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The Razor’s Edge (1946)

The-Razors-Edge-1946-posterMy local library recently acquired The Razor’s Edge and since it’s a small library and DVDs of classic movies seem to appear and disappear mysteriously, I thought I had better watch it while I could. And, actually, I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. The cast is excellent and although the middle gets silly, I sympathized with Tyrone Power’s character.

The movie is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, published in 1944. The novel is narrated by Maugham himself as though he were meeting the characters of his story and in the movie he is played by Herbert Marshall. The character who Maugham is chiefly interested in is Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), who has just returned from WWI. But although he is engaged to socialite Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney) and offered work by the millionaire Gray Maturin (John Payne), Larry is not sure what he wants to do. Isabel’s uncle, Elliott Templeton (Cliffton Webb), thinks he’s a bum.

But Isabel is smart enough to realize that Larry’s not going to settle down until he finds peace of mind and agrees to wait while Larry takes time off to “loaf,” as he calls it. He goes to Paris, seeking to discover what the meaning of life is and what it means to be alive and why he is alive (his friend died saving his life during the war). But although he finds some answers –  he knows for certain that he does not want to make earning money his standard of achievement – he’s still searching. He asks Isabel to marry him, but although she’s crazy about him, she can’t imagine living the life he wants to live, without wealth, without society, and she refuses him and marries Gray Maturin instead. In the meantime, Larry’s search leads him to India, where he feels like he’s come much closer to the answers he’s looking for. He returns to Paris, but finds his childhood friend, Sophie (Anne Baxter) now self-destructing with alcohol after losing her husband and child in a car crash. Larry wants to help Sophie, but Isabel grows jealous and concerned.

Although Larry is the main character, The Razor’s Edge provides a tableaux of characters and their intersecting lives. The film covers over ten years (beginning with the roaring twenties with the cult of making wealth that Larry rejects to the crash of ’29, were Gray loses everything and Isabel ruefully reflects that she is now as poor as she would have been with Larry. Somerset Maugham, as played by Herbert Marshall, is a sympathetic man, though often wryly amused by people, who can generally see through their pretenses, but admires Larry’s quest in life. He is also the only person Isabel will talk frankly with, partly because he can see through her anyway.

Herbert Marshall, John Payne, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power

Herbert Marshall, John Payne, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power

Isabel is a good role for Gene Tierney, not evil, but selfish and puts her love of Larry before anything (though she tries to make Gray happy and seems to succeed well enough). It seems like she loves Larry more than Larry ever loved her (she was the one who pursued him in the first place). And although she is smart enough to realize in the beginning that Larry needs time to sort things out, she never does see that the two of them want different things in life. Were she crosses the line is in her jealousy of Sophie, who becomes engaged to Larry. She doesn’t exactly sabotage Sophie, but she makes it easy for Sophie to relapse…with disastrous results for Sophie.

Anne Baxter earned an academy award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sophie, who begins the film passionately in love with her husband (though there are hints that she likes her drinks a little too much) and goes completely to pieces after he dies. She’s partially a parallel character to Larry. Both are wounded people who lived when someone close to them died and don’t know how to go on. He responds by trying to find the reason for living, but she does not even try. It seems to hurt her too much to even face it. And ultimately there is some truth to Isabel’s assertion that Sophie doesn’t want to be helped.

The film is extremely earnest in tone, though it is lightened by the presence of Clifton Webb and one scene with Elsa Lanchester (who made me wish she was in the film more). Webb’s Elliott Templeton is a snob of snobs, but as the film goes on one realizes that he is also kind and generous, and rather vulnerable at core (he’s often ridiculous and in his heart, I think he knows it).

But the heart of the film is Larry’s quest and the film tends to be vague on this point. We hear that he has learned things about himself, but we never learn what they are. Partly, this is because it’s difficult to write about finding something most people have never found. There’s no vocabulary for it. Even the character of Larry has trouble expressing what it is he’s looking for. The meaning of life? Why is he alive and what should he do? What’s his place in the world? Ultimately, what he really seems to be doing is being a part of life, working, meeting people from all walks of life, being a friend who listens, trying to help. He’s not a bum, he works, but he’s living in a way that allows him to be as open to people and experience as possible.

downloadIn some ways, it made me think of Lost Horizon. The novel of Lost Horizon was written eleven years before the novel The Razor’s Edge and the movies were only nine years apart. But in Lost Horizon, the main character is looking for a place of peace, as if the author knew a terrible war was coming and wants to avoid what is ahead. But Larry is looking for inner peace, since the war feared in Lost Horizon has already happened (at least it happened in real life; the story takes place before WWII) and now he needs to live in the world. One weakness of the film, however, is the middle, with the hollywoodized portrayal of Eastern philosophy and religion which come out sounding so vague it’s hardly recognizable as any particular religion. Still, I admire the film’s ambition.

It’s difficult to portray goodness (Maugham makes a comment about Larry having found genuine “goodness”). It’s something people instinctively recognized, but have difficulty expressing. We’re much better at portraying more negative emotions. And The Razor’s Edge doesn’t entirely succeed in showing what an alternate mode of living would be like. Partly, this is because Larry has means (he seems to have a mysterious income, small though it is, that allows him to live a lifestyle of searching) which are not available to most people. He also stays single. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre somewhat loses his contented state when he marries Natasha. Other concerns tend to crop up when one has obligations to other people. The vagueness also hurts. What has Larry found? But Power brings sincerity to his role and there is something sympathetic about his essentially humble search that allows him to non-judgmentally empathize with other people.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – R.A. Dick (Josephine Leslie)

239437One of my favorite romantic films is the 1947 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. That film, however, was based on a book, published only two years earlier with the same title, by R. A. Dick, pseudonym for Josephine Leslie. It’s a short novel, only 180 pages, and the movie is quite faithful to the book with only a few, understandable changes.

Mrs. Lucy Muir, often called little Mrs. Muir, is now a widow with two children (there is only one child in the movie). She has always lived, all her life, meekly adhering to the lifestyle that her husband and his family wanted. But now that he is gone, she has determined that she will direct her own life. She moves out from the home of her in-laws and decides that she wants to live by the seashore. Even the residents of her chosen town seem to expect that she will conform to a certain lifestyle and assume she will live in a respectable house in a respectable neighborhood. But Lucy falls in love with a most unsuitable place, an empty cottage, Gull Cottage, that is said to be haunted. No one’s been able to live there for ten years.

Undeterred, she rents the house and moves in with her two children. Sure enough the ghost manifests himself – as a voice – but she refuses to be frightened off. She has taken her own life into her hands and she is not about to let even a ghost swerve her from her decision. Instead the ghost, a sea captain named Daniel Gregg, who seems a bit lonely in the afterlife, is impressed by her and the two of them forge a unique friendship that lasts Lucy’s whole life, with the captain empowering Lucy to stand firm and live as she chooses.

I did enjoy the book, though it does not have the haunting, romantic beauty of the film and the story is more remarkable than the writing. The book is less a romance and more strongly emphasizes Lucy’s quest for independence; financial independence, but also independence in the eyes of other people. For various reasons, she is always being viewed as helpless by other people, like her sister-in-law, the rental agent, her children, even the town people. She is petite, a widow, does not push her weight around, has a sweet manner and people are always wanting to take care of her when all she desires is to be left alone and to let other people alone.

But she is lonely. As in the movie, there is that sense of the absence of a soul mate, someone she understands and who truly understands her. Daniel Gregg does understand her, though perhaps he has an unfair advantage because as a ghost he can read her mind and delights to break into her thoughts to give her unsolicited advice, which generally prompts a quarrel.

Gene Tierney as Lucy looks at Captain Gregg picture in the film, which looks suspiciously like Rex Harrison

Gene Tierney as Lucy looks at Captain Gregg’s picture in the film

Unlike the movie, the captain is not an apparition; he is only a voice. She never sees him. There is a picture of him in the house that she suspects does not do him justice and one night she has a dream about him, but otherwise he remains a voice, with a great deal of personality and a tendency to use strong language. But the one thing that being a voice does allow in the the story is for Daniel and Lucy to achieve an extreme form of intimacy in their friendship that would be impossible if he had a physical body. He is almost one with her, being able to advise her on extremely personal matters and make personal observations. Though it is a bit one-sided, since there are many things she does not know about him, especially because he is a ghost and he declines to make too many comments about what the afterlife is like. But he does talk with her and tells her many things about his life and adventures.

In both the movie and the book, Daniel dictates his memoirs to Lucy, called Blood and Swash. He does this because she is in need of money. In the movie, she needs money simply to go on living in the house, but in the book it is because she needs to be able to provide for her children. However, what the book ends up doing in Leslie’s novel is not so much as meet an immediate need as it gives her the financial security she needs so that she can live her entire life, even when she is old and infirm, in Gull Cottage and not have to move in with anyone. It is the ultimate means to her independence.

But because Daniel is always saying that he does not view the things of the flesh in the same way, there is less romance and more friendship. He does still make the comment that he made in the movie about how much they missed by not being alive at the same time, but that is not quite as pivotal a scene as in the film. However, the book does retain that sense, when she dies, of having come home, as if she never really was at her ease while she lived on earth. She is united with Daniel and one can imagine that perhaps Daniel will at last find some peace in the afterlife, too.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2015 in Fiction

 

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

bdb96316682ef26ef0a985c306ab92b9Most ghost stories are meant to be frightening or creepy, even when they are funny, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a ghost story of a different tradition; it is a romance, a beautiful and poignant love story that gets me every time I see it.

Sometime in the early nineteen hundreds, Mrs. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is widow who has been living with her husband’s mother and very overbearing sister and she yearns for independence. She has some money from her husband and takes her daughter (Natalie Wood) to the ocean where she falls in love with Gull Cottage, which is thought to be haunted. She tours the house and there are some odd occurrences (like laughter, which could theoretically just be the wind) but she’s indomitable and rents the place. The cottage used to belong to a sea captain, Captain Daniel Gregg, who died four years earlier, reportedly of suicide.

One evening, during stormy weather, Lucy goes down to her kitchen to prepare tea for herself, but the lights go out and her candle is repeatedly blown out and in prim and proper annoyance, she announces that she is not afraid of the ghost, that his tricks are quite unimpressive and she dares him to show himself. To her surprise, he (Rex Harrison) really does reveal himself. She is very taken aback, but still indomitable and the ghost, Captain Gregg, is rather impressed. They make a deal: he’ll stop haunting the whole house and keep to her bedroom (which used to be his bedroom) so her daughter won’t see him if she’ll put his picture up in her room (which he likes). Also, he expects her to leave the cottage to sailors as a home, which is why he had been haunting the house in the first place, trying to keep other people away. He also rather indignantly denies having committed suicide – he was sleeping in a chair with his window shut because there was a storm and kicked the gas on with his foot.

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney

The two argue a lot, but also become friends and spend a great deal of time talking about their lives. When her income from her husband unexpectedly peters out so that she can no longer afford to stay at Gull Cottage, Daniel suggests that she write a book, or rather that he write it and she take the credit for it. He calls it “Blood and Swash,” to her mild disapproval, but he asserts that this must be a man’s book, the unvarnished life of a sailor, which is basically his own life story.

It is while they are writing the book together that Lucy begins to realize that she and Daniel have gotten themselves into a pickle, emotionally. She realizes they are in love, but there’s nothing to be done about it. But after they finish the book and find a publisher, she meets another man, a real man, named Miles Fairley (George Sanders – in one of his inimitable cad roles) who pursues her, despite Daniel’s strong disapproval.

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney make such an adorable couple, which is kind of funny because I don’t think I would have applied that term to either of them on their own. Gene Tierney is a gorgeous woman and I never considered Rex Harrison exactly cute, but together they are perfect; they convey that these two souls were made for each other. They are companions, as well as lovers. In fact, they are companions because they can’t be lovers. He is cantankerous and goes about saying “blast” this and “blast” that (a habit that Lucy picks up, much to the surprise of several of her acquaintances) and has lived a very full life. Lucy is very refined, very proper, but with a will of her own and a longing to do something worthwhile. She loves to hear his stories and he recognizes a kindred and queenly spirit in her. He calls her Lucia instead of Lucy, because he considers it a name fit for a queen.

b8ce2caed6798145200b564e21299f73I must confess the end didn’t go in the direction I was expecting at all, but it’s a beautiful story, but also quite sad because it’s about loneliness. She is a lonely widow, though she never complains about it. When Daniel tells her how he ran away to sea when he was young and how his aunt was probably glad to be rid of him, Lucy asks him if she ever wrote and he replies that she did faithfully until she died. Lucy comments that his aunt probably missed him much more than he knew. When Lucy falls for Miles Fairley, she does so partly as a reaction to the fact that he is alive and can provide real companionship and love.

But in truth, Lucy and Daniel were made for each other and Lucy never does find a real companion in life. She loves her daughter, but it’s not quite the same thing. She cares for her servant, Martha, but that also is not quite the same thing. The tragedy is that they didn’t miss each other by many years. He only died four years before she came to Gull Cottage and if he’d been alive, she still would have come to that village, they would have met, and they could have been together. When Miles Fairley enters the picture, Daniel talks to her while she is sleeping of all that they have missed, allowing himself to image what it would have been like if they could have been together.

The-Ghost-and-Mrs-Muir-1947-Gene-Tierney-and-Rex-Harrison--300x226The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is another example of what I call a cosmic romance: the romance that was fated to be, where there is no other one for you, that transcends time and space. Though, in this case, it’s a bit like something went wrong with fate. They were meant to be together, but he accidentally died, and that kind of messed everything up. So they have to wait for after life to truly be united.

The score was written by Bernard Herrmann, who is probably better remembered for his scores to movies like Psycho and North by Northwest. He joked that the score was his “Max Steiner score” (who wrote sweepingly dramatic scores for movies like Gone With the Wind), but it’s haunting, lovely, almost like a tone poem, often running along in the background and providing a cohesive feel to the movie, as if the movie were part of the tone poem. Leonard Maltin describes the movie as a fantasy, which it is more than a ghost story. It is a movie that has to be accepted on its own terms (why there is a ghost is never explained) and is rather achingly romantic, almost a tear-jerker, with a tremendous amount of charm from the actors.

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Posted by on October 27, 2014 in Fantasy, Romance

 

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