W. Somerset Maugham

Active - 1929 - 1959  |   Born - Jan 25, 1874   |   Died - Dec 16, 1965   |   Genres - Drama

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Biography by AllMovie

W. Somerset Maugham, or Somerset Maugham, as he is usually referred to, was perhaps the most respected English author of the 20th century to achieve a major presence in films; not only were many of his novels, short stories, and plays adapted into movies, but Maugham had the distinction of being portrayed on screen twice by Herbert Marshall. William Somerset Maugham was born of English parents in Paris, France, in 1874, and lived in France -- speaking only French -- until he lost both of his parents when he was 11. As an orphan, he was brought back to England by an uncle and attended King's School in Canterbury. Maugham's boyhood was blighted by insecurities, including a stammer that forced him to withdraw from most social interaction -- this was a central motivation for Maugham to become an observer of life, and an author. He later studied in Heidelberg, Germany, with an emphasis on philosophy and literature, and it was during this period that he discovered the homosexual side of his personality, which became still a further source of anxiety and withdrawal. (The prosecution and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde -- then the leading literary light of his day -- for "indecent acts" was a contemporary event and had the effect of driving even the most upper-crust and successful gay men completely underground.)

Maugham studied medicine and became a surgeon, spending a year practicing as a physician in some of London's poorest neighborhoods. Already, however, his writing career was manifesting itself in a serious way -- Maugham's first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was published in 1897, when he was 23, and sold well enough to allow him to give up his medical practice. His subsequent books included The Making of a Saint, The Hero, Mrs. Craddock, The Merry-Go-Round, and The Bishop's Apron. In 1903, his first play, A Man of Honour, was unsuccessful, but four years after that, he found success on the London stage with Lady Frederick. Finally hitting his stride as a popular writer, more successful plays and novels like The Explorer , The Magician , Of Human Bondage, On a Chinese Screen, and The Gentleman in the Parlour would soon follow over the coming decades.

Maugham's work began reaching the screen in 1915 with The Explorer, and there were such subsequent movie adaptations as Jack Straw (1920), The Ordeal (1922), East of Suez (1925), The Magician (1926), Sadie Thompson (1928), The Letter (1929), Rain (1932), and Of Human Bondage (1934). Maugham was the highest paid author in the world during the 1930s, a decade in which (though he stopped writing plays after 1933) he also enjoyed his heyday on the screen, as adaptations of his writings appeared annually. Some, such as Hitchcock's The Secret Agent, were less than satisfying (though not through any fault of Maugham's), while others, such as The Beachcomber (1938), proved inspired vehicles for their directors and casts, and one, The Letter (1940), proved a Hollywood classic. The Moon and Sixpence came to the screen in 1943 as an independent production and played a peripheral but important role in bringing future producer/director Stanley Kramer into the movie business as a filmmaker; the latter movie also marked the first of two occasions on which Herbert Marshall portrayed the author on the screen.

Maugham published his last major novel, The Razor's Edge in 1944. A pacifist work that took place between the two World Wars, and which was partly set in Chicago (where Maugham spent a major part of his stay in America), it was a critical and popular success, and set the stage for a new wave of screen activity. The end of the war saw a new interest in Maugham's work, represented in Hollywood by a poor remake of Of Human Bondage (1946) and a dazzling, ambitious adaptation of The Razor's Edge (1946), starring Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, and Clifton Webb, with Marshall again portraying the author. British producers began availing themselves of Maugham's short works in the late 1940s with Quartet (1948), Trio (1950), and Encore (1951), all of which were popular anthology films that also included small, uncredited appearances by the author himself, and in 1950 and 1951, he appeared as the host of the television series Somerset Maugham Theater, which presented live adaptations -- made necessary as the "film" rights had already been sold -- of many of his best known works, including a version of The Moon and Sixpence starring Lee J. Cobb. Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) brought Rita Hayworth in a new adaptation of Rain, Robert Newton starred in a remake of The Beachcomber (1954), and Three Cases of Murder (1955) marked another successful anthology film based on Maugham's short works.

Although none of his novels after The Razor's Edge was commercially successful, screen adaptations of his work continued to appear intermittently during the 1960s, most notably After the Fox (1966). By that time, the author's private life was something of an open secret -- he had returned to France in 1946 and was living openly with Alan Searle (Gerald Haxton had died in New York in 1944).

Noël Coward (who had hidden his own homosexuality for decades, until the laws and social attitudes changed) dedicated his 1955 play, Point Valaine, to Maugham and used the older writer's life as the basis for a roman à clef entitled A Song at Twilight in 1966, one year after Maugham had passed away at the age of 91. Adaptations of his work continued to grace television and occasionally reach the big screen, among them the 1984 big-budget remake of The Razor's Edge starring Bill Murray. Maugham was also cited definitively as one of the major authors of the 20th century in the rush to qualify and quantify at the end of that 100-year cycle.