The Razor’s Edge might have been a different film.
Legendary producer Darryl Zanuck served in both World Wars. He enlisted as a teenager in the U.S. Army and saw European action in World War I. By the time the second World War rolled around, Zanuck was an Oscar winning producer who could’ve gotten out of his service or at least stayed stateside, but he insisted on documenting the fighting in active war zones and making patriotic films.
When he returned, he bought the rights to W. Somerset Maugham’s penultimate novel and intended to make a prestige film about man’s search for meaning.
Zanuck originally hired George Cukor to direct, but he and Cukor disagreed on the direction of the main character. Progress stalled, which was fine with Zanuck—he was waiting for Tyrone Power, who’d enlisted in the Marines, to return home from the war to play the leading role.
When Power came home, Cukor and Zanuck had parted ways and Cukor was engaged in another project.
Cukor—who wanted Maugham to write the screenplay—would’ve made a different film.
We’ll never know if it would’ve been a better one.
Tyrone Power plays Larry Darrell, a man with existential questions after a fellow soldier sacrifices his life to save his in World War I. Larry wants to marry his sweetheart Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), but though she loves him dearly, she wants reassurances that he will commit to adult responsibilities like an office job and having children.
He prefers to loaf—his term—around. Eager not to lose him, Isabel agrees to delay their wedding while he travels alone to Paris to find himself. When they reunite after a year, they’re as in love as ever but at an impasse—he wants her to live as a questing pauper with him, and she wants a husband who wears a tie to work and earns a salary high enough to buy her fine dresses and a nanny for their eventual children.
He’s content to go on as they are, but Isabel gives him an ultimatum—settle down or lose her forever.
Larry travels to India to learn from a guru, and Isabel marries a rich man.
As the film progresses—scene after never-ending scene—we watch the years unfold as Larry marches toward enlightenment while studying with mystics and doing manual labor to make enough money to survive.
Meanwhile, Isabel and those preoccupied with worldly concerns are dashed against the rocks of fate. Isabel and her husband lose their fortune in the stock market crash of ’29, and cast their friend Sophie (Anne Baxter) out of their inner circle when she becomes an alcoholic after her husband and baby are killed in a car wreck.
Look—intellectually, I get it.
Larry is essentially walking the path to sainthood—he heals the sick, cares for those less fortunate, and might as well have taken vows of poverty and chastity.
The problem is that sainthood is deadly dull.
The only time the film is remotely interesting is when a jealous Isabel bears her fangs after Larry announces he is marrying Sophie. Even then, she has no real reason for jealousy—Larry is merely marrying Sophie to save her from her alcoholism. As anyone who’s ever known an actual alcoholic can predict, his efforts are unsuccessful.
It’s true that Anne Baxter had a lovely Oscar-winning performance for supporting actress, and that the film garnered 3 other nominations including best picture.
It’s true that 1946 was filled with important films that grappled the trauma of coming home from war—The Best Years of Our Lives won the Oscar for best picture that year.
It’s true we should care about the plight of such people.
But for me, The Razor’s Edge doesn’t pierce the skin.
- TCM Website: https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/87754/the-razors-edge#notes
- Darryl Zanuck Bio: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.fil.067
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