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The Big Idea Behind THE RAZOR'S EDGE

W. Somerset Maugham published The Razor's Edge in 1944 as an account, he claimed, of his association with an extraordinary American man who had come back from World War I with doubts about himself and the meaning of life. Pursuing enlightenment through eastern philosophy and eschewing materialism was something new to most people in the western world. Even the Transcendentalists had favored a western, Germanic philosophy and the works of authors like Herman Hesse wouldn't reach American shores until after Maugham's tome had captured the world's attention. Hesse's seminal Siddhartha, for instance, was written in 1922 but wouldn't be published in the states until 1951. Yet, as World War II came to a close, the interest in The Razor's Edge grew tremendously. Darryl Zanuck wrote in a memo at Fox (quoted from Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox by Rudy Behlmer):
"There must be a reason why the American public at this moment is reading this book more than it is reading any other book. The answer, I think, is simple: Millions of people today are searching for contentment and peace in the same manner that Larry searches in the book."

In 1945, Zanuck bought the rights to the novel for Twentieth Century Fox under a variety of provisos. First, Maugham would receive an upfront payment of $50,000 and a whopping 20 percent of the net profits from the film. Maugham had one other condition that addressed the fact that studios often bought the rights to works only to let them sit on the shelves. Often, the primary reason for buying the rights to a novel was simply to keep another studio from making the film until the purchasing studio could figure out who to hire for the cast and crew. Maugham wanted the film made and stipulated in his contract that if principal photography was not underway by February 2, 1946, he would receive another $50,000.

The good news was that Zanuck really wanted to make The Razor's Edge, not just horde the rights. The bad news was that Zanuck wanted Tyrone Power to play the lead. This was a problem because Power was still enlisted for military service and wouldn't be discharged until early 1946, possibly after the February 2nd deadline. To solve this problem, Zanuck had location shooting begin in August, 1945 in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A stand-in, shot in extreme long shot, was used for Power during these shoots.

Zanuck commissioned Lamar Trotti to write the screenplay and wrote additional scenes himself. When he got the director he wanted, George Cukor, he asked him to look over the script for approval. Cukor didn't like it. He told Zanuck they should get Maugham himself to write the script, something the Fox mogul had already thought of and resisted thinking the monetary demands would be too high. This wasn't a problem as Cukor was a friend of Maugham's and the author consented to do it for free.

Maugham set up shop at Cukor's villa in California and busily began to write a new screenplay, working from Trotti's as a template. He was not only pleased with his script but began it with a personal message to the actors who would be playing it, imploring them to read through their lines as real people do; interrupting each other as they would "in ordinary life." He wrote that he was "all against pauses and silences" and that if an actor couldn't convey the gravity of what they spoke without dramatic pauses, they weren't "worth their salaries." In the end, he implored, "Speed, speed, speed."

Zanuck told both Maugham and Cukor that he liked the new screenplay but privately felt it relied too much on detailed explanation rather than action. Zanuck had gone into detail during the script conference that produced the Trotti screenplay about what he did and didn't want for The Razor's Edge. He felt Larry was going on about religion too much and wanted the audience to "write its own answers" to the questions of life posed by Larry. He didn't want to change the story, he just wanted Larry to be "less articulate about it."

The wait for Powers' discharge from the Marines took longer than expected and by the time he returned in early 1946, George Cukor, who had been borrowed from MGM within a very specific time frame, was off to shoot another picture, Desire Me (1947). With Cukor off the picture, Zanuck no longer felt obligated to go with Maugham's screenplay and, since Maugham had done it for free, there was no contract to break. He went back to Trotti's script and that was the one used for the production. Nonetheless, Zanuck didn't want to burn a bridge and offered to make up for Maugham's time writing the script by allowing him to purchase any painting he wanted from any dealer, up to $15,000. Sources differ as to whether Maugham purchased a Matisse or a Monet but, either way, he was happy for the gift. The world would never know what a Maugham scripted, Cukor directed Razor's Edge would look like and the final product that Zanuck produced, with new director Edmund Goulding on hand, was good enough that most people never asked.

By Greg Ferrara

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