Harry Waldman, Maurice Tourneur: The Life and Films

Harry Waldman, Maurice Tourneur: The Life and Films, McFarland & Company, 174pp, 2001

I couldn’t find a review of this book online before I bought it, so I thought I’d throw one out here, partly because I’m not quite sure what to make of it. At $35 it’s pretty expensive for the amount of information you get, although it does include a lot of nice black and white film stills and photos. There’s a short introduction, and then there are three sections that each include an overview and then entries on every film he made during the time period covered by the section. The sections are “Tourneur at Eclair/The Films at Eclair, 1912-1914”, “Tourneur in America/The Films in America, 1914-1926”, and “Tourneur in Europe, 1927-1961/The Films in Europe, 1927-1948”.

The text itself reads like a copy-and-paste job, which seems to be literally true of the descriptions of the films that have been lost. Waldman appears to create these entries from old trade magazines, building descriptions of the movies from multiple texts, which makes sense since he obviously couldn’t see the films himself. However it often feels that the overview sections he wrote about Tourneur’s film career were constructed in much the same way. Phrases and facts are repeated in such close proximity that it almost begins to feel as though the author had forgotten the point he’d made in the previous sentence.

Perhaps most unnerving is the the entry for the film Figures de cire/Wax Faces, which has been rediscovered since this book was published. (It’s available on YouTube if you want to see it for yourself.) Waldman claims that it “was a forerunner of Paul Leni’s expressionistic work with the same subject matter, Waxworks (1924).” The plot description he gives is certainly a good plot synopsis for Waxworks, but unfortunately the description has very little to do with Tourneur’s short film. The only similarity is that both films are horror stories set in an exhibition of wax figures. I’m not sure how Waldman arrived at this error, unless he had read somewhere that Tourneur’s film was an influence on Leni, couldn’t find any other information on it, and copied a description of Leni’s plot to fill the void. Whatever the case, it doesn’t inspire confidence in the descriptions of the other films, although frequently he is able to name the source he is quoting.

So this is by no means a major scholarly work on Maurice Tourneur, but at the same time it has information that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere, provides a pretty good overview of his career, and also provides a good catalogue of which films were extant as of the publication date (including films that were only partially extant). I’m sure I’ll continue to refer to it, since there are no other books about Maurice Tourneur that I’m aware of. At the same time it’s clearly a text to be taken with a certain amount of skepticism. Yet I really do love the old stills and photos too.

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