The careers of Maurice Tourneur and his son Jacques suggest a body of contrasts. One was an innovator and genteel rebel, the other a chameleonic master of genres.
Maurice Tourneur (1876–1961) had attained considerable professional success before becoming a filmmaker in 1911. He had illustrated books, designed posters and fabrics, toured the continent as an actor, worked as Auguste Rodin’s assistant, and apprenticed under theater director André Antoine. He brought lessons from all of these cultivated crafts to bear upon his movie making. Within three years, he was sent to America to head the New Jersey office of the French production company Eclair. Once established with his own small unit of collaborators, Tourneur turned out high-quality, artistically ambitious features with astonishing regularity.
Though often adaptations of popular theatrical properties, Tourneur’s pictures were densely staged, well-lit, sumptuously tinted, subtly cut, and designed with consistent sensibility that extended to the artwork of the intertitles. His productions were forceful experiments in style that seemed simultaneously behind the times and ahead of them. Indeed, his achievements were fundamentally out of step with contemporary film practice and more in league with the Pictorialist style of photography. Tourneur’s films demonstrated the possibilities of a medium unconstrained by the demands of the star system, the genre formula, the supervising producer, and the distribution middleman — obstacles that Tourneur frequently and publicly railed against, to the detriment of his career.
Jacques Tourneur (1904–1977) grew up in the dual shadows of his father and the film industry. His adolescence divided between France and America, Jacques began working as an assistant to his father, eventually editing eight of his pictures. If Jacques wanted to direct himself in this New Hollywood, he would need to navigate the formulas and studio politics his father had shunned. He honed his craft on a series of shorts and B-features for MGM before vaulting to the top under RKO’s Val Lewton. He won notice for a trio of poetic and overachieving horror films — Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man — constructed around blunt titles calculated to arouse exhibitor interest. (The feline-themed films screen as a double feature July 13.) Promoted to “A” productions, Tourneur made a career of being agreeable. He rarely turned down scripts, even ones such as Easy Living (August 3) that he felt were inappropriate to his talent and life experience.
Ironically, Tourneur’s decline began with his uncharacteristic decision to fight for a script and take a lower salary to direct a film he desperately wanted to make: Stars in My Crown (July 31), an unassuming rustic Western that today looks very much like Tourneur’s masterpiece.
This dual retrospective charts two extraordinary careers, but also the trajectory of the American film industry. If Maurice’s approach is consciously, achingly masterful, eager to demonstrate the possibilities of a new medium, then Jacques’s is something else — interior, empathetic, and tentatively self-effacing. We’re lucky to have both.