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The Razor’s Edge (Nov. 19, 1946)

Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the best-selling 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, features an Academy Award-winning performance by Anne Baxter in a supporting role, great-looking sets, deliciously bitchy acting by Clifton Webb, and a chance for Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney to show that they were better actors than they are usually given credit for.

So why didn’t I like it? Everything about this film reeks of “Oscar bait.” It’s high-minded, pretentious, and self-important, but ultimately shallow. There are a number of interesting characters in the framing sections of the film, but the central story about a young man named Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) seeking enlightenment in Eastern spirituality falls flat, and everything else in the movie hangs on it.

Darrell is a veteran of the Great War who returns home to Chicago in 1919 questioning life after a fellow soldier — a friend of his — died saving his life. His confusion and guilt lead him to reject ordinary life and travel the world searching for meaning. He leaves behind his fiancée, porcelain-skinned beauty Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), as well as a sharply drawn cast of supporting characters; Isabel’s uncle, the fabulously wealthy and snobbish Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), the tragic hanger-on Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter), and “regular guy” Gray Maturin (John Payne). Just as in the novel, Maugham himself (played by Herbert Marshall) pops in and out of these characters’ lives.

When Tyrone Power first appears in the film, the character of Maugham says in voiceover, “This is the young man of whom I write. He is not famous. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end, he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on this earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. Yet it may be that the way of life he has chosen for himself may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men, so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

Maugham’s words are prophetic. In the decades after he wrote The Razor’s Edge, many young men (and some women) would seek wisdom and enlightenment just as Larry does, traveling the world working a series of menial jobs and seeking truth in non-Christian religions.

While working in a coal mine in France, Larry plays cards and drinks with an old man who eventually turns out to be (unshockingly, based on the dialogue that passes between them) a defrocked priest running away from himself. The priest tells Larry of an Indian holy man who is vastly wise, and who may be able to set Larry straight.

Larry makes his way to India, and it was at this point that — at least for me — the movie took a nosedive. While all kinds of terrible things are happening to the other characters — Isabel is in a loveless marriage, Sophie loses her baby and becomes an alcoholic, etc. — Larry hangs out in a set that looks left over from Anna and the King of Siam and studies with an Indian guru who is ridiculously played by British actor Cecil Humphreys. The holy man speaks only of “God,” nothing specific, and certainly nothing polytheistic. His mysticism is inoffensive New Age stuff along the lines of Deepak Chopra’s vague aphorisms.

After Larry learns all he can from books, the holy man sends him on a pilgrimage to the mountains, where he receives “enlightenment” in the form of a matte painting of sun bursting out from behind the clouds and one last mealy-mouthed conversation with the guru.

All of this might have been meaningful in the novel. I can’t say, as I haven’t read it. But at least in this film, Larry’s spiritual journey is a bunch of vague nonsense that trades on the supposed exoticism of the East without actually including anything strange or specific enough to offend Peoria. Worst of all, he returns to his circle of friends, who are now bumming around Europe, with what amounts to a bag of parlor tricks. He does some hypnosis, forcing his friend Gray to drop a coin after he counts to ten and then tells Gray that he will feel pain no longer. Stuff like that. I was surprised he hadn’t learned to turn himself invisible, like Lamont Cranston in The Shadow.

When the movie ends, we’re supposed to believe that everyone who came into contact with Larry is better, somehow, because he is possessed of the most powerful force in the universe, goodness. But what is it about him makes him so good? He agrees to marry Sophie when she is in the depths of her alcoholism, which leads another character to describe him as being in the grips of self-sacrifice, which seems more apt.

Is Larry a good person because, at the end of the film, he works his way back to America on a tramp steamer? So do legions of cruder, simpler men. Does the mere fact of Larry’s enlightened attitude make his manual labor somehow nobler than the manual labor of “lesser” men? If it does, then why? The film never answers this question, but rather asks us to accept its thesis at face value.

I love all the actors in The Razor’s Edge, and they give some of the best performances of their careers in this film. But while it contains plenty of strong individual scenes, it’s a sodden, overlong snoozefest.

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Song of the South (Nov. 12, 1946)


Song of the South
(1946)
Directed by Wilfred Jackson and Harve Foster

Walt Disney Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

Walt Disney’s Song of the South is the first movie I ever saw. (I think my mother may have taken me to some movies when I was a baby, but that doesn’t count.) Seeing it in the theater was a big deal for me. The most sophisticated piece of electronics we had growing up was a KLH radio, and the only time I saw television was at my grandmother’s house. (She had a 13″ black & white Zenith.) I don’t know exactly when I saw Song of the South, but it must have been during the film’s 1980 re-release.

Song of the South premiered in Atlanta on November 12, 1946. It was the first film to have its premiere there since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

Based on Joel Chandler Harris’s books about an old storyteller named Uncle Remus, the film was controversial even before it went into production. In 1944, the Production Code Administration suggested a number of changes to Dalton Reymond’s script to minimize its potential to offend black filmgoers, including the following: that the phrase “old man” be substituted for “old darkie,” that the term “Mister John” be substituted for “Marse Jawn,” and that it be made clear that Uncle Remus belongs to a bygone era. Walt Disney did not, however, take their suggestion that it be made clear that the film takes place after the Civil War, when slavery was abolished, which is what got him into the most trouble.

Disney was not insensitive to the potential that Song of the South had to upset audiences. To deflect some potential flak, he brought in left-leaning Maurice Rapf, an emeritus director of film studies and an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College, to write a treatment of Reymond’s script that had the main white family living in a run-down farmhouse, not a beautiful plantation, and cut out scenes of black plantation workers going about their duties in a happy and docile fashion while singing uplifting spirituals. (Rapf, who was both Jewish and a Communist, denies that Walt Disney was intolerant, and said that while Disney was a conservative, he accepted the political and religious differences of the men who worked for him, many of whom were Jewish and/or leftists.)

For whatever reason, however, all of the aforementioned changes remained in their original form in the final cut of the film. In the cinema section of the November 18, 1946, issue of Time magazine, their reviewer wrote that “Tattered ol’ Uncle Remus, who cheerfully ‘knew his place’ in the easygoing world of late 19th Century Georgia … is a character bound to enrage all educated Negroes, and a number of damyankees.”

Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, sent a telegram to the press on November 27, 1946, that said the following: “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in ‘Song of the South’ remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, ‘Song of the South’ unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.”

Ebony magazine was less tempered in their criticism of the film. They wrote, in a full-page jeremiad against the film, that Song of the South promoted “Uncle Tomism as the model of how Negroes should behave in white company.” Of the film’s star, they wrote, “James Baskett, who symbolically enough was taken from the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show to portray Remus, is an Uncle Tom-Aunt Jemima caricature complete with all the fawning standard equipment thereof — the toothy smile, battered hat, grey beard, and a profusion of ‘dis’ and ‘dat’ talk. He lives up to his ‘lovable’ billing — certainly to Dixie audiences for whom any Negro who bows and scrapes is ‘lovable.'”

Most negative reviews of the film did, however, praise the animated sections of the film, which featured the antics of the crafty Br’er Rabbit, the diabolical Br’er Fox, and the slow-witted Br’er Bear. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences liked Baskett’s performance as Remus enough to give him an honorary award at the 20th Academy Awards in 1948 “For his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world, in Walt Disney’s Song of the South.” (On the other hand, this took him out of the running for a real Oscar.)

While I don’t disagree with Ebony magazine’s assessment of the character of Uncle Remus, I do think Baskett gives a remarkable performance, full of warmth and humanity. There are some cringe-worthy moments, but overall I was moved by the character he created. It’s worth pointing out that Baskett also provided the voice for Br’er Fox, whose malevolent, mile-a-minute line delivery is so different from Remus’s slow, rich baritone that I never would have guessed it was Baskett’s voice if I hadn’t looked it up.

Remus comes into the life of a young white boy named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) just when Johnny needs him most. Johnny’s father has left for Atlanta, and the boy wants to run away from home. Unlike Johnny’s mother, Remus understands the psychology of children, and instead of telling Johnny he shouldn’t run away, he gently steers him in the right direction by first agreeing to go with him, then telling him a story about a time when Br’er Rabbit was fed up and wanted to run away from all his troubles.

While the film presents a bucolic and idealized view of the Old South, there’s plenty of sadness, if you care to look for it. Johnny’s friendship with a black boy his own age is presented in a sweet, uncomplicated fashion, but look deeper. When the boy, Toby (Glenn Leedy), comes into Johnny’s room in the morning before a day of playing together, the first thing he does is pour water into the basin on top of Johnny’s bureau. Also, when Johnny runs off, Toby is viciously scolded by the older black servants in Johnny’s family, because it was Toby’s job to care for Johnny. Johnny is still the master and Toby is still the servant, and it’s doubtful that the two would have been able to remain friends into adolescence.

There’s also a running conflict between Johnny and two poor white boys who want to drown the puppy that Johnny got from them. While Uncle Remus scolds the two boys and runs them off when they bully Johnny, his authority only goes so far. When Johnny’s mother orders him to give back the puppy, Remus’s impotent rage is truly heartbreaking.

It’s hard to enjoy the third cartoon segment if you’re preoccupied with wondering whether or not the bad boys drowned that puppy. And while the puppy shows up for the final sequence of the film, the whole thing has a sense of unreality about it, since all the cartoon characters show up to interact with the happy children and Uncle Remus, who rubs his eyes ’cause he can’t hardly believe what he’s seeing! Br’er Rabbit right there? Yes indeed.

While Song of the South was re-released in U.S. theaters in 1956, 1972, 1980, and 1986, it has never been released in the United States on any home video format, and there are currently no plans to do so. Earlier this year, Disney CEO Robert Iger reiterated that there are no plans to release the film on DVD in the United States. He called Song of the South “antiquated” and “fairly offensive.” (Apparently this is something of an annual tradition at Disney shareholder meetings.)

Re-watching this film after 30 years was an interesting experience. While I didn’t pick up on all the subtleties when I first saw the film, I was surprised by how much I remembered. The cartoon sequences are a lot of fun, and the live-action sections contain much that is noteworthy. If Disney had taken Rapf’s advice — or if they had gone even further and removed every human actor except for Baskett and Driscoll — you’d probably be able to buy a deluxe DVD edition of Song of the South this Christmas for your kids.

It’s worth remembering, though, that no matter how the film’s themes had been presented, the star of Song of the South would not have been able to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta. In 1946, it was still a segregated city. While Baskett would have been able to stay in one of the city’s black-owned hotels, he simply would not have been allowed to participate in any of the public events associated with the premiere.

My Reputation (Jan. 25, 1946)

Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation, which premiered on January 25, 1946, and went into wide release a day later, was filmed in 1944. Prior to its stateside theatrical release, My Reputation was released for military use, and was shown to troops as entertainment during World War II. The screenplay, by Catherine Turney, is based on the novel Instruct My Sorrow, by Clare Jaynes.

On paper, this movie didn’t interest me, and I probably never would have watched it if I wasn’t doing this project. A prototypical “women’s picture,” My Reputation is about a young widow living among the upper crust of Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1942. Once I started watching it, however, it quickly drew me in. It’s a quality picture from beginning to end. The actors all deliver heartfelt performances, the situations and dialogue are realistic, and the direction, editing, and cinematography are all top-notch.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the protagonist, Jessica Drummond. When the film begins, Jessica’s husband has just died, leaving her a widow and their two sons, aged 12 and 14, fatherless. The executor of the late Mr. Drummond’s estate, lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) clearly has feelings for Jessica, but they are not reciprocated. Jessica’s mother, Mrs. Mary Kimball (Lucile Watson) has worn mourning clothes ever since her own husband died decades earlier. Jessica’s mother is scandalized when Jessica refuses to dress differently after her husband’s death. “Our kind of people wear black,” she says matter-of-factly.

My Reputation reminded me a little of Mildred Pierce (1945) in its nuanced portrayal of a single woman navigating tricky social waters. It didn’t hurt that Eve Arden, who played Mildred’s best friend, here performs a similar duty as Jessica’s reliable gal pal, Ginna Abbott.

When Jessica goes on a skiing vacation with Ginna and her husband, Cary (John Ridgely), she meets the the insouciant and charming Maj. Scott Landis (George Brent), who is on leave from the war. The two strike up a friendship that blossoms into a romance, but Jessica distances herself from him when he becomes too sexually forward. Landis isn’t a heel, but he is a bit of a rogue, and clearly states that he has no plans to marry. Despite this, Jessica can’t get him out of her mind, and when their paths cross again, she gives in to his advances, consenting to at least kissing. Whether more transpires between them is left up to the viewer, but there is no implication that they consumate their love. This doesn’t change the scandalous nature of their relationship, and Jessica quickly finds herself ostracized from the gossipy circles in which she runs. She stands up for herself, but the disapproval of her mother and her friends is nothing compared with the criticism she receives from children, especially her younger son, who says, “But you belong to dad. It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s dead or not.”

My Reputation ends on a hopeful note, but its depiction of an intelligent, sensitive woman living in a stifling social milieu is still hard to watch. The viewer’s frustration is mitigated, however, by the excellence of the production, especially the attention to detail that makes a well-made film such a joy to watch. For instance, in a scene in which Jessica confronts her mother, the shot is framed so that a large portrait of Jessica as a child and her mother as a younger woman hangs in the background between them. The juxtaposition says nearly as much as their heated words.