Archive for Maurice Tourneur


Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on January 19, 2014 by dcairns


Fiona and I debated the merits of this shot in Milestone’s THE RED PONY. She at first admitted it was striking. The she said it was silly.

I argued that it’s practical. It’s not just a decorative Sid Furie flourish. The framing, while tricksy, gives us two performances for the price of one. In the Colonel Custer beard is Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino AKA the Walking Fontanelle), and the shot obviously shows his attitude by displaying his facial expression, or that part of it that manages to fight its way past his whiskers. With her back to camera is Myrna Loy, as beautiful as ever if you could see her. “You can’t see her performance,” says Fiona. No, but you get her attitude.

When I went looking for Milestone images online I immediately found this, from MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY ~


Not the same shot, but again, an image that gets more value that an over-the-shoulder would. A shoulder rarely gives you much character. This angle gives sex.

The OS shot, seemingly invented circa 1919, possibly by Maurice Tourneur in VICTORY, is so fantastically useful it should only be used as a last resort. In my first short film, I didn’t have any because four of my six main characters were hunchbacks (the film was called, logically enough, THE THREE HUNCHBACKS) and the actors had pillows stuffed up their shirts to raise bumps that completely hid their heads from a rear view. So rather than a head and shoulder creating a convenient corner to frame another actor in, the camera would simply have seen obscuring mounds.

(I was coming home from the last day of shooting carrying the pillows, which came from my parents’ house. I didn’t have a bag for them, but pillows sort of ARE bags, so I just carried them by their corners. A drunk stopped me. “Can I ask why you’re carrying those pillows?”

“Well, I’ve just made a film about hunchbacks.”

“Fair enough.”

The Sunday Intertitle: Swarthy Opponent

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2012 by dcairns

Maurice Tourneur’s version of TRILBY (1915) foregrounds his renowned lighting effects right from the get-go, and though he doesn’t move the camera at all, he breaks up his tableaux staging with lively montages of close-ups, especially when the heroine sings. Our juvenile lead (31-year-old Chester Barnett) is introduced beside a shadow which looks like it should be his, except that he’s standing still while it rocks with laughter.

In the title role is Clara Kimball Young, whose name I knew but whom I’d never seen act. From her name I expected a plump Victorian matron, even though that wouldn’t fit the role created by George DuMaurier at all. That never stopped the Victorians. But CKY is young, spry and ebullient — she dominates the room, which makes her transformation under Svengali’s influence all the more affecting. CKY may play it big a lot of the time, but she’s never broad — the quicksilver transmutations of her expression draw the eye and keep it fixed upon her. She’s certainly more boisterous than Marian Marsh, the only other actress I’ve seen in the part.

Though set in London and Paris, with a few stock shots of the City of Light, the movie is a product of that other magical place, Fort Lee, New Jersey, the predecessor of Hollywood as America’s movie capital.

It’s slightly surprising that there were so many silent versions of this (full adaptations and even sample scenes — the story was so well-known early audiences could simply fill in the rest themselves), since the plot revolves around singing, but it’s also surprising to me that there haven’t been more recent versions. The character names and set-up are familiar even if the novel isn’t much read, so there’s an exploitable framework. I think the problem may lie in the somewhat semitic nature of Svengali, played here by the corpulent Wilton Lackaye as a sort of telepod fusion of Rasputin and Fagin. The Brits allow this evil Eastern European wanderer into their circle, he borrows their money and he steals their woman. It’s also about how women should choose marriage over a career. Virginal artist Billie is shocked that his sweetheart poses nude for artists, and then he tears her away from her successful stage act. Woman, know your place!

Plus, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA stole the best bits of the story and added deformity, masks, an underground lair and fifty more thicknesses of melodramatic excess. How do you go back to the stolid British original after Lon Chaney?

Fiona named her cat after Trilby because her purr turned to a trill in moments of extreme happiness. Here is the late Trilby ~

Like her namesake, she had a fine singing voice, as you can see.

Empty Rooms

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 15, 2012 by dcairns

What do movies do when nobody is watching? When the audience has filed out, the projector powered down, the curtains closed? When the last grainy showgirl is snuggled between celluloid sheets, the moustaches and six-shooters have all been twirled, and the monsters have shuffled back to their closets? Do movies go to sleep too? To sleep, perchance to dream?

Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism. 


Don’t be frightened — although I myself find this short film quite scary. I assembled it from moments in Maurice Tourneur’s first talkie, the Pathe-Natan production ACCUSEE, LEVEZ-VOUS! The film is quite slow and stagey, and contains numerous exits and entrances like a play, resulting in brief moments when the scene is empty of players. These dead spots are quite damaging to the pace when watching the entire film, but I had an idea that they might be interesting on their own. One could cut them out and watch the film as it might have looked a year later, when talkies had become more fluent and fluid, but I was more interested in running them all together and making a film that’s a breath of dead air. I had to slow some of them down to make them register, but not that many. I’ve also used a couple of insert shots, edited to remove human action, and some very effective moments when Tourneur uses offscreen sound — still quite an innovation in France in 1930.

Actually, one could argue that this isn’t entirely Tourneur’s first talkie, but it is his first experience directing one. In 1927, he departed the MGM production of MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, after the studio imposed a producer on him to come on set and supervise his work. MT wasn’t having any of that so he packed his bags for Europe at once. The film was eventually finished by Benjamin Christensen, then revised for sound by Lucien Hubbard and released in 1929 in this mutilated form. The original silent material is frequently stunning, but as a narrative the film is hopelessly compromised.

Apologies to M. Tourneur for subjecting another of his films to savage editorial interference!