When chorus girl Myra Deauville (Mae Clarke) finds herself out of work, she assumes she’ll be able to find herself a new show soon enough. Two years later and still no work, she has no choice but to become a hooker to support herself. She and her friend Kitty (Doris Lloyd) walk the streets together, but one night during an air raid, she stops to help an older woman trying to carry a lot of potatoes. Roy (Douglass Montgomery), a soldier on leave, stops to help them and when he realizes Myra is an American, the two of them hit it off right away. Once potato lady was taken care of, he goes back to Myra’s apartment with her to wait out the air raid. Roy falls madly in love with Myra, and even though Myra feels the same way, she doesn’t want to get too close to him. She only tells him that she’s an unemployed chorus girl, she doesn’t want him to know she’s a prostitute.
Soon enough, Roy wants to bring Myra out to the country to meet his family. Of course, she initially refuses, but Roy ends up tricking her into meeting them. His sister Janet is played by a very young Bette Davis. His family seems to like her and Roy proposes, but Myra can’t stand having this secret on her conscience so she tells his mother the truth. Although his mother is very understanding, she asks her not to marry Roy. The next day, she sneaks back to London without saying goodbye to Roy. Roy comes back to London to find out what happened and begs her to marry him. He has to go back to the war very soon, so he’s trying to make it happen fast. She agrees, but while he’s out of the room, she sneaks out the window. After she leaves, Roy runs into Myra’s landlord looking to collect the rent. Myra’s landlord lets the cat out of the bag about what Myra’s real job is, but Roy still loves her. He heads out to Waterloo Bridge to look for her and finds her mere minutes before he has to leave for the war again. He begs her to agree to marry him when he comes back or he’ll refuse to leave. Myra agrees, but alas, their marriage was never meant to be.
Waterloo Bridge is best remembered for the production code era version starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. But the 1940 version of Waterloo Bridge only vaguely resembles its pre-code counterpart. The Vivien Leigh version starts out like the Mae Clarke version, meeting Roy by Waterloo Bridge during an air raid, but then it goes on quite a detour before it resembles the 1931 version again. First of all, the fact that Myra was a prostitute had to be really downplayed in the Vivien Leigh version. The whole part about Roy being mistakenly reported as dead never happened in the Mae Clarke version. Mae Clarke’s Myra is never thrown out of a show because of Roy like Vivien Leigh’s Myra was. In the Vivien Leigh version, Myra is much more willing to marry Roy while Mae Clarke always tried to avoid it as much as possible.
When I watch Waterloo Bridge, all I can think is how underrated an actress Mae Clarke is. She’s best remembered for having a grapefruit shoved in her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy, but you can see in Waterloo Bridge that there was a lot more to her than that. She had a solid career in the 1930s, but it slowed down by the 40s, and by the 50s and 60s, she was doing a lot of TV stuff and uncredited parts in major movies like Singin’ in the Rain, Pat and Mike, The Catered Affair, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Going by her performance here, I really think she really should have been a much bigger star and it’s beyond me why she wasn’t. It’s her performance that puts this movie on equal footing with Vivien Leigh’s Waterloo Bridge.