James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931) and Frank Borzage’s Little Man, What Now? (1934) depict human possibility in terms of what can transpire between two ordinary people, while holding out little hope for society. In Borzage’s film, the private world of two pure-hearted lovers offers a refuge from the world’s horrors, whereas in Whale’s, there is no escape: society gets inside of you and destroys you from within.
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Two Universal romantic dramas of the early 1930s starring the forgotten Douglass Montgomery set the best that can be hoped for in interpersonal relationships against a backdrop of social chaos and economic deprivation. James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931) and Frank Borzage’s Little Man, What Now? (1934) depict human possibility in terms of what can transpire between two ordinary people, while holding out little hope for society. In Borzage’s film, the private world of two pure-hearted lovers offers a refuge from the world’s horrors, whereas in Whale’s, there is no escape: society gets inside of you and destroys you from within.
In Waterloo Bridge, Montgomery is paired with Mae Clarke, chiefly recalled by classic film fans for receiving a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in The Public Enemy. This is criminal, because she should be remembered for her performance in Waterloo Bridge. Montgomery (himself chiefly remembered as Katharine Hepburn’s Laurie in Cukor’s Little Women) is almost as good, although his role as both actor and character in the film is to offer support to Clarke’s Myra. Waterloo Bridge is remarkable for several things: the central performances’ combination of naturalism and intensity; Whale’s lack of judgment toward the important players in the drama (Myra, Montgomery’s Roy, and Roy’s mother, Mary) combined with an entire lack of sentimentality; his psychological portrait of a woman who’s being driven mad by her internalization of society’s judgment; the way that the film manages to have many intervals of comedy despite building inexorably toward tragedy in its fleet 81-minute running time.
But let’s start with the way the two young actors, neither much past 20, look. With their long faces and light hair, they could be siblings: a couple of huddled orphans, half-homely seraphim. When we first meet her, however, Myra gives an impression of magnetic vitality and vivacity, transformed in the course of the film into frantic nerves and finally hysteria. We first see her on the stage, as a chorus girl: the camera pans over a row of cheering young women wearing ridiculous 18th-century-inspired costumes until it finds her. Unlike the others, Myra is visibly disengaged from the festive mood onstage. We catch her inspecting her neckline and registering the heat between cheers; as another one goes up, she raises her hands with the others and smiles radiantly, but it morphs into a yawn, followed by another, more patently artificial smile. She caps off the performance by blowing a raspberry at the audience and dissolving into what looks like genuine hilarity. This rapid alteration of moods hints at her personality fragmentation to come, but for now she only seems endearingly pragmatic.
Myra is an American who went on the stage to escape a violent home and came to London with a show. This already constitutes a form of sex work, as the opening sequence makes clear, but when World War I throws society into disarray, she’s forced into prostitution. She seems to have maintained a delicate mental equilibrium until she meets Roy, an American who joined the Canadian forces, on Waterloo Bridge during an air raid. When they fall in love, it awakens her suppressed conflict about what she’s doing, and we spend the rest of the film watching it tear her apart.
The premise of Waterloo Bridge is the stuff of melodrama: the naive Roy doesn’t understand that Myra is a prostitute, and when he introduces her to his wealthy family, she heartbreakingly confesses her dark secret to his mother (the only member of the family with any mental acuity), who talks her into giving Roy up. We might then expect that Myra will perform her sacrifice in the form of a staged scene, like Garbo in Camille. But Myra doesn’t have the presence of mind for heroic theatrics. She simply runs away from Roy; when he follows her back to her flat and extracts a promise of marriage from her, she bolts again. He finds her on the bridge and, having realized the truth, extracts the promise from her again before riding off with the other soldiers to the front, and she’s killed by a bomb while walking forlornly home.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of the film is Whale’s handling of the scenes that most correspond to genre expectations, turning hoary conventions into marvels of psychological insight and social critique. Myra is treated with great outward kindness by Roy’s family, who think she’s a chorus girl, although his mother, Mary, is ready to seize any opportunity that presents itself to put an end to the affair. Her moment arrives when Myra, tormented by guilt, gratuitously informs her of the truth. Whale allows the viewer to understand the complex psychological and social dynamics between the women, which are not distinct but intertwined. Myra desperately wants Mary’s approval, both because this family’s class confers the legitimacy upon them that Myra craves, and because Mary’s genteel politeness holds out the promise of maternal affection. But Mary’s kindness is a trap. If she’d been treated cruelly, Myra might have been able to defy Mary and the class she represents; instead, she’s overawed by them.
Mary, we are to understand, knows all of this. If Myra is as naive as Roy except, by necessity, in matters of sex, Mary has a clear-eyed understanding of the world and human motivations. As soon as Myra confesses, Maru understands that Myra is too morally superior a person to ruin the life of a man she loves, and that these factors – Myra’s superiority and her love for Roy – are precisely what will allow Mary to save her son. She recognizes both Myra’s goodness and the fact that saving Roy will mean sacrificing Myra. Whale doesn’t present Mary as a villain, however. Rather, she’s the genteel, genuinely kindly agent through which the world’s evil operates. Nor does the brief shot of her in tears, after Myra leaves her bedroom, sentimentalize and exonerate her. It simply shows that she understands how terrible the world is, although she has no more notion of defying it than Myra does. As for Myra, the only power she wields over this woman is Roy’s love for her, as she openly states; since she has no intention of using it, however, she exchanges it for the only thing Mary is willing to give her: a “good” woman’s good opinion of her. It’s a poor exchange, but for Myra, it’s not meaningless.
Myra’s pathetic craving for kindness is the engine of her tragedy. In the extended sequence in which she and Roy get to know each other on the first night (almost 20 minutes, most of it real time), we watch her moral life grow in response to his decency as she realizes that his intentions toward her are romantic rather than exploitative. Unfortunately, the moral awareness their relationship awakens in her assumes the only form it can in the world they live in: sexual guilt. And this in turn takes the form of lashing out in anger against men. We see from her regret afterwards that she can’t control these outbursts, which she regrets with Roy because he doesn’t deserve it and with her clients because it’s against her self-interest.
Sexual guilt as the root of personality fragmentation seems like a distinctly modern concept, but Rouben Mamoulian uses it in the same period, very differently, in his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Whale, as a homosexual man born in 1889, must have had some acquaintance with the power of sexual guilt and social prejudice. Roy himself doesn’t judge Myra when he learns the truth, even momentarily, but his decency alone isn’t enough. His second proposal takes place in front of a truck full of jeering soldiers who only see a gullible young man, duped by desire, proposing to a woman he doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t. Myra is killed because there is no place in this world for their love and no way that she can go on leading the life she has now that it’s in her life.
Little Man, What Now? is another film about a decent, ordinary person who’s being driven insane by the society they live in and their guilt at not living up to the ideal for their gender. This time Douglass Montgomery is the protagonist, despite receiving a tiny second billing beneath the enormous letters spelling out the name of co-star Margaret Sullavan, whose film debut the year earlier in John Stahl’s Only Yesterday had been a huge hit. The first entry in Borzage’s 1930s “Weimar trilogy,”1 Little Man, What Now? is the one that seems almost equally applicable to the American Depression. It depicts a society in which government agencies and employers small and large are callous toward the plight of workers, who become drawn toward extremist solutions. (Political references are kept vague, but the film appears to conflate Communism and Nazism.) The solution that Borzage proposes instead is the love of a good woman – a moral that producer Carl Laemmle Jr. makes explicit in the anxiously universalizing text that prefaces the film.
This unpromising premise would never get off the ground without the charm of Sullavan and, especially, the power of Montgomery’s performance. Despite having to work with the appearance of an early 1960s Ken Doll, Montgomery successfully conveys the desperation overtaking the gentle, diffident Hans in a performance that alternates between understatement and hysteria. His unique way of blurting out his lines from within a reverie suggests a deep inwardness and a pent-up intensity that breaks through when his emotions are aroused.
Whereas in Waterloo Bridge, sex is a threat to the pair of lovers from within, in Little Man, What Now? they’re constantly menaced by it from without. In his initial job as a clerk, Hans is the victim of what amounts to sexual harassment: his revolting boss has employed single men so that he can marry off his daughter to one of them, and he insinuates to Hans that his job depends on it. When Hans’s marriage to Lämmchen (“Little Lamb,” Hans’s nickname for Sullavan) is discovered, they go to live with his stepmother in Berlin, where Sullavan receives unwanted attention from the stepmother’s associate, Jachman (Alan Hale). Hans’s first moment of hysterical violence comes in response to Jachman’s flirtation and the simultaneous discovery that no job has been arranged for him after all. Borzage makes the viewer feel the pressure and hysteria rising in the small kitchen due to the proximity of the two couples – and particularly the proximity of the burly Hale to the delicate Sullavan, with Montgomery helpless to make the indignities stop. His second and worse outburst occurs when he learns that his stepmother is running a high-class brothel: he advances on an aggressive client with a knife, on the verge of becoming Travis Bickle.
Borzage’s handling of the relationship between Lämmchen and Jachman is the most unique and ambiguous aspect of the film, its tone balancing on the knife-edge of comedy and menace. (Hale brings a similar mixture of benignity and sexual threat to the role of Ed Munn in Vidor’s Stella Dallas three years later.) Some of the ambiguity is resolved during the scene in which a drunken Jachman invades the young couple’s bedroom, offering to pay their rent, but sprinkling this offer with many more passes at Lämmchen. Borzage signals for us how we are to receive Jachman’s equivocal generosity with a shot of Sullavan’s eyes twinkling at him with a seductive warmth above the duvet beneath which the rest of her has modestly disappeared. This shot seems to be for the viewer only, not Hans and not even Jachman, who’s too drunk to notice: it’s important to Borzage to communicate that neither marriage nor pregnancy prevent Lämmchen from emanating a kind of beatific eroticism. Remarkably, the film neither questions her virtue nor makes her naively oblivious to Jachman’s intentions, even when he buys her a new dress and she models it for him in her and Hans’s garret apartment, their bodies again in close proximity in a small space, and this time without Hans’s presence. Without any apparent will to manipulate on her part, her innocent eroticism converts Jachman from a melodramatic threat to an unlikely ally for the couple.
The film’s “problem,” and therefore focus, however, is Hans: the male breadwinner whose identity is predicated on his ability to perform this role, and who may become a threat to society if thwarted. After extracting a job as a suit salesman from a surly manager, he suffers repeated humiliations and disappointments. He finds a mentor in a senior salesman, but when the company starts using inhumane tactics to increase sales, the man makes a pro-worker speech and quits to start his own business, leaving Hans without a protector. The excruciating scene in which Hans finally loses his job reaches near-Bressonian levels of cruelty toward protagonist and viewer, as Hans appears to achieve a rapport with a famous movie actor who tries on every suit in the department, only to learn that the man has no intention of buying anything. He was trying to get into character as a poor young man from the wrong side of town, but Hans’s repeated direct appeals to his humanity can’t make him feel any empathy. On the contrary, he complains to the manager that he’s being harassed. Empathy, the film has us understand, is mysterious and intractable, blowing where it listeth.
Narrowly avoiding becoming part of a riot, Hans returns home to find that Lämmchen has given birth. The event restores his courage and resolve, but despite Lämmchen’s speech about not being afraid of life, the film’s ending acknowledges that man can’t live on his love for his family alone. His guardian angel from the store reappears, ready to hire Hans and, when the time comes, his son as well. Borzage may reject radical politics as a solution to the problem of economic exploitation, but he’s happy for employers to have radical ideas about business, such as capping executive salaries. Nor does he glorify having what it takes to succeed in a capitalist world, which Hans emphatically does not. On the contrary, social disintegration can be avoided if the capitalist will only wait patiently for the potential of every worker to manifest itself, which will happen when they’re treated kindness and respect. Of course, this is not the direction in which Germany went.
- The other two films are 1938’s Three Comrades and 1940’s The Mortal Storm. [↩]