Maurice Tourneur — Cynic in the Soup (1923) 🇺🇸
It is recorded of that memorable occasion upon which Will Hays delivered his justly famous inaugural address before the crowned heads of moviedom, assembled in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, that there was just one discordant note. As the inspired apostle of bigger and better films concluded the sermon in which he pledged himself to a cause with a capital C, vowing to make Los Angeles both the commercial and artistic capital of the world, it is recorded that just one of the assembled throng laughed. Fortunately this untimely laughter was drowned in the general applause.
by Don Ryan
illustrated by K. R. Chamberlain
The unspeakable traitor who dared to laugh was a broad-shouldered man with pale blue eyes set on each side of a large nose, and above the eyes a brow both high and broad. His name — Maurice Tourneur. He is a director — sometimes called the Great Director in press-agent copy. But this appellation means nothing. Hollywood is full of Great Directors. Some of them are working at it.
Tourneur is the one pessimist in the most optimistic city in the world — Los Angeles. He is the one cynic in this ideal republic of Plato. And he is down on the black list of all the Babbitts who write, direct, or act, in the movies, because he has a habit of puncturing their favorite bubbles with deft pin-pricks of sarcasm.
He isn’t a good mixer. He just can’t be one of the boys. He doesn’t give a hang whether or not Los Angeles has a population of two million in 1925. He refuses to join in memorializing Congress to pass a resolution declaring motion pictures the world’s greatest educational influence. You see he just doesn’t belong.
That’s the reason I like the man. I sincerely believe that it would be a good thing for motion pictures if there were more pessimists and fewer optimists in them. If Tourneur made pictures as well as he talks about them — but that is another matter.
I like to watch Tourneur direct. Not because I think he is a transcendent technician of the celluloid medium — because I don’t. But he has a way of courteously, and at the same time witheringly, depressing the tumefaction of anybody on his set who happens to have this tendency. It is an operation all too rarely performed in the movies and one that I never tire of witnessing.
So I went out recently to watch him shoot the initial scenes in Jealous Fools — the title that the producers decided on as the best box-office appellation for Pierre Decourcelle’s play, Les Deux Gosses. For this picture the United Studios have signed Earle Williams, Jane Novak, George Siegmann, Bull Montana and Ben Alexander — another boy wonder.
In the story the boy is kidnaped from his rich mother and is brought up with a gang of toughs. Like nearly all Tourneur pictures, it has plenty of melodrama in it.
The director was showing me some of the stills.
“Do you see?” he demanded, in the voice in which a trace of Gallic accent still lingers, “Do you see the contrast here? There are two elements — rich people — poor people. Look how much more interesting are the stills of the poor.
“Yes, it is as usual. The rich are uninteresting — especially in the movies. When the nice people are on the screen everybody will be bored to tears. But when the crooks come on — ah!
“Ah, well, there’s not much to see,” he added gloomily. “But come on over to the set — come over and watch the agony. Isn’t it true? The more we see of motion pictures the more we wonder why they’re not even worse.”
So I went over to the set to watch the agony. A wind machine was just drying things off. It seems that a high fog had dampened the trappings of the handsome bedroom depicted — a ‘bedroom that, alas, was all too apparently a bedroom of the rich.
Property men were making up the bed — a luxurious affair with a yellow counterpane, which would photograph white.
Enter Jane Novak, blond, with molasses-taffy hair — the kind of hair which looks like thinly spun sunshine — when it has the proper back lighting. A devoted maid bears a suit case full of make-up behind the star.
Tourneur squinting through the camera. He is one of those directors who insist on seeing what they are shooting with the camera’s eye.
“Now, Mr. Tourneur” — from an assistant — “now what happens in this close-up?”
“Nothing. She’s crying. Nothing at all.”
And the director leaves off fussing with the camera to begin fussing with the composition of some articles on a table. In France Tourneur was a painter before becoming a director, which explains the splendid composition which he sometimes achieves on the screen.
This day he whisks Miss Novak from a comfortable contemplation of her make-up in a hand mirror into the depths of grief with a suddenness that must take away her breath.
“Miss Novak would you mind — good morning — get on this bed and sob!”
Miss Novak obediently gets on and sobs. For a while Tourneur — expressionless — watches the agony. Then he remarks:
“Enough — thanks. The lighting is not so good. We go to lunch now.”
Luncheon was over and we were seated in Tourneur’s office, of which the sole decoration is a calendar advertising that famous English book which tells you how to become a connoisseur of wines.
I asked the director why I didn’t see around his place any of the miniature studio orchestras which are contributing their share this season to the birth pangs of nearly every movie in the making.
“I don’t like them,” he replied. “For two reasons.
First, the actor, if he is an artist, should be able to put over his emotions without recourse to such a contrivance. Second, it fools everybody. The director sitting by the camera, listening to the soothing strains, thinks he has a fine thing — and is being kidded by the music.
“If it could be used once in a while — without tipping the cast — all right. But heavens! I go into studios — they’re using music for everything. The other day I saw a horse galloping and there was the orchestra galloping too — oh, Lord!”
The talk drifted to other traditions of the films. I think in the course of an hour that Tourneur applied his chilled steel hammer to every joint and rivet of the movie business.
He struck the first clanking blow when I asked him about the art of the movies — a favorite question with which to bait directors.
“How can the movies — be artistic?” he countered. “They can’t, because we cater to too many people. The thing that satisfies millions cannot be good. As Ibsen said, it is. the minority which is always right!”
This was treason — nothing less. I thought of Cecil De Mille [Cecil B. DeMille], who once declared in my presence that the majority is always right — the great, big public! I stared at the apostate, expecting to see the roof drop on him or else the chief executioner of Will Hays appear in the doorway with his ax.
Instead my host went on talking — about the puerility of the films.
“Nine-tenths of our thought is directed to love. It is the obvious theme for pictures. But in the pictures we have to see love with the eyes of Bertha M. Clay or Mrs. E. D. N. Southworth. The lovers must sit on a beautiful stone bench in the moonlight. Love is not made like that at all — but in the kitchen — on the back steps — everywhere! We are not allowed to show on the screen any love except puppy love.
“We still have the old-fashioned idea in pictures,” Tourneur went on. “Everything must be beautiful — as in the old-fashioned stage productions. We make pictures as the old-time photographer did portraits — with the sitter in a chair, a brace holding his head.
“Instead we should be snapping them, like an amateur in the street with his kodak. Then we could get real life…
“We not only cater to the majority, but we try to please them, which is much worse. No artist ever tries to please the mob. Fancy Rodin asking a popular vote on what group he should make next.”
Tourneur leaned back in his swivel chair. His blue eyes were earnest. A Gallic frenzy seized him.
“No! The artist is a man who has a crazy idea and spends all his moneys — all his life, to accomplish it. An artist is one who goes out by himself on the desert and yells his head off. Years pass. Somebody hears him — maybe. One comes. Then another. After years maybe more come. If they come or if they don’t — it is no concern of the artist.”
The actor came in for his share of shaking up. My friend complained bitterly that the movie actors — unlike their prototypes of the stage, fail to get into their parts and live them. Tourneur himself played on the legitimate stage in France, toured with Réjane [Gabrielle Réjane] and others.
“What makes me mad,” he said, “you have a scene — you’re struggling like sin to express something. If you stop a second in the middle of the third rehearsal the actors drop everything, step out of character, light their cigarettes, begin talking about the Montmartre Café and the boxing bouts in Hollywood.
“There always comes a moment in every picture where an actor has to give something. Very seldom they do. If I were trying to be a movie actor, why, I’d work like thunder — practice pantomime — try on different funny make-ups — go around all the time watching people in the street — everywhere — thinking about my work. Do they think about it in Hollywood? Pah!”
The director paused and then went on with a more contained dignity.
“I love the pictures. I’d rather do them than anything else. But I wish I could do for the screen the things that smell of life. There is a satisfaction to me in the work. It gives the impression of really building something. Please don’t think that I am knocking the business which helps me to make a very nice living. I want to help it!”
He raised his arms in an expressive gesture. I could visualize chains on his wrists.
“I am shackled by censorship and by the wishes of the men who hire me. If I have a pet story I have to sell it to the man I am working for, then he has to sell it to the man who is putting up the money. If it is off the beaten path or shows any hint of being what you might term artistic, the public will never see it. The small-town exhibitors will not consider showing it.
“The more organization there is — the worse the picture. Some of the best pictures have been made with small organizations under the most unfavorable conditions.
“The producers follow some recognized success like sheep. If a sheik picture succeeds — then we all have to make sheik pictures.
“Pictures should be the work of an individual. We are in this business either to make money or to give ourselves the satisfaction of creating something as we wish. But if the picture isn’t deliberately designed as a money maker, the public doesn’t even get to see it. So if we made the pictures we wished we should not only fail to make any money — we should not even have the satisfaction of an audience.”
Tourneur’s eyes narrowed. Again a wave of Gallicism encompassed him. He spoke rapidly.
“It is a beautiful thing — that rectangular white sheet — the screen. We could show anything in the world there. We have the money to do it. There is no limit to the possibilities.
“But what do we show? A little country girl in curls — with a sunbonnet — beautiful backlights. Man in an office, feverishly bending over the ticker. Those Riverside Drive homes in which nobody could ever live — big as the Grand Central Station — so far from life — and those café scenes. Oh!”
His voice shook. The memory of what he had seen was affecting the man.
“I can’t stand them! But the ballroom scenes! Only they are worse than the café scenes. Horrible!
There were tears in the voice — almost in the eyes of the fervent Frenchman. I felt a Celtic impulse to weep with him.
But his voice took on a cadence of hope.
“We’ll do it some day. Some new generation of writers will come up — men who will think in pictures instead of words. And when the time comes America is the place. In this new country where minds are so direct, where there are no traditions, here will be the birthplace of “
“A new art?”
“Well, of something.”
I came away liking this fellow Tourneur immensely. If only he made pictures as well as he talks about them — but that, of course, is another matter.
“Rich people are uninteresting,” says Tourneur, “especially in the movies.”
In some studios the orchestra even follows a galloping horse.
When the crooks come on the screen then the audience is interested.
Collection: Picture Play Magazine, November 1923