Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Razor's Edge (1946)

Each time I see “The Razor’s Edge” I think its one of the most watchable moves ever made, a strong example of Hollywood craftsmanship and narrative filmmaking of the highest order.

The story of a man desperate to find inner peace and do good deeds for himself and others was a massive blockbuster when Twentieth Century Fox released “The Razor’s Edge” in 1946. It became the studio’s biggest hit up to that time, earning $5 million at the box office; very impressive when the average ticket price at the time was 34 cents.

Running time is 146 minutes and it flies by like a gazelle. I’ve seen half hour sitcoms that seem to run longer than “The Razor’s Edge.” It’s the type of epic story where we’re not waiting for the next special effects sequence, large scale action set piece, or natural disaster to occur. Instead, we’re presented with a vast array of fascinating characters and we watch how they react to the assorted situations and crises they become faced with. We witness how they rise to the occasion, or sink to the black pool of despair.

It’s a timeless story and one that holds surprising resonance even today. Yes, I’m familiar with the quite good 1984 remake starring Bill Murray and Theresa Russell, but that stayed a period piece. “The Razor’s Edge” could easily be updated with little effort. Substitute the Gulf War for World War I, the recent financial crisis for the Great Depression and you have half the story right there. Alcohol and drug abuse have always been with us, and contemporary audiences seemed to have no problem with Julia Roberts seeking spiritual satisfaction in India in “Eat, Pray Love” (2010).

Based on a hugely successful 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, “The Razor’s Edge” opens with a beautiful credit sequence showing waves crashing on shore accompanied by Alfred Newman’s gloriously inspiring music. The waves seem to be symbolic of our protagonist Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), a restless soul who returns to Chicago after seeing action in World War I. Greatly affected by the war, he’s not content to settle down to a never ending series of parties and social events with his fiancée, North Shore socialite Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney). While Isabel relishes the high society life, Larry yearns for something deeper and more satisfying in life than material excess.
Leaving Isabel, Larry travels the world as a common man, eventually finding peace and spiritual satisfaction at a monastery in India. He leaves the monastery to do good for others.

Isabel and her husband Gray (John Payne) have seen their fortunes wiped out in the crash. They are forced to live in Paris with her uncle Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), a terrifically snobby yet appealing character who has something caustic to say about everyone but helps out his adored niece at the drop of a hat.

Isabel’s very likeable cousin Sophie (Anne Baxter) has turned to alcohol, drugs and prostitution after the deaths of her husband and young daughter in car accident.

Herbert Marshall plays the author W. Somerset Maugham. Like the book, Maugham appears throughout as our guide as he runs into these characters throughout the course of their lives, celebrating their triumphs and sympathizing during their tragedies. These characters experience both over the course of the movie.

There are several reasons that account for the film’s popularity. It was the first film for Fox’s biggest star, Tyrone Power, in almost three years. Power enlisted in the Marines in WWII and served with distinction in the Pacific Theater, flying in supplies to the troops. He was decorated on several occasions.

Like Clark Gable and James Stewart, Power returned to Hollywood a changed man. A little heavier in face and with eyes a little less bright, Power yearned to act in vehicles more substantial than the comedies and adventure movies he was making pre-war. Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck waited until the right role came along for Power’s comeback vehicle. Zanuck likely looked at what M-G-M gave Gable for his comeback film, “Adventure” (1945), a turkey if there ever was one, and swore not to rush things for his top star.

Gregory Peck was originally announced for “The Razor’s Edge” but Zanuck must have realized how perfect Power would be in the part. There was always one film a year that Zanuck personally supervised and in 1946 it was “The Razor’s Edge.” I think Power is very good in the role, and he well understood the Larry Darrell character. Always striving to do good work, Power probably felt about many of his films the way Larry felt about attending the latest cocktail party.
1946 saw the most impressive movie theater attendance in history. According to Entertainment Weekly, more than 80 million people, or about 57 percent of all Americans, went to the movies every week. World War II was over and American’s fighting men and women were home to re-kindle romances or start up new ones. The most affordable date was the movies. (TV’s impact would not be felt at the box office for another year or two).

“The Razor’s Edge” struck a chord for those returning service men and women affected by the war. Horrified at what they witnessed during the war, they yearned for a better world, looking for spiritual peace and ways they can do good in the world. No wonder “The Razor’s Edge” was such a monster hit.

“The Razor’s Edge” earned a Best Picture nomination in 1946. It lost to “The Best Years of Our Lives”, another film that struck a massive chord with returning vets and their families. The other nominees that year were “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Henry V” and “The Yearling.”

Anne Baxter’s tragic Sophie did earn her the Academy Award that year for Best Supporting Actress. Her competition was Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”, Lillian Gish in “Duel in the Sun”, Flora Robson in “Saratoga Trunk” and Gale Sondergaard in “Anna and the King of Siam.” I think the Academy chose wisely that year.

Clifton Webb plays his patented snob character, but the affection he shows for his family separates it from his more caustic performances. The Academy saw fit to honor Webb with a Supporting Actor nomination for his Uncle Elliott role, but he lost to Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Webb has a terrific deathbed scene that likely earned him the nomination.

Harold Russell was already selected to receive an Honorary Oscar for his role, no doubt as consolation. After all, how could an amateur win the coveted award over Webb, Charles Coburn in “The Green Years”, William Demarest in “The Jolson Story” or Claude Rains in “Notorious”? Everyone was shocked when Russell was announced the winner, making Harold Russell the only performer to win two Oscars for a single role in one film. (And the first time that an actor won a Best Supporting Actor award for his first film.) If I was a member of the Academy, I would have picked Claude Rains that year, but that’s me.

Gene Tierney is also very good as Isabel. Always praised for her beauty more for her acting, she has nothing to be ashamed of her performance here. Her Isabel is very human, flaws and all. She can’t help it that she’s somewhat weak and used to a life of luxury and ease.

Guiding all these characters over the course of their lives is director Edmund Goulding, one of those Golden Age figures who doesn’t get much respect until you review his filmography and realize how many classic movies he directed. A short list includes such titles as “Grand Hotel” (1932),“The Dawn Patrol” (1938), “Dark Victory” (1939), “The Old Maid (1939), “The Constant Nymph (1943), and “Claudia” (1943).

His best film may be his follow-up film with Power, the amazing “Nightmare Alley” (1947). It’s probably Power’s best performance, and as a carny con man he plays a role as opposite from Larry Darrell as could be imagined. It didn’t make a dime, but is a cult favorite today and remains one of the great films of the 1940s.

The multi-talented Goulding was also a composer and one of his compositions was a song called “Mam’selle”, which is featured prominently in “The Razor’s Edge.” It became a great hit and was recorded by several artists, including Frank Sinatra.

We all look for peace in our lives and strive to do good and do no harm. Such truths never die and with its themes of selflessness, overcoming adversity, love and New Age mysticism, I have a feeling that “The Razor’s Edge” would play very well with contemporary audiences.


ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, I was excited to see that you had done a review of The Razor's Edge. It is a first class movie with incredible performances, and it did justice to the writing of the great Somerset Maugham. He is a genius of a writer, and many of his stories were adapted for film. This is one of the best -- others include Bette Davis' The Letter, George Sanders' The Moon and Sixpence, both of which are big favorites of mine.

Power was so much more than a pretty face and he proved it with this movie. Anne Baxter was just heartbreaking as the doomed Sophie, her best role I think. Tierney, Webb, Marshall as Somerset Maugham, all were at their best. And what a story! I'm with you, I could watch it again and again and not feel the time go by.

Your analysis of the era, the movie's timely impact on audiences were all very insightful. I wish more of the audience today would be interested in a movie like The Razor's Edge. Standards have lowered so much in our culture.

In closing, I have to mention your admiration of Nightmare Alley. I love that movie, and did a review of it a while back myself. Power was at his most mature in acting, and it is one of my top 20. I don't know why it isn't given its due by classic film lovers -- if you feel like it, skip on over to my blog and look it up. You'll see how I feel about it.

Thanks for doing The Razor's Edge, Kevin. Wonderful job!

Page said...


This was such a beautifully written review of a wonderful film!

I agree that Power, Baxter and Tierney played their roles to perfection.

It's been a few years since I've seen the film but Ann as Sophie resonated with me long after seeing it. I didn't see the remake with Murray but I agree that it's one of those movies that you would love to see remade. Well okay, if they don't screw it up like so many remakes.

Bravo on another wonderful post!

Kevin Deany said...

Becky and Page, thanks for your kind words. I know some critics really tore into this, but I've always found it fascinating viewing. About 12-15 years ago a co-worker of mine who will watch the occasional old movie, but isn't really into them the way we are, started watching this on AMC when it aired on a weekday night starting at 9 p.m. She wound up entranced even though she had to get up for work very early the next day. It really struck her.

You can't beat those Fox production values, though part of me wishes Zanuck had spent a little more money and had a set built at, say, Lone Pine, CA, where "Gunga Din" was filmed. It's painfully obvious that India is represented by a painted backdrop. But I pretend not to notice.

The Lady Eve said...

I have been a fan of "The Razor's Edge" since my first viewing. And I must've been very young when I first saw it because, in my mind's eye, Somerset Maugham has always looked like Herbert Marshall.
The story of Larry's disaffection and search for meaning has been timely since Maugham first published the book. I liked Tyrone Power's portrayal - there was always a kind of reserve about him that worked well for this role. You make a point about the change in Power's looks after WWII. Though he was in his early 30s when he made "The Razor's Edge," he looked older - heavier and just slightly haggard. This change also worked to his advantage in the role of Larry Darrell.
I particularly like Gene Tierney in roles where her beauty is offset by a darker side - as in this film and "Leave Her to Heaven." Also thought Anne Baxter was very affecting as the luckless Sophie.
Really enjoyed your piece, Kevin -so very well written and thorough.

doctor sabelotodo said...

great post on a great movie...fantastic pedigree...I found the 1984 remake unwatchable..(bill murray is NO tyrone power)..I am a huge fan of MAUGHAM and will venture a look at any film derivation!!

Classicfilmboy said...

Hi Kevin -- a little late catching up. This is one of your best pieces; you capture the history of the film perfectly. It's been so long since I've seen it, and it's one I always mean to watch again. Perhaps I should do so. The cast is uniformly great. Tyrone Power was so consistently good, it bothers me he was never an Oscar nominee, particularly for this film.

Kevin Deany said...

Tyrone Power joins the rarified club of Edward G. Robinson and Myrna Loy, among others, of never even receiving an Oscar nomination.

He deserved one for "Nightmare Alley" and I think his turn in "The Mark of Zorro" is one of the most underrated performances of all time. Just marvelous.

ClassicBecky said...

Just popping back in -- saw your latest post CFB and your answer. I agree about The Mark of Zorro. He was so good in that, subtly funny in his portrayal of the fop, dashing as Zorro. I think Power had the same problem a lot of the really beautiful actresses had -- he was just so pretty that he was overlooked for his acting ability.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

Keep up the good work!