Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Classics: A Comparison of the 1931 and 1940 Versions of Waterloo Bridge By Lauren Ennis

Remakes are one of the most controversial topics in film, and are often credited with causing the current decline in Hollywood’s sales and output. Despite what public outcry would suggest, however, remakes are far from a new invention, and have in fact been a popular trend since films transitioned to sound. This week I’ll be reviewing two versions of the same story that were released relatively close together; the 1931 and 1940 versions of the classic tearjerker Waterloo Bridge. While both films follow the same general plot of the Broadway show that they were based upon, each tells the tragic tale of love found and lost with its own unique twist. Both films were considered commercial and critical successes upon their release, but the question remains, did the remake outdo the original, or should Hollywood have left this story alone?

A right sassy couple
1.      FAITHFULNESS: Although both films follow the general plot of Robert E. Sherwood’s original stage play, the 1940 version does include some significant deviations from the original story. The basic plot in both films begins with Roy serving as a soldier in England during World War I where he meets the love of his life, Myra, during an air raid. The story then follows the couple as they embark upon a whirlwind romance, only to have fate tragically separate them once again. The greatest changes between the two are due to the time in which the remake was made. Because the remake was released at the start of World War II, this version was able to include a framing flashback set during World War II in which Roy  looks back upon his experiences as a young soldier in World War I. While this framing device takes up little of the film’s running time and has no bearing upon the story’s central events, it provides an added connection between the fictional story and the very real horrors of the early twentieth century that inspired it. Through this simple addition, the 1940 release is told within the context of the greater history in which it was produced and poignantly highlights the way in which history can sweep into and irreparably alter people’s lives. The 1940 release of the remake also subjected the script to the restrictions of the Hay’s Code censors, which forced the film’s makers to soften the script’s original gritty content. In the 1931 version, Myra is a poverty stricken chorus girl turned prostitute who meets Roy with the intention of picking him up at Waterloo Bridge as a customer, while in the 1940 version she is changed to a ballet dancer who only resorts to prostitution after a series of hardships that bring her to the brink of starvation. This effort to sanitize its leading lady forced the film’s writers to alter the rest of the 1940 film’s plot accordingly, leading to changes in Roy and Myra’s initial meeting and romance, and her tragic end. Because it would be another three years before the Hay’s Code would be put into effect, the 1931 film was free to retain the original realism of the play and dared to treat its leading lady as a character worthy of dignity and love despite her dubious profession. Through its faithful adaptation of a risqué story, the 1931 film wins points for telling Sherwood’s story in a way that conveyed the harsh reality of the war-time experiences that first inspired him to write it.

As God is my witness I'll never turn tricks again

2.      TRAGIC IMPACT: While the drastic changes to Myra’s back story arguably soften the film’s realism, these changes also provide the tragic events of its plot with a greater emotional impact. The 1931 film approaches Myra’s descent into prostitution in a matter of fact manner that highlights her economic motivations, which in turn reflects the predicament of countless women in her situation throughout the ages. In the 1940 film, however, Myra begins the film as a bright, if naïve, girl with an even brighter future ahead of her in the London ballet. While Myra is still driven by financial need in the remake, it is only after she loses both her career and any hope of seeing Roy again that she begins the downward spiral that ultimately leaves her with no other choice but to starve or make ends meet on London’s streets. This added insight into who Myra is before she meets Roy endears her to audiences early in the film and raises the stakes of her struggle in a way that makes her fall from grace all the more devastating. By showing Myra’s promising start, the writers also provided a greater internal conflict for her to face when she first enters prostitution and adds a greater context to the self-loathing that she feels when she reunites with Roy and finally gives him up. Similarly, the decision to change Myra’s death from her being killed in a bombing to committing suicide makes her death even more tragic, as it removes any possibility that her death was a mere accident of fate.  This in turn makes her death the logical end to the chain of tragic events that mark Myra and Roy’s war-time love story. The added depth that the 1940 remake imbues Myra’s story with makes her a truly complex leading lady and ensures that her story is worth every tear it brings to the eyes of its viewers.

Young love in the days before PETA
3.      STAR QUALITY: Although both films contain fine acting, the acting styles of the early sound era and Hollywood’s Golden Age were drastically different, creating a distinct variation between the two films. Mae Clark is completely believable as the hard as nails Myra, but still imbues her performance with just the right level of charm and vulnerability for audiences to understand what draws naïve Roy towards her. Douglass Montgomery’s lack of acting experience allows him to portray Roy’s lack of life experience in a way that is convincing, but borders on being over the top. The film’s weak writing combined with Montgomery’s unsure performance makes Roy seem so innocent that he makes for an unlikely leading man and an odd match for the street-smart Myra. By contrast, Robert Taylor portrays Roy as an aware but entirely decent man, which lends credibility to both his character’s experiences on the battlefield and unwillingness to see through the change in Myra upon his return. Vivien Leigh brings her usual nuance and charm to her role as Myra and plays both Myra’s initial innocence and later disillusionment with equal skill, making Myra’s descent an involving and tragic journey for audiences. Regardless of Clark and Montgomery’s skills as actors, the stagy acting style and wordy script of the 1931 version makes the film come across more as a filmed play than an actual film, which in turn makes it difficult for audiences to become fully invested in the story. Through its polished performances and modern acting style the 1940 version bests its predecessor in the acting department, bringing the remake the title of top tearjerker. Please provide your vote in the comments!

And The Notebook thought it knew how to do a rainy love scene...ha!


  1. Nine Years between the original and the remake? That seems like a pretty short span? If a film is remade how long do you think they should wait before it is remade?

  2. Definitely agree on that one, personally I'd hesitate to do a remake and even then wait a good 25 years before that, but I have to admit that MGM really pulled it off on this one. Though they didn't have the same luck with the 1954 remake...