Maurice Tourneur | Figures de cire / Wax Figures | The Wishing Ring | Alias Jimmy Valentine | Trilby | A Girl's Folly | The Poor Little Rich Girl | The Blue Bird | Victory | Lorna Doone

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors) | 1910's Articles

Maurice Tourneur

Maurice Tourneur was an important director of early feature length films. His son, Jacques Tourneur, was also a major director.

There are some common characteristics of Tourneur's films.

Repeated units in the composition (see individual film articles for details):

Some common images in the films of Maurice Tourneur: Directing and its metaphors: Staging: Shadows: Architecture: Subject matter and characters: Minorities: Locations:

Figures de cire / Wax Figures

Figures de cire / Wax Figures (1914) is a roughly eleven minute short, about a man who spends the night in a sinister Wax Museum. This is a mild horror film. Its settings have some visual interest, but otherwise it seems a lesser work.

Portico

Tourneur includes a building with what seems to be an unusual portico, high above the street. The two friends question a working man outside this structure. I was unable to understand all the architectural aspects of this building, and what the portico is for. A title card suggests it might be for a "fete foraine" (French for a "fun fair" or carnival). But the whole composition is striking.

Repeated Containers

Wax Figures has repeated container units:

Repeated Rectangle Compositions

There are also two shots of outside walls. One shows the two friends before they go into the museum. The other shows the second friend, alone in a corridor between two walls outside, near the film's end.

These walls display patterns of wooden strips and frames. The patterns are complex, and have nested vertical and horizontal sections, in the "Repeated Rectangle Compositions" Maurice Tourneur manner. All of these walls display strong vertical sections; within some but not all of these verticals, are nested horizontal bands.

Although these two shots play little role in the plot, in some ways they are the most visually interesting shots in the picture, due to their geometry.

The outside of the bar also has a series of strong vertical panels, made up of the window sections and doors.

The restaurant has a shot, showing the hat-check woman returning the guests' top hats on ends of their walking sticks. This is a different kind of vertical composition. It is also an example of "a group of characters with identical clothes".

Men Dressing Men

Wax Figures contains a macabre variation on the Tourneur subject of "men dressing other men". One of the waxwork exhibits shows jailers dressing a prisoner for the guillotine.

The Wishing Ring

The Wishing Ring (1914) is an hour long comedy, set in an antique village in Britain. Tourneur had a flair for Britain in 1600 - 1800: his Lorna Doone is also set in the England of that pre-modern period.

The comedy in The Wishing Ring is gentle. It is not slapstick-oriented. It is more like romantic comedy.

Uniformed Groups - and the Compositions Built on Them

Many of the characters in The Wishing Ring fall into identically-clad groups: Tourneur uses such groups to create striking compositions. He especially likes to show identically-clad people standing, making strong vertical lines on the screen.

The four young women with the curtain all stand in stiff posture. Even as they dance and move around on screen, with a slow stately rhythm, they keep their strong straight standing posture. They form a series of moving vertical lines, that slowly change position in intricate groupings and maneuverings.

The male students at the tavern, singing merrily away, also form repeated patterns on the screen, each one being in an identical uniform. Their chairs also form a repeated visual motif in this composition. The chairs and the people form a complex, dynamic pattern on screen. The enthusiastic hand gestures, in time with the music, add a further dimension of rhythm.

Later in the film, both the Morris dancing, and the Gypsy camp, are more compositions made out of repeated, similarly dressed humans. So are the shots of the guardsmen and the village women flirting with each other.

Tourneur likes to show repeated units in his compositions. In several movies, such as Alias Jimmy Valentine and Victory, these repeated units are furniture, bookcases, chairs, wall decorations, windows and plants: not human beings. But in The Wishing Ring, humans also take part in such repeated unit compositions.

Repeated Objects

Tourneur also uses repeated, identical objects in many shots. The objects are WITHIN a single shot, typically, and are used to make a striking composition in that shot.

Wash

Tourneur loves scenes of wash hanging on lines. In The Wishing Ring, we first see wash in the background, when the guardsmen arrest the hero. Later, we see full scenes of village women doing the wash. There is also wash on the line in back of the gypsy camp.

A Hunted Hero - and Jail

In the gentle comedy The Wishing Ring, the hero gets in trouble for singing too loudly in a pub, and is arrested and thrown in jail overnight to work off his drinking. He is first seen looking hunted, peering around a corner, in the opening titles.

Quite a few Tourneur heroes are hunted by people. This can be serious, like the safecracker in Alias Jimmy Valentine who is hunted by the police, and thrown in prison. Or it can be lightly comic, like the womanizing actor in A Girl's Folly who gets surprised by his girl friend. Still, quite a few Tourneur heroes seem to be mild-mannered types who try to evade authorities who are chasing or trying to hunt them down.

When we first meet the heroine of The Wishing Ring, she too is peeping furtively over a wall - similar to our first look at the hero in the credits. She is a thief of sorts, like Jimmy Valentine to come: she steals roses. And like Jimmy, she is deeply good-hearted.

Men Dressing Men

Men dressing other men is a recurring activity in Tourneur. In The Wishing Ring, the Squire puts a gardener's apron on the hero, telling him to watch his roses.

The Earl has his gouty foot bandaged by his servants, and is also shaved by them.

The heroine toys with the footman's lace collar ruffle. In A Girl's Folly the hero toys playfully with an actress' skirt.

Kinetic Art and Movable Architecture

The maypole around which the villagers dance is a form of movable architecture. It involves circular motion, like the revolving movie sets we see in the studio in A Girl's Folly. The train observation car in Alias Jimmy Valentine is also movable architecture.

One can see Kinetic Art / Movable Architecture used by other directors:

We argue in these articles that Maurice Tourneur influenced Fritz Lang, and that Lang influenced Ulmer.

Alias Jimmy Valentine

A Multi-media Smash Hit

Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915) is a light-hearted melodrama about a safecracker who reforms. Jimmy Valentine was created by short story writer O. Henry, in his tale "A Retrieved Reformation" (1903). The story was dramatized by Paul Armstrong in 1910, becoming a hit Broadway play, Alias Jimmy Valentine. It is this theatrical version that was adapted by Tourneur into a movie. Tourneur emphasized in his writings that he considered Armstrong's play to be much richer and better developed than O. Henry's brief source tale.

The film was remade in the 1920's twice, under the same title. Maxwell Karger directed a 1920 version with Bert Lytell in the title role, and Jack Conway did the 1928 version with William Haines, and Lionel Barrymore as the policeman who tracks him down. The 1910 play was so popular that a hit song was composed in tribute to it, "When Jimmy Valentine Gets Out" (1911), by vaudeville legend Gus Edwards. This was later sung by Bing Crosby in the movie The Star Maker (Roy Del Ruth, 1939), the musical biography of Gus Edwards. Jimmy Valentine was an early example of a multi-media sensation. The article on crime writer Jack Boyle also suggests that Jimmy Valentine helped inspire Boyle's own sympathetic thief, Boston Blackie, who also had a prolific career of movie adaptations in the silent era.

What Makes a Hero?

In O. Henry's story, the secret crook Jimmy Valentine impresses respectable people with his good looks and beautiful, high-style clothes. The people impressed presumably include the heroine of the story, who falls in love with him. This is part of a long literary tradition of Rogue stories about charming non-violent criminals: they all tend to worm their way into the upper classes, where they do not really belong, by faultlessly aping their elegant clothes. Often times, the crooks are even better dressed than the upper crust characters they are infiltrating. This is the case with O. Henry's Jimmy Valentine, whose clothes wow everyone he meets.

Tourneur's film takes a drastically different approach. The hero here first meets the heroine when he defends her from the forced, unwanted attentions of a vicious cad. This is a genuinely decent action on the part of the hero. It is part of his affection for women and children, an affection that redeems him from his life of crime in the film. It gives the heroine a reason of genuine substance for falling in love with him, too. The film also is an early example of feminism, exploring the issue of sexual harassment all the way back in 1915.

Robert Warwick and Pantomime

Leading man Robert Warwick was 36 when this film was made. The genial Warwick is not anyone's idea of a tough looking criminal. Rather, Warwick looks like a good natured nice guy, who will be especially decent to women and children, a man who will make a good husband and father, the sort of person you would want as a friend. Warwick is mildly handsome, in the manner of turn of the century stage matinee idols.

He does a terrific job in the role. He has an excellent gift of pantomime. His expressions firmly convey the emotions his character possesses, without either over or under acting. One can always easily read his character's feelings, in shot after shot. Such performers must have been fairly rare in the silent film industry in 1915, and highly valued. Tourneur favored long pantomime conversations, in which it was easy for the viewers to guess what each character was saying, without any title cards. These show ingenuity on the part of both Tourneur and his performers, and are gracefully done.

Warwick would go on to a lengthy career as a character actor in talking pictures. He was almost always cast as a distinguished looking, sympathetic authority figure, playing an endless succession of governors, prime ministers, district attorneys, generals, admirals, and Marine Colonels. He has small roles in many Preston Sturges films, which was certainly a compliment, as Sturges was a great connoisseur of character acting.

The article on Fritz Lang suggests that Alias Jimmy Valentine anticipates some shots in Lang's film The Spiders (1919, 1920). Robert Warwick has a small role as the newspaper publisher in Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956).

Men Dressing Men, Girls Playing with Dolls - and Metaphors for Filmmaking

Tourneur has a number of shots, showing the little girl, with her dolls lined up in a row. These dolls also form repeated verticals in the image, especially in the last of the three shots, which shows both the girl and all of the dolls praying. The little girl has presumably arranged her dolls to echo the humans, and their activities. This is a bit like what Tourneur himself does, arranging his actors into their poses in front of the camera.

In A Girl's Folly (1917), Tourneur's self-reflexive backstage look at filmmaking, we see the director arranging his characters on the set, and blocking out their motions during rehearsal. A title card compares this to a hand arranging chess pieces on a board. (There is a publicity still showing director Pedro Almodóvar arranging the characters in his latest movie on a giant chess board, circa 1990.)

Tourneur's men in Alias Jimmy Valentine show affection for each other by dressing their friends. Red is waiting for the hero when he is released from prison, with his friend's coat and hat; later the hero returns the complement by getting Red and Avery jobs that get them into new clothes, images that are milked for comic relief.

This too is similar to the way Tourneur as director arranges for his characters to wear various costumes. In A Girl's Folly much is made of the director studying and approving each actor's costume and make-up for their role on-camera. The leading man's dresser is also a character, and he is shown helping the hero get dressed up to the nines.

Daily Life

Tourneur likes shots that are "rich in context". A shot of a town will contain much detail. One often notices all the detail more on a second viewing. A shot of the heroine with the kids will contain much detail about their typical domestic life. Not all of this detail is underlined. One has to get used to looking for it, studying the image.

Visual Style: Repeated Rectangle Compositions

Alias Jimmy Valentine has a rich visual style. Many of the shots are complexly composed.

Tourneur favors strong, repeated but varied verticals within his shots. These are intermixed with horizontals and diagonals. Often times, both verticals and horizontals are thick, and form repeating rectangular regions within the shots.

The front door of the heroine's house has two vertical, rectangular panels making up its front door. These are flanked by two more vertical rectangular windows. This is one of the film's simpler compositions; it shows Tourneur's love of verticals. A series of steps forming horizontals makes a contrast on the image's base. The town shots in the same episode also show vertical lines around doors and windows of the shops. The door posts are topped with lights, and are heavily emphasized by the architecture.

Later, when Warwick is waiting for his job interview with the father, he is next to a bookcase. The many books form small, repeated verticals. So do the walls of the bookcase, and its doors. The walls behind the case have two heavy, repeated rectangular regions set into the woodwork; their boundaries form both horizontals and verticals. The shelves of the bookcases, and the rows of books themselves, also form repeated horizontal stripes within the image. This is a typical image within Alias Jimmy Valentine. It contains the intermixed verticals and horizontals prevalent in the film. Within the bookcase, there is row after row of books, forming repeated rectangular horizontal regions, and also repeated pillars and walls in the case making regularly spaced verticals. Such regular pulses of similar rectilinear regions are a building block of the film's style. These are all within the bookcase; they do not make up the whole image. Instead, these are mixed and matched with another, differently shaped series of repeating rectangular regions, the big panels in the room's woodwork. Such interacting series of different rectangular images, each themselves intermixing horizontals and verticals, is a design strategy throughout the film.

Similarly, the shot in which Red waits for the hero to be released from Sing Sing shows similar building blocks. We see rows of windows in the background, of a prison building. These make up a complex pattern, in which both vertical and horizontal groups of windows are intermixed. Superimposed on these, is a set of metal fence bars in the middle ground. These fences are strung between a series of prominent metal poles, that form strong verticals in the image. Red's standing figure is aligned with one of these posts, emphasizing the vertical line. Between the fence posts, horizontal metal bars run across the image. The fence, and the windows behind them, each make up a series of interlocking vertical and horizontal shapes. As usual in an image from this film, the vertical lines are stronger, and form the dominant structures of the image; but the horizontals are prominent too. Within each group, there is much repetition, forming regular pulses within the composition.

The flashback to the robbery shows the three crooks, their heads all arranged in a vertical line. They are watching through a doorway, that forms a strong vertical rectangle. Suddenly, marching policemen are seen, whose bodies are also verticals. So are the nightsticks the policemen are swinging.

Wash and Phone Lines: Use in Composition

An early outdoors shot shows wash hanging from a line. Later shots show power and telephone wires strung from poles. Both of these would become visual signatures of the director Ozu Yazujiro. One has no idea if Ozu were familiar with Tourneur's work, or whether this is just a coincidence. More importantly, there are many shots here which show the complex rectilinear grids that make up the "typical" Ozu composition.

Immediately following the release of the hero from prison, we see one of the films' most beautiful shots. It is masked by a circular frame. Tourneur loved such frames in his exteriors, not always circular. William K. Everson's book American Silent Film (1978) has some fascinating photographs on this subject, as well as some interesting coverage of Maurice Tourneur in general. This shot contains one of the few circles anywhere in the film: a wheel of a cannon on the outskirts of Sing Sing. However, the shot is dominated by the many power or telephone poles it contains. They are arranged into a haunting geometric pattern, one that conveys a sense of mystery and beauty. The shot is in two halves: the left is complex, containing a sloping diagonal, the canon, a filled in background, and towering over everything else, the tallest power pole. The right side of the shot is relatively empty. It contains a mysterious structure, also vertical, which could be an atypical power pole.

Interconnections

Tourneur likes shots that show various regions and their interconnections. The film has shots through windows and doorways, showing one room emptying into another, or the outdoors and indoors being joined up. The prison scenes have shots through bars, as does a shot at the bank; both of these link up rooms. A railway scene includes a sequence shot from a moving observation car - very striking.

The overhead shot at the bank (the best in the film) shows us many different rooms all interconnected, like a maze. Later, near the start of A Girl's Folly there will be a similar shot, showing all the different sets on the movie stage.

An anti-Illusion style

Several of the shots show visual wit. Tourneur is clearly delighting in his own visual virtuosity. He is clearly hoping that his audience is liking these ingenious shots, too. The attitude seems to be: "we are trying to make this film as lively and as visually fresh as possible for you, dear viewers, so that you will have a good time". Tourneur clearly WANTS viewers to notice the shots in the picture. Such conspicuous devices as silhouette shots, unusual camera angles, picturesque views of real places such as Sing Sing, trick effects in the credits, iris frames, halo lighting of the edges of characters' heads, unusual title cards, clever pantomime conversations, deeply staged shots through windows and doorways abound. One would think that most cinema audiences would pick up on such shots, and notice their technique. This is not an "illusionistic" film, designed to convince viewers they are seeing raw reality all the time, and are "really there" while the action of the film is taking place. Instead, the viewer seems intended to notice that he or she is watching a movie. The viewer is presumed to be a visual sophisticate, who will be charmed by the skill Tourneur and company are displaying with the shots.

Trilby

A Horror Film

Trilby (1915) is a horror movie, of sorts. I found the story disappointing, although the film has some good visual style. It is based on a hugely successful novel by George du Maurier (1894), about a sinister hypnotist named Svengali, whose hypnosis turns a naive young artist's model Trilby into a famed concert singer. Trilby can't sing well normally - but when hypnotized by Svengali, she is one of the world's greatest performers.

Even today, when a previously limited actress or singer is guided to an outstanding performance by a director, the pair are compared to Trilby and Svengali. The characters have become proverbial. However, this fame is a bit misleading - the film is quite different. For one thing, the film gives no detail about how Svengali gets good performances out of Trilby. He simply hypnotizes her, and the next thing you know, she is singing like a canary. Nor does the film ever explain anything about how his hypnotic powers work: he just waves his hands and Trilby is hypnotized. None of this is plausible, detailed or interesting. It all seems like an arbitrary, underdeveloped premise.

Mainly, Trilby is a horror film, about a woman who is forced by hypnosis away from her young nice guy boyfriend, and into a new life under the control of a sinister, unattractive middle-aged man. It was likely a strong influence on a later horror film, The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926), about another young woman forced away from a noble young lover into a life under control of an ugly middle-aged mesmerist. I didn't especially like The Magician, either.

I confess I don't understand the appeal of this plot - and Trilby the novel and play was one of the biggest hits of its era. Does it reflect a concern about the social controls middle-aged men have over the lives of young women, and the ease in which they can use their power to wreck young love? Does it deal with fears that women might not like conventional heterosexuality, as represented by these noble-but-sort-of-wimpy young lovers, and prefer alternate sexual arrangements? Is this some sort of S/M fantasy about hypnotic sexual control? Does it reflect fears that women's careers, such as Trilby's singing success, are "hypnotizing" them away from love and marriage? Is it simply racism: Svengali in the original novel was a stereotyped Jewish villain, something that has been mercifully left out of Tourneur's non-racist film version? Is it a sexist "explanation" of women's achievements on-stage, suggesting their performances are really produced by middle-aged males behind the scenes? Who knows? Maybe all of the above, for different members of the audience.

Metaphors for Directing

Tourneur's A Girl's Folly (1917) will show a movie director in a film studio, much like the one where Tourneur actually worked, directing performers. And his other films contain a number of metaphors for directing, such as imagery of dolls, figurines and statues arranged into tableaux, and scenes of men dressing other men.

The hypnotist Svengali guiding Trilby to great performances, can also be seen as a metaphor for direction.

So can the early scenes of artists and models. Trilby shows painters and sculptors using models, staged, costumed and holding props, under the "direction" of painters and sculptors as models for these artists' works.

The Hero

The hero is quite an appealing figure. He is serious about his painting. But otherwise, he is a genial, fun-loving man, who recalls the equally good-natured hero of The Wishing Ring. He also seems like a genuinely loving figure towards the heroine.

Much is made of the hero's top hats. He kisses the heroine while wearing one at his betrothal party. And at the theater he wears one along with his white tie and tails, which is a fashion norm. Such top hats also serve as phallic symbols.

Uniformed Groups

Some of the characters in Trilby fall into identically-clad groups: The last four groups are at the theater in the finale: the part of Trilby where uniforms are concentrated.

Repeated Objects

Trilby contains repeating objects: The cats are harmless enough, but not really likable: they try to eat the party food. Still, they are far from the sinister cats that run through Maurice's son Jacques Tourneur.

After the hero meets his friends at the English docks, a shot points away from the ship. It shows numerous poles or posts sticking up in the sky. This recalls the shots of telephone poles in other Maurice Tourneur films.

An anti-Illusion style

When the hypnotized heroine is carted off by Svengali to begin their tour, their activities are shown in shots masked with arch shapes at the frame top. There are four such shots, and in very different locales. This marks out such shots as being "different" from the film around them. In 1930's Hollywood, such travel might instead have been the subject of a montage sequence, which also would have separated it from the surrounding movie. Tourneur's approach is interestingly different. It also allows Tourneur to intercut this material with non-tour shots featuring the other characters: something that would be more difficult to do with a montage sequence, which usually is one continuous entity.

The arched mask is echoed in the last of the four shots, by actual arches in the set. One pair of arches is nested, and in turn are viewed from within the arched mask. The composition is beautiful and original.

The hero is introduced in a shot that shows him next to the shadow of another person on the wall. This shadow moves a bit, and seems "alive".

A silhouette formed by a man within shower curtains is also notable.

The IMDB commentator "Cineanalyst" points out that Svengali enters two shots in mirrors, before he is seen directly. These are both shots in which heroine Trilby sees him. This gives Svengali a strange atmosphere. His final shot at the end also shows him in the mirror, with his disciple Gecko looking on.

Curves

In addition to the shots with arched masks, other beautiful shots in Trilby contain curves: All of these shots are striking. I would have liked more trains. This shot was perhaps taken at a real life train station, and recalls the documentary scenes that fill Alias Jimmy Valentine.

Repeated Rectangle Compositions

A number of shots are composed out of that Tourneur favorite, "repeated and nested rectangles": Trilby has perhaps fewer such shots than some other Tourneur movies.

Multi-Focus Shots

The betrothal dinner is full of guests, all in lively activity. It is very hard to focus one's eyes on any one of them. Such multi-focus shots were not uncommon in films of the 1910's. They have tended to be less frequent in later films (although I cannot document this), because, one suspects, directors realized that audiences found them a bit confusing.

The dinner table is seen from different perspectives, from both ends of the room.

The dancing after the dinner also approaches multi-focus overload.

The tour-shot-with-masked-top, showing what looks like a grungy farmer's market or fair, is also startlingly rich in detail.

By contrast, the spectacular shots in the theater at the end are easy to follow. They are indeed richly staged, mixing people on-stage and in the audience. This sequence is one of the high points of the film. The staging shows many types of typical crowd behavior in a theater, such as the way people move in and out during intermission. Tourneur also gets mileage out of the stagehands pulling the stage curtains: this might be a simple form of the Kinetic Architecture found in other Tourneur.

The betrothal party takes place at Christmas, and the studio is covered with ivy leaves. This recalls the numerous flowers in the restaurant at the start of Wax Figures. The theater stage also has a potted palm on the left hand side.


A Girl's Folly

Backstage at the Movies

A Girl's Folly (1917) is a delightful film. It is a backstage look at movie making, being set in the Fort Lee, New Jersey film studio where Tourneur himself worked. Tourneur gives us a whole documentary style look at the filmmaking process and the studio. Just as Alias Jimmy Valentine provided location shooting at Sing Sing prison, so does Tourneur look at another complex institution here. Both the prison and the studio contain a large complex of buildings, many locales and unusual activities, and denizens who are dressed differently from ordinary people on the street.

Fort Lee, New Jersey was at one time the center of United States filmmaking, before the industry moved to Hollywood, California. Fort Lee was right across the river from Manhattan. Similarly, Sing Sing prison is just up the Hudson River from New York City. (When crooks talk about "going up the river" as slang for going to prison, they once were referring literally to being sent up the Hudson to Sing Sing.) Both the Fort Lee studio and Sing Sing prison were locations very close to the director's homebase of filming. Neither was some sort of exotic location.

When Tourneur trains his camera on the studio, he is simply recording his everyday life. And these scenes are rich in detail of that life, just like his depiction of fictional daily life in the English village in The Wishing Ring, and the small town in Alias Jimmy Valentine.

While A Girl's Folly is full of comedy, it is not the slapstick comedy we tend to associate with silent film.

The Hero

Robert Warwick is a good sport, in his self-satirizing look at a leading man actor. The film opens with him primping in front of his dressing room mirror, tweezing his eyebrows and putting on make-up: both big no-nos for any 1917 American male who was not an actor. This is funny to see, and suggests the truth behind screen image. Soon, Warwick is all dressed up in he-man cowboy clothes for his film role. He looks great, but we also realize that this is an artificial image, just having seen him as a theatrical sophisticate in his dressing room.

Warwick's costume and grooming bear more than a slight resemblance to screen cowboy William S. Hart. Hart was a big star in 1917, and also had a background as a leading man on stage, much like Warwick's satirical version here. Both Hart and Warwick look like giant men, especially in their heroic costumes.

Black Workers

The studio employees include black workers. Some are "grips": the term used in studios for what are called "stagehands" in the theater. The hero's dresser is also black. While these are not elevated positions of authority, or in creative roles, they seem like "honest workingman" level jobs. They show black people getting opportunities to work, on a fairly open level.

By contrast, eight years later MGM filmed a detailed backstage look at its Hollywood studio called 1925 Studio Tour. This shows the lavish studio, and has many group portraits of workers in backstage and craft professions. Everyone looks lily white - until we get to the barbershop and shoe shiners. Then at last, we see black people. At MGM, blacks seem have been employed only to shine shoes. It is a drastic change, lowering black workers' status in a racist way.

Phone Lines - and Wash

When the train departs, Tourneur's framing includes phone or power lines above it. They help make this an emotionally evocative composition.

The country women are seen doing their wash at the stream. The wash is not hanging, however, unlike other Tourneur films.

Paths: Straight Towards the Camera

The sidewalk on which the country girl walks points straight towards the camera. So does the bridge over the stream.

Earlier in The Wishing Ring, Tourneur included similar shots of the path leading to the heroine's front door. These too were perpendicular to the plane of the shot, leading directly away from the viewer. So was a shot of the short steps leading out of another door of the heroine's house.

The Opening Composition: Triangles

The opening shot of A Girl's Folly is strikingly composed. It is full of triangles: The three triangles all echo each other. Each has an apex pointing up, towards the sky, and the top of the film frame.

Tourneur likes repeating geometrical units in his compositions. But here the units are triangles, rather than the more common rectangles used by Tourneur.

Uniformed Groups

The commissary scene, in which many actors are eating lunch, shows Tourneur's fondness for putting groups of people into common clothes. There are men dressed as cops: maybe real policemen, but more likely actors, with the hero stopping for a laughing conversation with one. There are groups of cowboys, groups of Indians, and women all wearing similar caps on their heads, like the Old English village maidens of The Wishing Ring.

Seeing people in elaborate, surrealistically out-of-place costumes is a standard part of "movies set at film studios". One always sees Roman centurions rubbing elbows with cowboys, etc., on the streets of Paramount or MGM. A Girl's Folly is part of this fun tradition - perhaps it even helped create it.

But A Girl's Folly differs in stressing groups of performers, each wearing similar clothes: a "uniform". That is closer to being a pure Tourneur tradition, part of his visual style.

The commissary scenes show Tourneur's fondness for happy groups of people, partying together. They recall the singing-in-the-pub scene that opens The Wishing Ring, and the wedding banquet that closes it.

Repeated Objects

Many scenes have Tourneur's beloved "repeated objects", as part of their sets and props: Tourneur builds up elaborate compositions out of these repeating units. As usual, the repeating objects are all WITHIN a single shot.

The Poor Little Rich Girl

Links to The Blue Bird

The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) has features that link it to The Blue Bird to come: Unfortunately, the dream in The Poor Little Rich Girl is far more downbeat than The Blue Bird. The beings the heroine meets in her dream are mainly nasty, while those in The Blue Bird are mainly good, if sometimes awesome or scary. And the heroine is definitely in danger.

"Young women in trouble while traveling through an eerie forest" returns as a Tourneur subject in The Last of the Mohicans.

Taking care of children is a key Tourneur virtue. The Poor Little Rich Girl shows the reverse of this: what happens when a child is unloved and neglected. It is pretty grim.

Architecture and Glass Walls

The glass-walled conservatory recalls the glass-walled film studio in A Girl's Folly.

Tourneur has a striking shot through the glass front door of the mansion, showing the street. The heroine and the organ grinder are seen in silhouette, as they enter.

Kinetic Architecture

The elevator in the mansion, is a mild example of the Kinetic Architecture in Tourneur. We can see it moving upwards through its grilled door.

The heroine has a toy merry-go-round. Although it's a stretch, this might also be related to Kinetic Architecture. It does revolve.

Water and Washing

The Poor Little Rich Girl has some of Tourneur's imagery involving water and washing:

The Dream: Masks and Architecture

In Trilby, Tourneur showed the heroine's travels, framed by a mask in the shape of an arch. This made the scenes easy to identify, and marked them off from the rest of the movie. In The Poor Little Rich Girl Tourneur uses the same strategy for the dream sequences: they too are framed by an arched mask. Tourneur cuts back and forth between dream and reality, and it is always easy to tell which is which: the dream shots are masked.

The first dream scene is set in "The Garden of Unloved Children". This is a set which is full of the "repeated vertical and horizontal rectangles" that Tourneur loves. A huge staircase has steps that form horizontal rectangles. And in the back is some sort of wall full of repeated vertical rectangles. Later, Tourneur's Wall Street dream sequence will also have even bigger steps.

The Dream: Machinery

The father in the Wall Street dream is seated at a huge machine, that literally turns out money. It's a striking metaphor. One wonders if it were a bit of an influence on Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Metropolis has even bigger machines, and a title card talks about how they and the city produce money for the rich.

Influence

The snakes the heroine imagines, and other animals, perhaps influenced Howard Hawks' Fig Leaves (1926).

The Blue Bird

The Blue Bird (1918) is an adaptation of the 1909 fairy-tale play by Maurice Maeterlinck, apparently the second of the seven film versions of this popular story. (I saw George Cukor's 1976 film version when it came out, but all I remember, aside from Ava Gardner's amusing performance, was the entrance of Night (Jane Fonda), wearing a spectacular headdress as part of her costume. Cicely Tyson was pretty good as the Cat.)

The Blue Bird came out a few years after the Wizard of Oz films made by L. Frank Baum's own production company. I think Tourneur's film is much better than any of the early Oz films I've seen. Both are full of fantasy locales, characters and events. The superiority of imagination and style in Tourneur's The Blue Bird is decisive in almost every shot. While Tourneur hardly created the fantasy film as a genre, he also gave it one of its finest moments here in the silent era.

No Plot, No Characterization

While the story is full of events, it does not have a plot in the strict sense of the term. Plot can be defined as a series of events linked by causality: one event causes a second event to happen, which causes a third event to happen, and so on. By contrast, each new fantastic event in The Blue Bird seems logically unrelated to the ones before. Now milk comes alive, now we visit the kingdom of Night, now we meet the luxuries, here are some blue birds by the sea shore behind a door, etc. It is an hour and a half of events that simply succeed each other, without any causal or logical links. The Wishing Ring and A Girl's Folly are also episodic, but not in the extreme way that The Blue Bird is.

In addition there is almost no characterization. The two kids are likable, but neither has a strong individual personality, the way Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz (1939). The same is true of most of the fantastic characters the kids meet. The Dog and Cat come closest to having individuality, in the conventional sense. Because the film lacks either plot or characterization, it is sometimes hard to watch. It becomes hard to absorb each new fantasy development, in the story's long procession of events.

Taking Care of Children

There are a few thematic links with Tourneur's other films. The men who take care of the Unborn Children are quite tender. So are the parents and grandparents in the film. Tourneur's concept of a hero as a man who is good to children can be seen here.

Metaphors for Directing

When the boy turns the diamond in his magic hat, the inner souls of objects come alive. This is perhaps one of Tourneur's metaphors for directing. The boy's actions cause things to become visible, and take on new appearances they didn't have before. Most of the souls are elaborately costumed, and have dramatic behaviors that reveal their nature, too.

The magical way the kids get their clothes on echo the scenes of people dressing other people in Alias Jimmy Valentine and A Girl's Folly.

A Gay Character

Sugar, the "soul" of a loaf of table sugar, seems to look and act in a style that suggests a gay man. He is a sympathetic character, but has little to do in most of the film but hang around and accompany the others on the quest.

Both Sugar's hat, modeled on the sugar loaf, and his lollipop fingers, seem like phallic symbols.

An odd note. The poor child's crone-like mother is actually played by a male actor, Edward Elkas. He is quite effective.

Giving

The poor, sick child's mother tries to get the boy and girl protagonists to give their bird to the poor child. This oddly recalls Trilby, and the way its sinister hypnotist caused others to "lend" him money. This is evil in Trilby, while the giving of the bird is portrayed as good in The Blue Bird.

Water Pump

The boy and girl wash their hands at the inside kitchen water pump. This is one of several scenes in Tourneur that show washing, often at fountains or water. Later, water from this pump will turn into the soul of Water, with a dress whose lines suggest flowing water.

Berylune's palace has a reflecting pool inside.

Kinetic Art

A stop-motion animated sequence shows the furniture in the children's house moving around by itself. This is caused by "magic", in the film's storyline. In A Girl's Folly, we saw revolving movie sets, that carried a whole set-full of furniture around. In The Blue Bird, we again have a whole room full of furniture, but each individual piece of furniture is moving separately.

Multi-Focus Shots

The wild partying in the scenes of the Luxuries recall the rowdy goings on at the crooks' hideout in Lorna Doone. These scenes are shot with a bewildering variety of actions, all going on on-screen at once. Pre-1920 directors seem much less afraid of such multi-focus shots than most later directors will be. One thinks of the chase in Griffith's The Curtain Pole (1909), the restaurant in Griffith's The Mothering Heart (1913), the saloon in Raoul Walsh's Regeneration (1915), and the hero's club at the start of Fritz Lang's The Spiders (1919).

Shadows, Steam, Silhouettes

Tourneur keeps up his interest in stylization of figures. The poor mother is seen in outline in a striking shot through windows, walking outside the children's home. This is also an example of Tourneur's fondness for shooting through windows and doors.

There are many shots of the party at the rich children's house, staged as silhouettes. The house itself is a silhouette, and is strikingly non-realistic. The musicians' silhouettes hold and move their instruments rhythmically in time with the music, a variation on the "hand gestures keeping time with music" in other Tourneur films.

The later shot of the chichi clock tower is also a silhouette building.

Early on, steam rises from the mother's stove.

The shadow of the birdcage is seen at night, at the kids' home.

Repeated Objects and Uniforms

The flowers on the children's window sill are repeating.

The unborn children all wear similar clothes - although it hard to tell if they are exactly the same under their veils. The women sailors who take them aboard the boat also seem to be in matching sailor outfits.

Repeated Rectangle Compositions

A number of shots are composed out of that Tourneur favorite, "repeated and nested rectangles":

Repeated Rounded Arches

A number of scenes have repeated round arches: These recall the series of arches in the Earl's garden in The Wishing Ring.

Later, we see various Happiness characters through round doorways. These doors recall a shot through a parabola-shaped mask in Trilby. However, this frame in Trilby is a mask, a purely visual device not part of the film's story - while the doorways in The Blue Bird are part of that film's plot. (In terms of film theory jargon, the arched mask in Trilby is "non-diegetic", i.e., not part of the story, while the doorways in The Blue Bird are "diegetic", part of the story.) The visual effect in the two films is quite similar, though.

Triangles

The shelf (at home) near the ceiling has two triangular brackets holding up it up. These triangles do not dominate the compositions in which they appear - but they are conspicuous anyway.

Victory

Victory (1919) is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1915 novel.

The first twenty minutes of Victory are far and away the best parts of the film. This is due to two reasons:

But 19 minutes into the film, a trio of villains are introduced, and seemingly hijack the movie. This thoroughly unpleasant group draws attention away from the hero, heroine, and everything else in the film. Mainly, Victory should be considered a minor film in Tourneur's career, one whose opening segments constitute its main interest.

Visual Style in the Opening: Repeated Rectangles

The opening scenes show the "repeated rectangles" beloved by Tourneur. These are formed by: Several of these show "repeated rectangles within repeated rectangles". For example, each orchestra chair has several rectangular regions formed by its horizontal chair-back bars; and the numerous chairs themselves repeat the image. Similarly, each the numerous hanging palm-fronds behind the hero itself contains numerous leaflets.

The strange zig-zag wickerwork in one shot near the orchestra platform offers a slightly diagonalized version of the repeated lines. So do the remains of the leaf bases that ascend in slightly angled repetition up the trunk of the giant palm tree.

Tourneur uses a parabolic arch type of mask in several images, especially those outside in the hotel garden. This is a striking geometric form. Tourneur often combines this with various curving palm fronds, to make a composition full of curves.

Later, the shape of the parabolic mask is echoed by the curved backs of the chairs pushed up against tables, during the hero and heroine's nocturnal escape. These chairs also contain repeated horizontal lines - and are themselves repeated by numerous copies of the chairs, arranged within repeated groups around different tables, a three-level deep use of repetitive imagery.

Porches - and Jacques Tourneur

When we first see the hero, he is sitting outside on the covered porch of his tropical bungalow. This immediately invokes Maurice's son Jacques Tourneur, who loved scenes involving covered porticos, porches and walkways. Victory will soon include shots of the porch and balcony of a large tropical hotel, as well. The opening shot is a perspective view down the hero's porch, also a favorite camera angle of Jacques.

Staging

Tourneur sometimes uses a composition in which the characters in foreground are in silhouette, while the whole background composition, including many people, is in bright, full light. The bad guys' gambling is shown with such a shot, soon after they are introduced. And we see the hero this way briefly in the hotel garden in the beginning.

Tourneur frequently stages shots so that women are above the hero. He first sees the heroine while she is playing with the other musicians on an elevated stage platform. The hotel keeper's wife is seated at an elevated ticket counter. And later the same woman will be on a balcony far above the hero. There are suggestions that women have an elevated status or position, far above the often sordid world occupied by the men in the film.

Jules Furthman

The script of Victory is by Jules Furthman, who will go on to be a prolific Hollywood writer, with many scripts for Josef von Sternberg and Howard Hawks. The screenplay is elaborate, with numerous long title cards. It anticipates a number of Furthman's later works:

Characters

Much is made in the script about how the hero is escaping from life by being an observer, not a participant. He bluntly tells the heroine that women have no place in his scheme of life, and the titles imply that he has never had a relationship with them. The hero is definitely a mature man, and is more like a Forty Year Old Virgin than an inexperienced kid. This sort of virile he-man in the tropics who avoids and has had no experience with women will recur in The Naked Jungle (Byron Haskin, 1954). In both films, the woman at his isolated compound takes him on as a challenge, although this is far more pronounced in Haskin's film.

The three villains are really sick. All three are revealed as sadistic killers. In addition, they seem to have what the script keeps hinting is a gay relationship with each other. In addition, the performances of the three on camera are limitlessly perverse. They anticipate the equally repellent villainy to come in The Last of the Mohicans (1920). Lon Chaney's performance is remarkably strange, a real flesh-crawling inducing experience. However, his technical virtuosity is much less fun here than in almost any other role in which I have seen this great actor. These sick puppies are an ordeal to get through, and the homophobia of the conception is to be condemned, too.

Between the hero's rejection of women, the sexual harassers at the hotel from whom the heroine is fleeing, and the three vicious pervert villains, Victory is rampant with unpleasant sexuality. It is a reminder that silent films often dealt with sexual issues in a far more direct way than many of today's films (which often seem more oriented to violence).


Lorna Doone

Lorna Doone (1922) is a historical romance, based on the 1869 novel by R. D. Blackmore. The movie simplifies the plot of the book, and is quite swift paced, unlike some later epic adaptations of adventure tales.

Lorna Doone continues Tourneur's exploration and condemnation of what we today call sexual harassment. The villain here tries to force his attentions on the heroine; she is rescued from this by the hero. This is the same pattern as in Alias Jimmy Valentine and Victory. A key scene also shows the hero dandling a baby affectionately, which alienates other men; this recalls the hero's sacrifice for children at the end of Alias Jimmy Valentine. Like D. W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920), these films contrast two types of masculinity, one protective of women, one exploitative.

Lorna Doone contrasts a world of respectable people, with an underworld full of criminals. This too recalls Alias Jimmy Valentine and Victory.

The hero washes his hair at a public fountain at the start. This is a bit like the clothes washing scenes in other Tourneur.

A Heavy Metal Hero

The hero is a believable looking farmer, played by John Bowers. It is hard to imagine a commercial, entertainment film with a farmer hero today - a sign of how much more urbanized we all are 100 years later. Still, there are plenty of farmers in our society - it would be good if they were reflected more on screen.

His farmer's costume features a leather jerkin, that is full of laced-up seams, flaps and metal rings - it could give any current heavy metal rock star a run for his money. He also wears the huge leather boots popular in silent movies, and later in comic books. This is an example of how silent film liked to get its heroes into glamorous clothes.

Composition

The church exterior contains two parts, each of which is the same triangular shape. This recalls the repeating triangles in the opening of A Girl's Folly.

The characters are often framed through archways.