We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade with the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940′s
Here’s Part One, in which we cover the era of silent movies.
There are two great themes that invariably capture the imagination of writers: love and war. Since Homer, these themes have been explored again and again for there is an inexhaustible range of characters and stories that illuminate man’s struggle for love in a universe that is, at the core, a blood soaked killing field.
Hollywood movies have, since the dawn of the flickers, recognized the rich potential in such narratives. One of the finest war movies ever made is King Vidor’s The Big Parade, 1925. Along with memorable combat sequences is a simple and lovely scene—improvised by the actors—where John Gilbert, the American soldier in France, teaches farm girl Renée Adorée how to chew bubble gum. Contrasting such moments—killing and making love—is the great appeal of wartime stories.
Waterloo Bridge, 1940, is a deliriously romantic war movie. And though there are no scenes of men in combat, the churning fear that a beloved will not return gives this film a raw emotional power. Adding to the intensity, the movie takes place almost entirely from the point of view of Myra, a ballet dancer, who falls in love with Robert Taylor, Roy Cronin, during World War I, and then, tragically believing him killed in combat, is forced into a life of prostitution. The constricted narrative point of view allows us to experience Myra’s growing desperation as tragic events escalate to an almost unbearable pitch.
This sounds like the stuff of cheap melodrama, the unfairly scorned women’s weepies, and it is, but Waterloo Bridge rises above the bare bones material and achieves the lyrical heights of ballet.
For years, Robert Taylor—real name, Spangler Arlington Brugh—was one of MGM’s most dependable and popular leading men. He was, however, frequently a wooden performer, and his appeal stemmed from an almost perfect profile and a beguiling baritone, rather than depth of characterization. But in Waterloo Bridge, Taylor gives an intense and resonant performance as a decent and ordinary man who is made extraordinary by the tsunami of a sudden, overwhelming love for the fragile Myra, played by the equally fragile—bipolar disorder soaked in gin—Vivien Leigh.
Vivien Leigh is best remembered as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. But I’ve always felt that her voice was a bit small for the role. When she climbs the hill and proclaims: ”As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again,” her tone is reedy, lacking the force that high drama demands of the moment.
Vivien Leigh, like Garbo, was best in close-up. And let’s face it, movies are all about the well-chosen close-up. It’s those huge faces in the dark, looming like clouds, so close and yet so far, that caused most of us to fall in love with the movies.
In Waterloo Bridge, a quiet, intimate movie—unlike Gone With the Wind—the perfect architecture of Vivien Leigh’s face and her supreme ability to convey passion, longing and regret with the simplest glance, is perfectly suited for this tragic tale of love and war.
One of the key scenes was the one in a nightclub on New Year’s Eve, in which Vivien and Bob were supposed to meet and fall in love. He was leaving the next day for the front. It was a scene that [screenwriter] Behrman, [producer] Franklin and I had spent a lot of time on, and the dialogue between the two was, we had all thought, beautiful and tender. But on the set it just didn’t seem to work too well. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on just what it was.
At four in the afternoon, after some hours of fruitless fiddling with the scene, I told everybody to go home. I sat there, in that make-believe nightclub, with just one small work light to give me illumination. Over and over, I read the scene, read the words that Sam, Sydney, and I had labored to get right. I was still there at two in the morning, when suddenly the answer came to me.
“No dialogue!” I said, aloud. “No dialogue at all!”
I realized at that moment what silent directors had always known, and what I should have known too. Often, in great emotional moments, there are no words. A look, a gesture, a touch can convey much more meaning than spoken sentences. Since sound came in, we had become dependent on it, perhaps overdependant on it. It was time to go back to basic human behavior, and often human beings say nothing. This scene was one of those times when silence was more expressive than dialogue.
Let’s take a look at the nightclub scene of which LeRoy is writing.
Word of Caution: Be prepared to have your heart pierced.
Most actors keep copies of their films. Robert Taylor, a modest man, was an exception.
However, in the last months of his life, dying of cancer, Taylor asked for just one print of one picture he had made—Waterloo Bridge. At the time, Taylor was under contract to Disney. The studio acquired a copy of the film for him. With close friends and family, the dying star watched it repeatedly.
Roy: Myra, what do you think we’re going to do tonight?
Myra: Well, I, I…
Roy: Oh, you won’t have time for that.
Myra: For what?
Roy: For hesitating! No more hesitating for you!
Myra: > Well, what am I going to do instead?
Roy: You’re going to get married.