Razor’s Edge, The: George Cukor Almost Made the Movie based on Somerset Maugham’s Novel

In 1944, the agent of the famous British novelist Somerset Maugham gave director George Cukor the manuscript of his new book The Razor’s Edge.  “Willie’s written this thing,” he said, “and wants you to read it.”  Upon reading the story, Cukor immediately became interested in making a movie out of it.

Orson Welles Citing Maugham

That same night, he happened to be at a party at Zanuck’s, where he saw Orson Welles.  “I’m not really an educated man,” Cukor overheard Welles saying, “and I wish I were.  I’d love to read The Odyssey in the original Greek and the Bible in the original Hebrew.”  “That’s strange,” Cukor thought to himself, “where have I heard that before?”  He suddenly remembered that it was the speech of Larry, the leading character, in The Razor’s Edge.

The incident struck Cukor as odd, as he was supposed to be the only person in Hollywood who has read the book–the galleys weren’t even out.  But he soon discovered that Maugham’s agent had saturated Hollywood with copies of the book.

Soon afterwards, Willie sold the book to Zanuck for $250,000. “If you can get Willie to do the script,” Cukor told Zanuck, “I’d do the picture.”  Zanuck told him that Maugham was busy and, besides, he would be too expensive.

Cukor then called Willie in New York and was shocked when the noted writer said he’d do it for nothing.  This was against the prevalent belief that Maugham was very tight about money. Cukor invited him to work on the script at his house, for as long as it takes.

Cukor was fascinated with Willie’s working habits.  He would get up early in the morning, sit at a desk in the guest room, and write all morning in longhand.  In the afternoon, he would read proofs, or go out to the movies with Ethel Barrymore, whom he had met back in 1926, when Cukor had stage managed The Constant Wife.

Katharine Hepburn also displayed her great sense of the occasion when Willie was staying with Cukor.  One evening, she invited the two men and Ethel Barrymore to dinner at the house she was renting from King Vidor.  As soon as they entered into the living room, they had to face a John Barrymore painting.  It was like a staged entrance, an extraordinary emotional spectacle: Ethel in black dress, and Hepburn in white evening dress.  With his precise camera eye, Cukor paused for a brief second to observe these two “creatures of distinction and bearing,” who also happened to be his favorite actresses.

When Willie showed Cukor the script, all he said was, “It’s anti-pragmatic writing.”  Cukor didn’t know what the writer meant until sometime later, when he and Willie were driving back to London from the country.  They were playing a literary game, putting odds on which contemporary writers would survive.  “I’m not a practicing writer anymore,” Willie suddenly said, “I no longer write for profit.”  Willie has made up his mind that, at the age of 75, after years of working hard and undertaking projects for profit, he would finally start to do things differently==fr interest and fun.

Cukor thought that Willie’s script was wonderful–his prologue contained useful instructions to the director, noting that it was a comedy and should be played lightly, except in the serious passages. “The actors should pick up one another’s cues as smartly as possible, and there’s no harm if they cut in on one another as people do in ordinary life.” Willie stressed that he was “all against pauses and silences,” and all in favor of “Speed, speed, speed.” It was a perfectly compatible instruction for Cukor, who always believed in increasing the speed of the dialogue.

But Zanuck didn’t like the script that Cukor loved, perceiving it as too subtle and too sophisticated for the movies mass audiences.  And there were other problems:  Cukor was still under contract to Metro, and Tyrone Power, whom they wanted for the lead role, was still in the Army.  Then, by the time Power became available, Cukor had started a new picture at Metro.

In a typically Hollywood manner, Willie Maugham’s wonderful script was never used.

The Razor’s Edge was made into a movie in 1946 by Edmund Goulding, who specialized in handling melodramas, based on the initial Lamar Trotti script.

Though a severe blow to both Willie and Cukor, they tried to take the episode in a stride, and their friendship remained intact until Maugham’s death.