The Seeker: Tyrone Power in Postwar America

“Throughout the ages, man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow.”

The Razor’s Edge (1946) and Nightmare Alley (1947) are two films that don’t seem to have much to do with one another. The Razor’s Edge depicts the adventures of a group of middle-class friends as they journey from young adulthood to middle age. Nightmare Alley is the cynical, brutal story of the rise and fall of a carnival huckster, who uses and abuses everyone in his path on the road to stardom. Even the fact that both films were directed by Edmund Goulding and star Tyrone Power only link the films slightly at first glance, as both artists were capable of a broad range spanning from musicals to comedy to costume drama. But at second glance, it’s the casting of Power that link them indelibly, and force us to reexamine them not only as two divergent stories of postwar America but two bizarrely similar tales of men on spiritual quests, who set about their journeys in entirely opposite ways.

Tyrone Power is a strange figure in classic Hollywood. He emerged from 20th Century Fox’s “dream factory,” a moniker bestowed upon the studio system’s assembly line method of turning fresh-faced acting hopefuls into glossy, grinning matinee idols. Power’s first decade in the film business fulfilled exactly that definition: he appeared as swashbucklers and Romeos, college crooners and young ad execs. But Ty Power in real life was a complex individual who couldn’t be easily defined. Rumors of homosexuality dogged his personal life and continue to be hashed and reshashed after his death. Despite his pretty boy pedigree, Power had been raised in a hardscrabble show business household — both of his parents, Ty Power Sr. and Patia Power, were theatrical performers and Ty Sr. was also a venerated silent film actor. Ty Jr. possessed an acting ability far beyond the scope of his 1930s projects. In the two films he made shortly after the war, Power earned for himself a rare opportunity to display a more sinister, complex range, one that had been building for years behind his smooth matinee idol mask.

After over a decade as a faithful servant in the dream factory, Power took a break from acting during the war and enlisted as a regular army private in 1942 — eschewing any number of cushy positions available because of his celebrity — and was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant in 1945. It was his wartime experiences that contributed heavily to Power’s (and the country’s) hunger for darker, more substantial roles. As Jeanine Basinger explains in her book The Star Machine (Knopf, 2007), “For nearly three years (Power) hadn’t been a movie star. He had lived and worked among non-show business people. He had a new sense of the world and of himself. He wanted to enact a more realistic kind of man.”

The Razor’s Edge had been a pet project of famed producer Darryl Zanuck’s that had been in development since W. Somerset Maugham’s publication of the novel in 1944. Anticipating his return to the screen, Power earmarked the leading role for himself and asked Zanuck to hold production until he was available. The focus of The Razor’s Edge is Power’s character Larry Darrell, an orphan from Chicago who comes of age while serving in World War I and returns to the Midwest a changed young man. As he describes his wartime experiences to his fiancée Isabel (Gene Tierney), he speaks of a fellow soldier, one who died in Larry’s place during the last days of the war. Larry can’t come to grips with the pointlessness of this boy’s death, one that occurred to save his own life. Now home, Larry examines that very life stretched out before him: marriage to Isabel, a job at a stockbroker’s office, a few children, a home on Michigan Avenue. These activities now seem just as meaningless as that soldier’s death. Larry begs off his engagement with Isabel, determined to spend some time in Europe “finding himself.” As the story progresses, the purported season-or-two becomes an open-ended spiritual quest for Larry. Determined to find a deeper meaning to existence, he journeys around the world: first working in coal mines in England, then studying art in France, and finally attaining a modicum of enlightenment while studying with a guru in India.

As the years in The Razor’s Edge elapse, the film’s action revolves around the people who revolve around Larry: when she realizes she’s been cast aside in favor of an intangible ideal, Isabel does the sensible thing for a girl in her position and marries Gray (John Payne), the most eligible bachelor on Chicago’s Gold Coast, while still burning a torch for Larry. When the characters all meet up again in Paris toward the outbreak of World War II, Isabel has felt every year of wifely duty away from Larry and the innumerable concessions she’s had to make to motherhood, while in contrast the years have barely touched Larry — he’s as placid and detached as ever, with a beatific smile in place of his troubled adolescent brooding. Larry is above venial pleasures and rebuffs Isabel’s renewed advances with fatal results. It’s Larry’s continued quest for meaning — which he knows is almost certainly fruitless but which he places above any creature comfort like a woman, a home, a sense of community — that places him in such sharp contrast to the other characters in the story. By comparing Larry’s deliberate “wanderings” with the supposedly meaningful blusterings of Isabel and her circle of friends and family, we can see clearly just how meaningless their actions, if not everyone’s, are on the whole. Like that dead soldier, everyone will be ashes soon enough — Larry may not know where he’s going, but at least he’s on a path. What the hell is everyone else filling their time with?

If W. Somerset Maugham represented the epitome of genteel early twentieth-century popular literature, full of characters with washed hands and secret yearnings, author William Lindsay Gresham was solidly based in the tawdry, fly-by-night world of forgotten men, featuring characters suffering from unknowable pain who are either wholly content or deeply disgusted with their threadbare lives. His novel Nightmare Alley (1946) is all about the con: the art of it as a trade, and the ways in which spiritualism is employed as both a tool to rope in the suckers and a crutch that folks lean on in order to make sense of a bleak and uncaring world.

Nightmare Alley’s protagonist Stan, an ambitious carnival huckster intent on making it to the big time, was just the kind of gritty, noir-tinged role Power was yearning for. The actor insisted that Zanuck option Gresham’s novel and adapt it as a vehicle for the him. The film begins in a traveling carnival somewhere in Anytown USA, and Power is green kid Stan Carlisle learning the ropes of the circus. Outrunning an unhappy childhood, he’s thrilled to be soaking up the colors and thrills a traveling carnival provides. Stan is, however, intent on carving out a name for himself, and it’s clear that Zeena (Joan Blondell), is the sharpest act in the show. Zeena has worked for years perfecting a fortune-telling act, and she relies on the assistance of her drunken lout of a husband Pete to feed her the details needed to “rope the suckers in.” Although Zeena is part of a midway con, she’s also a warm-hearted woman and a gracious performer, who provides the backwoods audiences some solace and hope in exchange for their nickels and dimes. The whole company consists of colorful types, natural-born freaks and cultivated sideshow personalities who have banded together as a family and who take care of one another. Though the troupe ostensibly consists of outsiders, Stan is the outsiders’ outsider — his wholesome good looks and lack of any discernible malady or special talent make him a curiosity among the unique. What sets Stan apart most acutely in this group is his lack of compassion or warmth, for others as well as himself.

When Stan sees that the only thing standing in the way of a partnership between him and Zeena — both professional and romantic — is Pete, Stan orchestrates things in such a way that Pete is out of the picture permanently. Stan now has a soul on his conscience. But after a few months, Stan has Zeena’s mentalism act down cold and grows restless. He sets his sights on Molly (Coleen Grey), an impressionable young performer in the show who might be a more attractive partner in success than the maturing fortune teller. Stan teams up with Molly, chucking the carnival altogether and leaving Zeena flat. Now Stan has a broken heart on his conscience. Stan perfects his mentalism act in high society nightclubs to the point where he cultivates himself as a spiritual practitioner, a preacher-cum-yogi who can connect folks with their departed brethren for a “donation” and a lifetime of devotion. The more he fakes his “spooky act” to rope in those seeking true enlightenment and refuge, the more Stan is haunted by the ghosts of all those he’s left in his dust. Stan becomes an inhuman creature, riddled with fear and guilt, having driven everyone away who could provide him with the sense of joy and color he felt when he was part of the carnival. What good will money do him if he begins to believe he’s on the road to hell?

Both of these characters, Stan and Larry, rely on Power’s force and charm to rope others into their orbit, for different purposes. Although Larry is often aloof and ethereal, he possesses an affable modesty when speaking about his life and his journey, which provokes a fascination that continues to entrance Isabel. Stan actively cultivates his other-worldly aura, his calculated charm working on everyone from the rubes on the midway to Zeena and Molly and finally on us, the audience. But what these men want for themselves is not always clear. Both are driven forward by their unhappy pasts, Larry on a horizontal path of knowledge and Stan careening on a vertical route skyward toward a height too great to maintain. Neither men really love anyone and suffer from an uneasy and constantly shifting relationship with themselves.

What Larry is after in The Razor’s Edge is in and of itself the subject of the film and one posed to him directly time and again. Half of the frustration that his friends feel toward him is the ease with which he’s perverted the “natural order of things” and carved out a life devoid of work or schedule, hearth or children. By rejecting these aspects of life that everyone else in the story feels are so paramount, Larry is unintentionally but unavoidably spitting on the values they hold so dear, and telling them in a fashion that what they’ve devoted their life to pursuing is in the end just as pointless as his “loafing.” Power retains his clean good looks and the easygoing manner that he employed so skillfully in his prewar films at 20th Century Fox, but for a different purpose. In maintaining Larry’s better-than-everyman appearance, as someone who has all the advantages that beauty, status, and background affords, he turns the tools that had once been the key to unlocking high society into hindrances that make his choice to wander all the more difficult. Unlike a plain man of little means who may wander out of necessity or ennui, Larry’s choice to toss all his advantages behind him underscores the necessity of his spiritual quest, that this yearning of his is something everyone must potentially face if they’re honest with themselves.

As Stan, Power gives one his darkest and most nuanced portrayals of a scared man outrunning his bad decisions with more bad acts. He admits he’s not sure what’s driving him relentlessly forward: “Gee, I wonder why I’m like that . . . ” he muses candidly, to no one in particular. His eyes vacillate from confidence to fear in an instant, without ever seeming overwrought or cartoonish. When he finally confronts his horrible fate, Stan is almost relieved that he’s finally arrived at the end he realizes was inevitable. He can stop outrunning his destiny. His path to material wealth and fulfillment has brought him right back to where he began, what started him running: his worst nightmare. The fates that he conjured, manipulated, and commodified had been calling the shots all along.

At the end of both stories, Power’s heroes disappear into the wilds of postwar America. The Razor’s Edge debuted to much fanfare on Christmas Day in 1946, and the film received four Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture; a supporting actor nod to Clifton Webb, who played Isabel’s fussbudget uncle Waldo; and a win for Anne Baxter as Best Supporting Actress. Nightmare Alley was released quickly and buried in late October the next year. The reviews at the time were decidedly mixed, with many critics noting Power’s dexterous portrayal while being thoroughly creeped out by the subject matter. A “good old Ty” picture Captain from Castile followed just a few months later, a reprisal of his shield-and-tights persona that Zanuck necessitated as payment of sorts for letting his star have a flight of fancy with that carny picture. Having aged out of his bright young man façade, Power’s career would continue unevenly over the next decade or so with middling roles, the notable exception being Witness for the Prosecution (1957), in which the actor seized the opportunity to turn a supporting role into a scene-stealing meditation on duplicity and human nature.

It’s ironic that the roles that were the most anomalous of his career are the ones that Tyrone Power has become most remembered for. The Razor’s Edge remains a solid Maugham yarn that continues to entertain alongside the writer’s other classic stories like Of Human Bondage (1915) and Rain (1921), both of which have been adapted countless times. After languishing in obscurity and legend for several decades, Nightmare Alley has finally been restored and released on Blu-ray in the summer of 2021 and the film has reestablished its position as one of the preeminent film noirs.

Unfortunately, Power didn’t live to see his postwar roles appreciated. He died at the age of forty-four, suffering from a heart attack while on set filming yet another sandal-y epic, Solomon and Sheba (1959). With these two films Power left behind a formidable amalgam of man, a dual portrayal of human nature that explores all that haunts us, drives us, and keeps us forever wandering.

This essay originally appeared on my site Sleeping All Day. For more essays about unusual films and interviews with folks in the movie-watching business, visit www.sleepingallday.com.

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