It's not even close)

A few years ago I was in London with my ex and being the totally corny jerk that I am, I wanted him to listen to Waterloo Sunset with me on my iPod while we were crossing Waterloo Bridge. At sunset. I love that song. It, however, has absolutely nothing to do with either version of the film Waterloo Bridge, referencing as it does two glamorous movie stars of a much more recent vintage. That said, the two versions of Waterloo Bridge are what I want to talk about.

The one I saw first and the one that's far and away more well known is the 1940 version starring Vivian Leigh and Robert Taylor. The film is ostensibly set in London during World War I, but there is really no sense of period at all. It's a doomed romance between a young, innocent ballerina who meets a handsome, unconvincingly English, officer. After a touching, chaste romance, she mistakenly believes him killed in action and slides into poverty and prostitution, killing herself when she finds out he is alive. To save herself from humiliation, and him from scandal. I guess.

I first saw it when I was a young teenager and liked it very much. Leigh is beautiful, and an absolutely wonderful actress. It's the exact kind of doomed romance formulated to appeal to young teen girls (much as the romance in Titanic did several generations later). But seeing it as an adult, though the leads are awfully appealing, it fell a little flat for me. Her suicide rankled. As did the whole long, contrived marriage permission business. Robert Taylor seems simply far too adult. It felt odd that he needed any sort of permission to marry - permission for leave is totally understandable, but a man who looks to be in his 30s needing a relative's approval to get married is a little baffling. It's a beautifully made film, it's just a little simple and contrived. And, as I said, seeing Vivian Leigh kill herself because of her shame in being a fallen woman is ridiculous (Scarlett would have toughed it out, for sure).

I finally saw the original 1931 pre-code version a few months ago and it was nothing like what I expected. It had that odd, early days of sound atmosphere that made it feel both old timey and shockingly modern at the same time. Also, both the lead actors (as in Titanic) were young enough that the story made sense. It stars Mae Clarke (most famous for getting that grapefruit in the kisser from Cagney in Public Enemy) and Douglass Montgomery (then working under the name Kent Douglass). They are both fantastic. I mean, their performances simply knocked me out.

In this version of the story, Mae Clarke plays a down on her uppers American chorus girl stuck in London. Her show closes and she slides into prostitution to pay the rent (and you get the distinct impression that this might not be a first for her). She meets Montgomery, a young Canadian officer. They (inevitably) fall in love, though he doesn't know what she's been doing for a living. When the film was shot, Clarke was 20 or 21 and Montgomery was 23. Clarke gives one of the best early film performances I've seen. She's natural, funny and charismatic.

The film was directed by James Whale who clearly loved Clarke, as he cast her as the female lead in Frankenstein, as well. Why did she never become a star? It's completely confounding. She had a run of excellent "A" pictures in the very early 30s, and then quickly slid into long forgotten films which I'm admittedly dying to see, such as The Penguin Pool Murder and Parole Girl. Maybe she had personality problems. Maybe she pissed somebody important irrevocably off. Maybe she wasn't beautiful enough for Hollywood. Maybe her "type" went out of style - though with her combination of working class grit and elegance, I could see her having the same sort of career Barbara Stanwyck wound up with (who, when they were both actual chorus girls, was a former roommate!). If you look at the internet reviews for any of her films, everyone says the same thing: Mae Clarke is remarkable. Who the hell is she?

Mae Clarke was born Violet Mary Klotz to a theatrical family (her father played piano in movie houses, later in vaudeville), born in Philadelphia, her family moved to Atlantic City when she was a baby as there were far more opportunities for a musician. When she was in Junior High, through her dancing school, Mae won a spot with "Dawson's Dancing Dolls" and began dancing in big shows in Atlantic City pretty much right off the bat. She was quickly discovered by a producer, moved to New York at 14 where she was introduced to Ms. Stanwyck who became something of a mentor (at 17 she was already a vaudeville and Follies veteran). They both danced in the Earl Lindsay Revue in which Mae was a featured dancer. Lindsay must have had a very good eye, as he gave Ruby Keeler her first big break as well.

In her autobiography, which I've linked to above, she describes working as a dancer in a mob run speakeasy. She talks about gunfights, raids, gangsters (okay guys. They only hurt each other). How the head of the NYC Narcotics squad was at the door. She was 15. She got her first role in The Noose, the same straight play in which Barbara Stanwyck made her acting debut (they were hiring real chorus girls to play chorus girls as a stunt). It makes one wonder how much untapped chorus girl talent there was out there. She worked constantly on Broadway, in nightclubs and in vaudeville, partnering for a while with Fanny's brother, Lew Brice to whom she was disastrously married (Drinking. Gambling. Womanizing. But, hey - they played The Palace. Legend has it that after their split, Lew watched the grapefruit scene dozens of times.). Also according to legend, she was Anita Loos's model for gold-digging chorus girl, Lorelei Lee, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In 1929, Hollywood called, and she made those first, great films.

Much like that other legendary teenage chorus girl turned actress, Louise Brooks, Clarke claimed most of her career was luck. She was pretty and talented and opportunities landed in her lap. Men liked her, and she could clearly hold her own in pretty hard-bitten company. Like Miss Brooks, her acting stands out simply because it is so easy and effortless and natural. She was incredibly gifted. But, like the far more famous Louise, she was a mess. Like many other young, successful performers, she was financially responsible for various relatives. She married badly (and repeatedly). She drank. She was also fairly religious and turned down some casting couch offers (from Billy Rose, Fanny's ex). She married an aviator in 1937 and quit the business. They moved to Rio. It didn't work out (Drinking. Infidelity.). She returned to Hollywood and took what work she could get. Looking at IMDb, her roles of the early 40s are all walk-ons in undistinguished films. But, reading her autobiography, she sounds like a nice person. She doesn't trash talk, and she took her work very, very seriously. It's all such a shame.

At one point, desperate for work, she arranged for a screening of Waterloo Bridge to be shown. Apparently, the film's style was out of favor and people laughed. She worked sporadically for the rest of her life, plagued by breakdowns and poverty. She died in 1992.

Find Trav S.D.'s birthday salute to Ms. Clarke here.

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