- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

Keepers still abound among the movies of 1946. For many people, the Hollywood attractions of the year were crowned by two Christmas season releases: William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” and Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Earlier highlights had included “Notorious,” “The Big Sleep,” “The Killers,” “The Spiral Staircase,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Duel in the Sun,” “The Yearling,” “Cluny Brown,” “Road to Utopia” and “The Harvey Girls.”

About a year after their domestic release, the British got “Henry V,” “Brief Encounter,” “Blithe Spirit,” “Vacation From Marriage” and “The Seventh Veil” into American circulation. The recently liberated continent was represented most formidably by “Children of Paradise” and “Open City.”

There also were two durably entertaining and distinctively lovelorn sagas derived from best-selling novels. One was of recent vintage, W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” a proud acquisition by Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox. The other was a retread from a generation earlier, Fannie Hurst’s “Humoresque,” which had prompted a silent movie version in 1920. Warner Bros. retailored it as a tempestuous romantic mismatch, entrusted to the studio’s moodiest proletarian star, John Garfield, then 32, and the industry’s most celebrated transplant from MGM, Joan Crawford.

Now available in DVD editions, these irresistible period pieces are lavishly mounted and sometimes maniacally executed by their respective studios and production teams.

“Edge” welcomed back Fox’s best-looking contract star, Tyrone Power, after a three-year hitch in the South Pacific with the Marine Air Transport Service. The first sequence efficiently introduces all the major characters at a country club dance in Chicago, circa 1919, before setting out on a chronicle that develops sprawling, sputtering defects for a subsequent 20 years or so. Mr. Power’s introduction as the wandering, mystically yearning protagonist, a World War I veteran named Larry Darrell, is coyly saved for last. The remark, “Oh, there he is,” cues the camera to swing about and discover him across a festive courtyard.

“Humoresque” was Miss Crawford’s immediate successor to “Mildred Pierce,” her first crossover vehicle at Warner, which had brought her the Academy Award for best actress of 1945. Evidently game for another Oscar nomination, which never materialized, she’s in there pitching till the bitter, mind-boggling finale, but the odds are against her. Half an hour goes by before her character, a nearsighted, disillusioned and alcoholic New York socialite named Helen Wright, makes an appearance, hosting a salon for musical prodigies that includes Mr. Garfield’s violin phenom from the Lower East Side, Paul Boray.

Because Paul’s love for the fiddle and a devoted mother (Ruth Nelson, a very possessive, even sinister, paragon) are indelibly established during the exposition, Helen enters seriously out of the loop in an emotional sense. Not even her patronage and grudging ardor deflect Paul from his sense of vocation, authenticated by the movie’s disembodied virtuoso, Isaac Stern, who recorded all the violin highlights and can be seen from fingers to forearms in selected close-ups.

“The Razor’s Edge” also made it perversely hard for the heroine, Gene Tierney’s Isabelle Bradford, to derive romantic satisfaction from the hero. A Chicago debutante, Isabelle displays more resilience, common humanity and horse sense than her beloved but elusive Larry, overrated as some kind of saint or redeemer, perhaps the first international beatnik.

As time goes by, the chances probably increase that moviegoers will invest a perverse sympathy in Isabelle and Helen. These manipulative but thwarted women, understood at the time to be too privileged and vain to merit sincere rooting interest, now seem more substantial than the men who leave them languishing.

Both movies were enhanced by memorable kibitzers: Clifton Webb as the effete snob Elliott Templeton, an American who prefers to reside in France, in “The Razor’s Edge,” and Oscar Levant as Paul Boray’s piano-playing, wisecracking sidekick Sid Jeffers in “Humoresque.”

Cast as a jealous mentor to Gene Tierney a year earlier in “Laura,” Mr. Webb echoed certain aspects of that relationship as her Francophile uncle Elliott, who also presumes to become a confidant about Isabelle’s love life. Mr. Maugham, portrayed as a distinguished onlooker by Herbert Marshall, clearly pinched the characters from Henry James, who might have felt intrigued enough to want to tinker with their profiles and fates. With all due respect, I don’t think he could have improved on Elliott’s deathbed farewell, still a high point in the Webb career.

In addition to polishing off his own piano highlights during “Humoresque,” Oscar Levant is entrusted with scores of knowing quips, most of which I would prefer to credit to Clifford Odets. I recommend Sid’s brush-off when Paul acts fretful about a concert they have just completed: “Don’t worry, you won’t hear from Brahms in the morning.” His put-down of Helen might sound harsh if we didn’t see her with a glass in her hand in almost every scene: “She was born with a silver flask in her mouth.”

The insistence on making Miss Crawford and glassware inseparable gives her two sensational opportunities to shatter props when frustration becomes unbearable. To her credit, the doomed Helen Wright also can mock herself in a wonderfully sardonic idiom. “I was married twice before,” she informs Paul during a get-acquainted drink at a ubiquitous Manhattan watering place, Teddy’s Bar. “Once at 16, again at 21. The first was a crybaby, the other a caveman. Between the two of them, I said goodbye to girlhood.”

TITLE: “The Razor’s Edge”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter and allusions; morbid story elements; released in 1946, decades before the advent of the rating system)

CREDITS: Directed by Edmund Goulding. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Cinematography by Arthur Miller. Art direction by Richard Day and Nathan Juran. Gene Tierney’s wardrobe by Oleg Cassini. Music by Alfred Newman.

RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes

DVD EDITION: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

TITLE: “Humoresque”

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter and allusions; morbid story elements; also released in 1946)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean Negulesco. Produced by Jerry Wald. Screenplay by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold, based on a novel by Fannie Hurst and portions of another screenplay by Mr. Odets. Cinematography by Ernest Haller. Art direction by Hugo Reticher. Joan Crawford’s wardrobe by Adrian. Music by Franz Waxman. Violin solos by Isaac Stern

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Home Video

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