This Maurice Tourneur film exists in two versions, and I’ve only seen the cut-down version that’s on the Image DVD, Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J. From what I’ve read about the full version it apparently starts with a country girl named Mary (Doris Kenyon) day-dreaming about an idealized romantic love that would take her far from her humdrum life. When she encounters a film crew making a Western nearby, she is talked into running away with them by the suave leading man, Kenneth Driscoll (Robert Warwick). Driscoll dallies with her, but eventually she realizes the whole set-up is unreal and returns home to her simple life in the country.
The short version cuts away almost all of the story of Mary’s folly. What’s left is a backstage look at movie production in Fort Lee — an early center of film production in the U.S. — and it’s a fascinating and funny depiction of the movie-making process of the era. Mary only comes into the picture about halfway through, in a scene where she mistakes the film Indians for real ones, and we still see the part where Driscoll sweet talks her into coming back to the studio to take a screen test. We also see Mary decide to stick around after the screen test fails, but that’s the end of the film. It doesn’t really make sense as a story of a girl’s folly, but still gives us an insider view of a film’s folly.
Three years into his American career, Tourneur has developed some techniques that begin to look familiar. His overhead shot of multiple sets with multiple movies being shot on them, for example, echoes the labyrinthine shot of the bank vault room in Alias Jimmy Valentine:
And his use of depth effects in this scene, where a character runs from the back of the shot toward the camera, is similar to the shot in Alias Jimmy Valentine where Jimmy runs toward the camera in a train car:
But now the characters look off-camera to give us an illusion that the movie is happening there too:
The laughing women remind us of those in The Wishing Ring. The witty use of artwork in the title cards is reminiscent of Trilby:
The use of shadow to create frames-within-frames is consistent with everything else I’ve seen of Tourneur’s.
Tourneur makes great use of the swirling change of sets and costumes to suggest the instability — the artifice — of his character’s desires:
But as in Alias Jimmy Valentine, he also uses composition and editing to suggest continuity and connections across space and between characters. Here an abandoned love is contrasted with a new love interest, both shot from the same distance and in about the same position in the frame:
One of the funniest sequences in the movie comes when Mary’s screen test is screened. We don’t see the screen test itself, but only Mary’s hopeful face and then the reaction of the hardened professionals to what they’re seeing.
One of the strange things about this movie is that a number of myths persist about famous personages making an appearance in it. It’s widely reported, for instance, that Josef von Sternberg plays the cameraman, but not only is the actor clearly not Sternberg, I also checked his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and he doesn’t mention appearing in the film. He specifically mentions Maurice Tourneur as a great director working at Fort Lee, so it seems likely he would have mentioned working for him as an actor if it had really happened.
Another legend is that Maurice Tourneur himself plays the director in the film. Again, comparing photos reveals that the actor in the film looks nothing like Maurice Tourneur. Well, okay, maybe Tourneur has a similar schnoz, but he lacks the dimple on the chin.
There’s also a persistent rumor that the director Emile Chautard appears in the film — some accounts have him playing the director instead of Tourneur — but I’ve seen Chautard in a bit part in Sternberg’s Morocco, and if he shows up in A Girl’s Folly, I haven’t spotted him. Perhaps he’s in the cut material. He’s certainly not playing the director.
I’m not sure how these myths got attached to the movie, although it probably has something to do with it being a movie about making movies. It doesn’t help that most of the characters don’t get a credit in the cut-down version, which is probably what most people have seen. I don’t know if there are more credits in the full version.
I also don’t know whether the full version brings more pathos to what is, in the cut-down version, a satire of the unreality of the film world. But even while poking fun at his own calling, Tourneur still finds complex images of quiet reflection, as here where the professionals have turned their backs on Mary’s failed career in film, contrasting with the earlier image of Driscoll descending these same stairs as a self-confident cinema god.