Bright Lights Film Journal

Forgotten Fathers – Maurice Tourneur, Richard Oswald

The Frenchman, Maurice Tourneur, and the Austrian, Richard Oswald, were major producer/directors during cinema’s Silent Era, but are hardly remembered today. These days, movie lovers are more likely to know the films and television shows directed by their sons — Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, Out of the Past), and Gerd Oswald (Brainwashed, Screaming Mimi, The Outer Limits).

MAURICE TOURNEUR

Maurice Tourneur was born in Paris in 1876, and died there in 1961.  His son, Jacques, was born in 1904.  Today, Maurice is best known for the pictorial beauty of the silent films he produced and directed while living in the United States: The Blue Bird (1918), Joseph Conrad’s Victory (1919), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), and Lorna Doone (1922). The Last of the Mohicans seems to have been a huge influence on John Ford. (Compare it to Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk.) I published a visual essay on the extraordinary Victory here.  All of the titles I mentioned are available on DVD.

Less available and less well known are the films Tourneur père made in France during the sound era. However, based on the evidence of the clip below, they are equally extraordinary. Maybe moreso. The clip is from La Main du Diable (The Devil’s Hand, 1943) starring Pierre Fresnay — 7 minutes and 45 seconds of pure visual inventiveness, drenched in atmosphere, and seeming to incorporate everything Tourneur ever learned about lighting and set design. Interestingly, the film was released just after his son, Jacques, had scored major successes with Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. It’s as if the father were saying to the son, “You think you know how to make a horror/fantasy film? Check this out!”

RICHARD OSWALD

Richard Oswald was born in Vienna in 1880, and died in Düsseldorf in 1963. His son, Gerd, was born in Berlin in 1919.  Richard was one of the founders of the great German studio, UFA, and may have once enjoyed a level of prestige comparable to Lang or Pabst. As a producer, writer, and director, he is best known today for Different From the Others (1919) starring Conrad Veidt, one of the first films to deal openly and sympathetically with the subject of homosexuality. 

While Different From the Others is a film of unquestionable sociopolitical importance, it is not particularly interesting on the level of filmmaking (at least, not the fragments that remain of it). Far more interesting on a visual level is Unheimliche Geschicten (Uncanny Tales, 1919), also starring Veidt, a compilation of 5 horror stories based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe (The Black Cat, The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Suicide Club), among others. It may have been the very first such compilation film, a direct ancestor of the classic British horror compilation Dead of Night, Roger Corman’s Poe-derived Tales of Terror, Freddie Francis’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, and the Vadim/Malle/Fellini/Poe Spirits of the Dead. Wikipedia notes that Oswald’s film combines horror with black comedy, however, all of the films I just mentioned combine horror with black comedy — further evidence that Unheimliche Geschicten is the prototype for this subgenre.

The trailer for Unheimliche Geschicten, below, reveals Oswald père to be a master of the German Expressionist style with its angular compositions, high-contrast lighting, stylized performances, and eerie special effects. It is a style that his son, Gerd, would successfully channel in his Outer Limits episodes.

You can watch the complete 1919 version of Unheimliche Geschicten posted on YouTube in 9 parts, starting here.

Oswald remade Unheimliche Geschicten as a sound film in 1932. The trailer for that version starring Paul Wegener (The Golem) is below.

Oswald and his family were forced to flee Nazi Germany shortly thereafter. Richard Oswald’s final film, The Lovable Cheat (1949), was made in Hollywood. It starred Charlie Ruggles, Alan Mowbray, and Buster Keaton (!), and was based on a story by Balzac.

[Thanks again, YouTube posters, whoever you really are.]