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Film Friday: "The Razor's Edge" (1946)

To celebrate lovely Gene Tierney's 95th birthday, which was yesterday, this week on "Film Friday" I thought I would bring you what I believe was the first film of hers I have seen. Incidentally, this picture was released on the exact same date of her 26th birthday.

Original poster by Norman Rockwell
Directed by Edmund Goulding, The Razor's Edge (1946) opens at a dinner party held by elitist snob Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb) and his sister Louisa Bradley (Lucile Watson) at a Chicago country club in 1919. Much to the family's dismay, Louisa's daughter Isabel (Gene Tierney) is engaged to Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), a war veteran who discovers upon his return home that he can no longer fit into the world of upper-class society that his fiancé lives in. Also at the party is Sophie Nelson (Anne Baxter), Isabel's simple childhood friend; Gray Maturin (John Payne), Larry's wealthy friend who is also in love with Isabel; and author W. Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall), who runs into these characters throughout the course of their lives.

To find himself, Larry joins several other members of the Lost Generation in Paris, where Isabel visits him after a year. Larry asks her to marry him right away, but she refuses, appalled by his modest living conditions. Returning to America, Isabel marries Gray so she can continue enjoying the elite social and family life she craves. In the meantime, Larry travels to India to seek enlightment, studying at a monastery in the Himalayas under the guidance of the Holy Man (Cecil Humphreys). Back in Paris ten years later, Larry learns from Maugham that Gary has lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Unsettled by the news, Larry decides to visit Sophie, who has been living with Gary in Elliott's Parisian apartment. After they all have dinner with Maugham, Isabel insists on visiting a cheap nightclub, where they encounter Sophie, now a drunkard due to the loss of her husband and daughter in a car crash. Larry helps Sophie overcome her problem and soon announces his plans to marry her. Jealous, Isabel tempts Sophie back into drinking and she disappears, only to be found murdered a few days later. Meanwhile, Elliott dies and leaves his fortune to Isabel, who then tries to reconcile with Larry. However, he pushes her away, accusing her of deliberately enticing Sophie to drink. Instead, he decides to work his way back to America aboard a tramp steamer. Maugham attempts to console Isabel with the knowledge that Larry is happy because he has finally found what he sought goodness, the greatest force in the world.

Larry Darrell: I don't think I'll ever find peace until I make up my mind about things. It's so difficult to put into words. The minute you try, you feel embarrassed. You say to yourself, who am I to bother my head about this, that or the other? Wouldn't it be better just to follow the beaten path and let what's coming to you, come?

Born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874, William Somerset Maugham began writing steadily at the tender age of 15 and eagerly wished to become author. After the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), he abandoned his career as a medical doctor to dedicate himself exclusively to writing, producing such notable works as Of Human Bondage (1915) and The Painted Veil (1925). In early 1938, having developed an interest in Hindu spirituality, Maugham travelled to India to visit the guru Ramana Maharshi. While he had reservations about the guru's acquiscient and fatalist philosophy, Maugham was inspired by his experiences in India to write The Razor's Edge (1944), a novel that was a departure for him in many ways. The story of a disillusioned veteran of World War I who follows an unconventional path to salvation through Hindu mysticism, the book asked questions that spoke to a period in history unlike any other, while also embracing Eastern philosophies that would not gain widespread acceptance for decades. Despite the less than promising premise for heady sales, The Razor's Edge eventually became wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, striking a cord with millions of war-weary readers.

Although several of Maugham's works had been successfully adapted to the screen before, notably Of Human Bondage in 1934 and The Letter in 1940, Hollywood studios did not seem to show any great enthusiasm for The Razor's Edge as a motion picture, shrugging it off as "unfilmable." Darryl F. Zanuck, however, felt differently and decided to purchase the rights to the novel for 20th Century Fox in March 1945. "There must be a reason why the American public at this moment is reading the book more than it is reading any other," Zanuck wrote. "The answer, I think, is simple: Millions of people today are searching for contentment and peace in the same manner that Larry searches in the book. [...] In this particular case he finds the key is within himself, and at the end of the story he most dedicate himself in some simple fashion to an effort to give this secret to others."

Tyrope Power and Gene Tierney in
a publicity still
To write the script for The Razor's Edge, Zanuck hired Lamar Trotti, who had recently won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Henry King's Technicolor biopic Wilson (1944). When he got the director he wanted, George Cukor, on a loan-out from MGM, Zanuck asked him to look over Trotti's script for approval. Unimpressed by what he read, Cukor told Zanuck they should get Maugham himself to write the screenplay, something the producer had already thought of and resisted, thinking the monetary expenses would be too high. Luckily, Cukor was a friend of Maugham's and the author consented to do it for free. 

Zanuck told both Maugham and Cukor that he liked the new script, but privately he felt it relied too much on detailed explanation rather than action. His main problem was with the character of Larry; he did not want to change him, he merely wanted him "throughout the picture not to talk about himself, not to explain himself; to let the audience write its own answers." Zanuck also strongly opposed Cukor's suggestions for highlighting Larry's spirituality, as he felt the character "should not set out on a crusade to save humanity or to find out whether or not there is a God. He sets out to find the answer to his own personal problems." In addition, Zanuck rejected Cukor's idea to end the film by indicating that Larry would become a university teacher instead of a taxi driver, considering that "this would a tragic error that would kill the picture." Unable to reach an agreement, and due to scheduling conflicts with MGM's Desire Me (1947), Zanuck dropped Cukor from the project, abandoning Maugham's screenplay in the process.

Edmund Goulding, Tyrone Power and
Gene Tierney on the set
With Cukor off the film, Zanuck rescued Trotti's script and offered director Edmund Goulding a generous deal to helm The Razor's Edge. A "mysterious, dapper and captivatingly witty Englishman," Goulding was one of the most versatile and multitalented personalities of his time. Known for cultured dramas like Love (1927), Grand Hotel (1932) and Dark Victory (1939), he had a sensitive and respectful approach to acting and rarely upstaged his actors with directorial flourishes.

When Fox bought the rights to The Razor's Edge, Maugham stipulated in his contract that if principal photography was not underway by February 2, 1946, the studio would have to pay him an additional $50,000. The problem was that Zanuck wanted Tyrone Power to play the lead role in the film, but the actor was still enlisted for military service and would not be discharged until early 1946, possibly after the deadline imposed by Maugham. To honor the author's terms, Zanuck had location shooting begin in August 1945 in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, used to simulate the mountain top in India, and hired a double to stand in for Larry in the long shots. Power was finally discharged as a first lieutenant in mid-January 1946, allowing production to commence in late March of that year.

A matinee idol known for his swashbuckling and romantic roles, Power welcomed the chance to tackle more serious material and prove that he could act. Power got along splendily with Goulding, whom he later called his persona favorite director, and even more so with his co-star, Gene Tierney. Recently divorced from his wife, French actress Annabella, Power was a now "a free agent." He was openly apparent that he wanted something more than just a friendship with Tierney. Power did his best to seduce her and she genuinely liked him, just not romantically. The fact that John Kennedy, years away from becoming the Presidency, was still in her life may have closed down any thoughts of a romance with Power. Many Hollywood columnists at the time tried to push for Tierney and Power to become and item, but in the end "the only sparks between the two of them were scripted and on film."

The Razor's Edge premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York City on November 19, 1946, coinciding with Tierney and Clifton Webb's birthdays. There was a party at the Plaza Hotel after the screening to celebrate both birthdays and the enthusiastic reception that the film got after the premiere. Variety, for instance, asserted that "The Razor's Edge has everything for virtually every type of film fan. Fundamentally it's all good cinematurgy. It's a moving picture that moves." At the 19th Academy Awards, The Razor's Edge received several major nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Webb) and Best Art Direction (Black and White), with Anne Baxter winning for Best Supporting Actress.

Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy by Matthew Kennedy (2004) | Gene Tierney: A Biography by Michelle Vogel (2005) | Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox by Darryl Francis Zanuck; selected, edited and annotated by Rudy Behlmer (1993) | Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb by Clifton Webb (2011) | The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger (2009) | TCMDb (Articles) | Variety review |


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