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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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Rawhide (1951)

Poster_of_Rawhide_(1951_film)

The poster gives the impression that the film is a steamy bodice ripper in the desert, but really it’s not

I’ve found yet another Western that I enjoy! Perhaps I should officially stop commenting on the circumstance and just admit that I like the genre. But it does demonstrate that I prefer less conventional Westerns. Rawhide was released in 1951 and stars Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward and Hugh Marlowe, but is not connected with the later TV series. It is a hostage drama in the west, taut, suspenseful and slightly claustrophobic. The entire story takes place within the confines of a relay station where convicts hold several people hostage while waiting for a stagecoach carrying gold to pass through.

Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) is the son of a man who owns a string of relay stations across the country where the stage going between the East and West Coast can stop for food and a change of mules. He has been sent to the obscure Rawhide Pass to learn the practical side of the business from Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan), a scruffy old-timer who is not impressed with Tom; he’s not tough enough for him (he can’t believe Tom still bothers to shave and bath so often – it signifies lack of grit for him).

When the morning stage comes through, they learn that the murderer, Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), and several other convicts escaped from a prison in nearby Huntsville and the authorities are afraid that he plans to rob the stage. Because it’s against company policy to risk the lives of children, Tom and Sam are obliged to force stage passenger Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward – they do have to use force) and her niece, Callie, to stay behind at the station, much to her fury. She and Tom to do not exactly hit it off, as she moves into his room and swipes his soap (she also believes in baths).

But when a respectable man rides up claiming to be a sheriff and shows his badge to Tom, he turns out to be Zimmerman and he and his group quickly take Tom and Sam is soon murdered by Zimmerman’s gun happy, slightly crazy and unpredictable comrade, Tevis (Jack Elam). But Zimmerman warns Tevis not to shoot anymore; they need Tom alive so they can take the stage the following morning and to keep everything looking normal that evening when the other scheduled stage comes through. They also mistake Vinnie for Tom’s wife and try to use her to make Tom do what they want.

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there’s actually none of this going on in the movie – they both spend their time trying to survive

The rest of Zimmerman’s motley group is made up of Yancey (Dean Jaggers), a confused and dim kleptomaniac who’s not much use for anything apart from playing the guitar (he likes how Callie sings with him) and the stolid and unimaginatively obedient Gratz (George Tobias). It’s clear that Zimmerman did not choose this group; they were simply there when he escaped and there is tension between him and Tevis, who is a wild card who acts without thinking while Zimmerman, though ruthless, is more calculated and wants him to stick to the plan.

Meanwhile, Tom and Vinnie spend much of the time locked up in a room together. Tom is afraid to tell Zimmerman she is not his wife for fear he would just kill her. Initially, they still don’t get along and sparks continue to fly, but survival draws them together and I like that about the film. They don’t try to fit a romance into the film (though one could speculate a future one, if one wanted to, but it doesn’t have to go that way, either). Tom comes up with several plans to escape: one is to try to pass a note to the evening stage travelers and the other is to dig a hole in their room with a stolen knife, keeping the hole hidden behind the bed.

It’s not a conventional heroic role for Tyrone Power. He’s not a hero or a coward. He’s just trying to survive. Even Vinnie – who is nothing if not fiery – gets on him for allowing Zimmerman and the rest to walk all over him, but he’s not foolhardy. He primarily uses his brain, trying to figure out a way for them to live, but when the moment calls for it, he can act.

There is very little backstory for any of the characters. We learn a little about Zimmerman, who was raised as a “gentleman,” and evidently murdered his faithless lover. Hugh Marlowe (who I’ve always thought of as the playwright from All About Eve) is excellent as the calculatingly ruthless Zimmerman, who contrasts with his less educated, less bright gang, especially the wild-eyed Tevis, who keeps leering at Vinnie and threatens through his actions to upset Zimmerman’s plans. But though Zimmerman doesn’t commit any of the murders (Tevis does that), he’s equally capable of it. One has no trouble imagining that if he felt he needed to, he could murder everyone, including Callie, who’s just a toddler.

Hugh Marlowe and Tyrone Power

Hugh Marlowe and Tyrone Power

Callie (played by Judy and Jody Dunn) is completely adorable and considerably raises the stakes (especially when Tevis starts shooting at her, which is downright scary). She has no awareness of the danger and adds an element of unpredicability. You never know when she might wonder off. Her aunt, Vinnie, is returning with Callie to the west, whose parents were killed in a shootout. Vinnie seems to have had a colorful past, traveling with her sister and working as an actress and seems used to taking care of herself.

Mostly, I’ve seen Susan Hayward in her early films, before she really came into her own, but I was reading about her in Grand Old Movies, who wrote a fascinating discussion of the actress in his post about the film “Demetrius and the Gladiators” which made me curious to see some of her films. I watched on youtube two films, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (the upload I saw seems to be no longer there; only a slightly sped up version remains) and RawhideRawhide isn’t the quite the showcase for Hayward that other films are, but she is still good, quite the force of nature. She is more openly antagonist against the gang, but comes to appreciate Tom’s approach, too.

Everyone else does equally well. It’s a small cast, adding to the tension. The script was written by Dudley Nichols (who wrote the screenplay for Stagecoach) and was directed by Henry Hathaway (who directed several other Tyrone Power films, such as Johnny Apollo, many adventure films and even noirs like The House on 92nd Street and Kiss of Death).

Fortunately, Rawhide is still available on youtube!

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Movies

 

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Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

Alexandersragtimeband1938Alexander’s Ragtime Band is all about the music; specifically Irving Berlin’s music. 20th Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck wanted to make a biopic of Irving Berlin, but Berlin wasn’t interested, so instead they made a film about the fictional Alexander (Tyrone Power) as he goes from violin student who conducts a small band in bars to up-and-coming bandleader to respectable bandleader who gives a concert at Carnegie Hall. The music Alexander plays is all written by Berlin.

The plot is pretty thin: Tyrone Power pines for Alice Faye, Alice Faye sings and pines for Power, Don Ameche sings and pines for Faye, while Ethel Merman sings and pines for Power. Poor Merman and Ameche. No one seems to pine for them. But at least they can sing. Tyrone Power primarily spends the movie waving his arms about, pretending he’s conducting a band.

Actually, it’s not as bad as I make it sound. The actors are all engaging (with the possible exception of Tyrone Power, who I usually like, but not as much here) and excellent singers (except Power). The music is sensational and worth anything: infectious, buoyant, joyous; I could not get some of those songs out of my head. There’s the title song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which Irving Berlin wrote in 1911 and was his first hit. Another knockout song is “Heat Wave,” sung by Ethel Merman.

Tyrone Power is bit of a callow stick-in-the-mud (though a handsome one) as Alex, a man who’s first priority is the music he loves. His band consists of Charlie (Don Ameche), a good friend who plays the piano and composes songs. Davey (Jack Haley) plays the drums. The band also picks up Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), a brassy, vulgar loudmouth who quickly morphs into an elegant and classy lady. She and Alex clash frequently, initially in relation to what she’s wearing (she likes feather boas, he doesn’t). Charlie falls in love with her as she is, but after she becomes a lady, Alex suddenly discovers that he loves her, too. Stella even sings the love song Charlie wrote for her to Alex, but Charlie is very gracious about it (he’s practically a sucker for martyrdom in this film).

Irving Berlin, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche

Irving Berlin, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche

But Stella and Alex have another row, she leaves the band and Alex goes to war (WWI – an opportunity to sing “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” which Berlin wrote in 1918 after he was drafted). The story begins to drag a little as Stella, Charlie and Alex all feel sorry for themselves (though Charlie’s still very brave about it), but fortunately Ethel Merman arrives like a breath of fresh air and sings a few knockout songs, though she too joins the pining club, but she remains practical about it. She and Charlie both know that there really will be no one for Alex and Stella but Alex and Stella.

I must confess that the romances did become a bit tedious. I thought Ameche and Faye actually have better chemistry (they made five movies together) than Power and Faye. In The Rose of Washington Square, Power and Faye work as a couple because she seems more mature than him and mothers him a bit, which is not exactly what Alexander’s Ragtime Band calls for. Also, I thought Ethel Merman was a better fit for Power; she’s a nice contrast of personality and loosens him up. I guess I’m just a sucker for rooting for the wrong romantic couples. I have this problem a lot.

Other problems with the script abound. At the beginning of the film, a plot thread involving Alex’s disproving aunt (Helen Westley) and music teacher (Jean Hersholt) is introduced only to have it disappear until the end, where they suddenly reappear and are very proud of him.

Ethel Merman on stage

Ethel Merman

I’ve kind of trashed the plot, but I really do like the movie. It’s a frustrated kind of like, but I still like it. It’s the music and the performers. There is no skimping on the songs, which seems to come at a pace of every five minutes. It’s almost a music video. The music is supposed to range from 1911 to the late 1930s, but it’s all played like ’30’s swing, but that’s not a complaint. It’s wonderful. And it’s fun to hear the contrast between Faye and Merman, one with a warm, intimate voice (Faye got her start on radio) and the other knocking it out of the ballpark (Merman is Broadway all the way).

I also like the general aura of the film. It’s not historically accurate, but it’s fun and I love films about bandleaders and musicians from that era. And as I said, the music is worth anything.

This scene is from the beginning, when both Stella Kirby and Alexander’s band are seeking a job at a saloon. Alexander’s forgotten his music, so they use a score sitting on the bar, which turns out to be Stella’s. Indignant, she joins the music and the manager likes how they work together so well that he hires them both, as long as  they perform together.

Here’s Ethel Merman singing “Heat Wave,” which was written in 1933 for the revue “As Thousands Cheer.” It was introduced by Ethel Waters.

Here is both Ethel Merman and Alice Faye singing “Blue Skies” in Alexander’s Ragtime Band. “Blue Skies” was actually written in 1926 for a Rodgers and Hart musical called “Betsy.” The musical wasn’t a success, but the song certainly was.

“Now It Can Be Told” was one of the few new songs Berlin wrote for the movie and was nominated for Best Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memories.”

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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