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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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Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)

220px-Hellofriscohello1943Hello, Frisco, Hello was exactly the movie I needed on a rainy, dreary day. Splendid color, catchy tunes, one heartbreaking torch song, a little romance, a little comedy, a little plot to make things interesting, Alice Faye; I’m a big fan of Alice Faye.  And as is true with any musical featuring songs by Harry Warren, I had tunes cycling through my brain for the next week, mostly Warren’s Academy Award winning song “You’ll Never Know.”

The Barbary Coast in San Francisco in 1915 was the red-light district with all the night clubs, saloons and brothels (though there are no brothels featured in Hello, Frisco, Hello). A vaudevillian quartet – comprising Alice Faye, John Payne, Jack Oakie and June Havoc, work in a saloon. Their job is to provide light entertainment while the customers drink at the bar. But quartet leader Johnny Cornell (John Payne) has grander ambitions and gets the quartet fired by Ward Bond when they perform a song that takes his customers away from the bar to watch the performers.

But Johnny is nothing if not a hustler and soon he gets the quartet off the streets and starts his own club, The Grizzly Bear. Not long after, he branches out and has various clubs, dance halls, and a rollerskating rink proliferating up and down the Barbary Coast. He practically has the district in his pocket.

But that’s not quite enough for him. He still has grand ambitions. He wants to be accepted on Nob Hill, the neighborhood were the posh people live. Bernice Croft (Lynn Bari) represents that life. She is a spendthrift heiress who likes to go slumming at the Grizzly Bear and captivates Johnny, causing much suffering for Trudy Evans (Alice Faye), now Johnny’s star performer.

Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and June Havoc show how to dance the Grizzly Bear

Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and June Havoc show how to dance the Grizzly Bear

I just realized that I’ve been talking only about John Payne’s character, even though Alice Faye gets top billing. The reason is that although she is definitely the star of the film, the one who brings the star wattage and gorgeous singing, her character does very little to advance the plot. She mostly pines…and then sings a knockout song. Pining never looked or sounded so good. Judy Garland has this trouble in her films, too. The two actresses always seem to be yearning for a man who takes them for granted, while at the same time having a sensational career that eventually and inevitably eclipses that of the man they love.

Hello, Frisco, Hello is a remake of The King of Burlesque, which was made in 1936, when Alice Faye was not yet a star. But Warren Baxter, in the John Payne role, was a star, which perhaps explains why Alice Faye has such an underdeveloped part. Though there is quite a bit of pathos she squeezes out of it.

The film has some fun with class distinctions. Barbary Coast performers are fun-loving people who like to wear, shall we say flamboyant clothing? But for all that they are essentially hard working people without pretensions. The crowd on Nob Hill, however…they don’t seem to work, they sponsor opera, even though it brings in no money (which is, I think, supposed to be a sign of their wastefulness) and dance to the waltz. After thirty minutes of nearly nonstop contemporary nineteen-teens music, suddenly hearing a waltz did have, for once in my life, the affect of making me think of stuffy people. At a party Johnny is invited to, he brings Trudy, who arrives in a bright yellow dress while Bernice Croft made me think of the Baroness from The Sound of Music. It was that kind of a contrast between the ladies and Lynn Bari didn’t even have to look askance at Alice Faye’s dress for us to get the picture.

2Poor Alice Faye has to put up with a lot. From the beginning, when Johnny lands the quartet on the street, Trudy believes in him and convinces the others to stick with him. Later on, Johnny seems to think he made Trudy a star, which is not really the case, though the film never directly contradicts him, nor does Trudy. But from the beginning, we know she has an extraordinary voice. Dan Dailey (Jack Okaie) comments that she could easily get another job singing; she didn’t need to hang around with Johnny. In fact, a large part of his success does seem to be her star power. When one of his clubs isn’t doing so well, he brings Trudy over to have her sing and attract patrons. In truth, she probably never really needed him at all, though he never figures it out. She just hung out with him because she loved him.

The rest of the cast is fun: Jack Oakie and June Havoc (sister of Gypsy Rose Lee) provide the comic relief, as well as doing double duty dancing and singing. John Payne is not the most dynamic actor I’ve ever seen, but he makes the character still seem like a pretty nice guy, which is quite an accomplishment. He is also able to sing quite adequately, so none of the four actors needed to have their voice dubbed, which I think is fairly impressive. Laird Cregar also has a small role as a burly and bearded would-be prospector always tapping Johnny for a grubstake.

Songs

All the music in the film, except “You’ll Never Know,” were contemporary to the film’s setting. “Hello, Frisco, Hello” was written in 1915 for the Panama Pacific Exposition where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first transcontinental phone call. The song was performed very much as it is in the film, with people on either side of the stage, trying to talk to each by phone as if from opposite sides of the country.

Harry Warren wrote the music and Mack Gordon the lyrics for “You’ll Never Know,” a song of unrequited love that became Alice Faye’s signature song, which she sang many times during her later and successful career on the radio. That song alone, and Alice Faye’s rendition of it, accounts for more than three-quarters of the genuine feeling in the film. “If there is some other way to prove that I love you/ I swear I don’t know how. You’ll never know if you don’t know now.” Poignantly, Johnny Cornell never does seem to fully grasp that.

Untitled

This clip is from the film. If John Payne sounds cranky, it’s is because he was just tricked into singing with Alice Faye. But through the singing of this song, he finally starts to get an idea of her feelings.

This clip was also evidently taken from the movie. She is auditioning and the noise gradually dies down as the people working in the club put down what they are doing to listen.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2016 in Movies, Music

 

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