Maurice Tourneur was the father of Jacques Tourner and a great director in his own right. After a varied career as a graphic artist, interior decorator, and stage manager, Tourneur began to work for the French film company Eclair in 1912 and quickly became a director. In 1914 he moved to the U.S., where he worked in the studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey (a major production center in those days) before eventually heading out to the newly-formed Hollywood studios. Things didn’t turn out so well in Hollywood, and he returned to France in 1926 because he felt that directors were losing status as the focus was put on movie stars and power was put in the hands of the producers. He continued to make films in France until 1948.
He was still in Fort Lee when he made The Wishing Ring: An Idyll of Old England in 1914, and the film is available on a DVD from Image called Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J. He was already a master of his craft in 1914, which was after all still the early days of the feature-length film, and this is an utterly delightful romantic comedy about an upper class troublemaker who gets thrown out of school and is forced by his fed-up father to take a job as a gardener, whereby he meets a parson’s daughter who is stealing roses from the garden.
In his day Tourneur was known for the pictorial beauty of his films, the delicate lighting, and the naturalistic acting that avoided the pantomime-based acting styles common in the silent era. The Wishing Ring is a comedy, so the acting is broad, but it’s certainly full of striking compositions and atmospheric use of light and shadow. The photography gives the film a great feeling of intimacy. It often looks ten or twenty years ahead of its time visually.
There are a couple of shots that look like they may have influenced much later films. We’re off to see the wizard?
The film was apparently lost until the ’70s, so it’s unlikely that Alain Resnais actually saw it, but this shot immediately made me think of Last Year at Marienbad. (Well, at least after I’d seen Last Year at Marienbad. I actually saw The Wishing Ring a couple of times before that.)
But this really is a comedy, and a sprightly one at that. The intertitles are often quite wry.
And then we’re shown that the singing is off-key. (And the Mont Alto Orchestra gives us off-key music on the soundtrack of the DVD as well.)
But drunken revelry leads to some slapstick revenge that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Mack Sennett film.
The four women who open the curtains on the film recur throughout as a kind of Greek chorus. Harry Waldman, in his book Maurice Tourneur: The Life and Films, claims they are “the graces of Greek mythology,” but since there were only three Graces in Greek mythology, I’m not sure where he got that idea. They appear as village girls in the story, always together, always in a symmetrical formation, frequently laughing at the silliness of the proceedings. They partake of the wedding feast at the end (with a marvelous long tracking shot that shows all the guests, which is used as a clever way to reprise the entire cast), and they open and close the curtains on the action. Graces or no, they give a ritual feel to the story. They certainly leave the impression that a feminine spirit presides over the film, admired by men.