The mini-biography on Kino’s DVD of Lorna Doone makes the case that in 1918 Maurice Tourneur made two artistically-ambitious fantasies, The Blue Bird and Prunella that were acclaimed by critics but failures at the box office, and that in the wake of their financial failure he abandoned his artistic ambitions and resigned himself to making conventional adventure films until leaving Hollywood to return to France in 1926. This is probably the common perception of Tourneur’s Hollywood career, and it may well be true. Many of his films have been lost, and I haven’t even seen everything that still exists, so it’s difficult to judge. It’s certainly true, however, that the three post-1918 films I’ve seen, Victory (1919), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), and Lorna Doone (1922) are progressively less interesting, although all are very well constructed and entertaining in their own right. If nothing else, all three of these films have exciting action sequences, which ain’t nothing.
Once again Tourneur takes up the plight of women in an abusive male-dominated society. Lorna Doone is the daughter of an aristocratic family who is abducted as a child by a clan of brigands led by Ensor Doone. Ensor’s nephew, Carver, wants Lorna for his wife, but Ensor will give Lorna her choice. Carver waits for Ensor to die to make his move.
Notice the staging here, which emphasizes that old man Ensor is all that stands between Lorna and Ensor’s lust.
When you watch these movies one after another, Tourneur’s techniques for creating visually interesting compositions almost begin to seem too familiar. Door frames as image frames:
Cave mouths as image frames:
Windows as frames, and key light from outside the frame mimicking the sun or another natural light source:
Silhouettes of hillsides providing a massive anchor to a lonely silhouetted figure:
But there’s no denying that these continue to be beautiful compositions, and Tourneur finds the right staging and camera angles to build tension in his action scenes. In this sequence the girl that Lorna saved from rape by Carver (thus drawing his attention back to herself) positions herself to communicate with John Ridd, Lorna’s heroic boyfriend, who is trying to save Lorna from marriage to Carver. The heroines of these films all need a man to save them, but their own courageous acts set the stage for the rescue.
Tourneur was making successful, big-budget movies at this point in his Hollywood career, and Lorna Doone heads to London for an opulent scene in a cathedral that’s an intentionally shocking contrast to the countryside setting of the bulk of the film. Tourneur takes advantage of the Hollywood spectacle machine to create a satire of the over-refined, over-privileged aristocracy as well. Above all, however, it’s another gripping action scene, in which anti-royalists attempt to assassinate a new prince at his baptism.
It must be said that there’s a lot of sentimental nonsense in this film, most of it apparently taken from the popular 1869 novel by Richard Doddridge Blackmore. It’s true that it took me several viewings to warm up to the romantic aspects of Victory, but I’ve watched this one at least three times and still don’t feel much love for the relationship between Lorna and John. Still, just as in The Last of the Mohicans, the flow of action is strong enough to carry the film. The final hand-to-hand struggle between John and Carver is Tourneur at his eye-gouging best, with a grotesque moment when John rips a muscle out of Carver’s arm. Nasty, even if it’s mostly left off-screen.
There’s another idea you’ll run across quite frequently that Hollywood in the Teens was a much more innovative period, and that once the producer-driven star system began to exert itself in the early ’20s, the visionary directors lost control and films became more conventional. Cecil B. DeMille’s films of the Teens are more interesting than his films of the ’20s, too, and Lois Weber’s career was all downhill after The Blot (1921). Yet there were plenty of directors like John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and Allan Dwan who seemed to make the transition without a problem — and DeMille’s films of the ’20s are actually fascinating in their own way, even if they’re more garish and hysterical than his earlier work. It’s also true, however, that a number of directors balked at the producer-driven Hollywood system, and Rex Ingram, for example, followed Tourneur to Europe.
This ends my survey of Maurice Tourneur’s films, because this is the last of the American films that are available on DVD, at least that I know of. None of his French films are available on DVD here, although his sound films are apparently available in France. I’d love to see them, as well as all the remaining silent films, including Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen (1929), made with Marlene Dietrich right before her star-making appearance in Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (1930). It’s hard to imagine why the two films he made with Mary Pickford — The Pride of the Clan and The Poor Little Rich Girl, both 1917 — aren’t on DVD, but such is commerce.
Tourneur was an amazing visual artist, and more than one critic has said that his approach to film-making represented a fully developed alternative to the path that D.W. Griffith forged for Hollywood. Whatever the case, his films remain entertaining 90 years later, and he deserves to be remembered for more than just The Last of the Mohicans.