Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The NFR Project #43: 'The Wishing Ring: An Idyll of Old England' (1914)

One of Wishing Ring's many beautiful shots.
The Wishing Ring: An Idyll of Old England
Dir: Maurice Tourneur
Prod: William A. Brady, Shubert family
Scr: Tourneur, from play by Owen Davis
Phot: John van den Broek
Premiere: November 9, 1914
54 min.

Maurice Tourneur inadvertently had the best possible training to be a film director. Born in Paris in 1876, he trained in the visual arts, assisting artists such as the sculptor Rodin. After military service, he took on the theatrical world, starting from the bottom up as a bit actor. Soon he was a valued director and designer as well.

He jumped into film in 1911, after working on more than 400 stage productions. Soon he rose to the top of the profession in France. His studio sent him America to make films and get them into that lucrative market. Wishing Ring is his third American film.

The story, taken from a play by Owen Davis, is nothing to write home about. It concerns an earl’s wastrely but good-hearted son, a parson’s daughter, mistaken identities, gypsies, deception and reconciliation. A stage-tested sure bet, presented in a clear and engaging manner, the film is part of a deal with theatrical impresarios the Schuberts to bring “quality entertainment” features to the movie theaters, instead of the genre shorts that predominated to that point.

Fort Lee, N.J., standing in for Old England
The Wishing Ring is valuable in that it demonstrates that D.W. Griffith did not sprout cinema single-handedly, like some aesthetic parthenogenesis. After almost a decade, every aspect of filmmaking was improving, and directors such as Tourneur were putting all the elements together and crating superior work.

Tourneur saw the screen as a theatrical proscenium; unlike many who came before him, he perceived it in depth, and gives us deep-focus shots decades before Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane. His compositions keep the eye involved without calling attention to themselves; he is subordinating everything in proper proportion, focused on propelling the story forward. Best of all, he understands actors and lets them do detailed work while keeping them from going overboard.

This kind of tasteful, deftly observed drama would become a Hollywood staple and house style, and Tourneur was a master of it. He helmed great successes such as The Last of the Mohicans in 1917, as well as work with Mary Pickford. His son Jacques would become an acclaimed director as well.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

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