Born Maurice Félix Thomas, he began using the stage name Maurice Tourneur in his show business career, performing in secondary roles on stage and eventually toured England and South America as part of the theater company for the great star Gabrielle Réjane.
Drawn to the new art of filmmaking, in 1911 he began working as an assistant director. A quick learner and an innovator, within a short time he was directing films on his own using major French stars of the day such as Polaire.
In 1914, with the expansion of the giant French film companies into the United States market, Tourneur moved to New York City to direct silent film features for a new French-
Tourneur admired D.W. Griffith and considered the skill level of American actors at the time ahead of their counterparts in Europe. Of the actresses he worked with, he called Mary Pickford the finest screen actress in the world and believed that stage actress Elsie Ferguson was a brilliant artist.
In 1918 Maurice Tourneur launched his own production company with the film, Sporting Life. In 1921 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. By 1922 he believed that the future of the film industry lay in Hollywood and the following year he was hired by Samuel Goldwyn to go to the west coast and make a film version of the Hall Caine novel, The Christian.
In 1923 he decided to move back to his native France. There, he continued to make films both at home and in Germany, easily making the change to talkies. Tourneur went on to direct another two dozen films, several of which were crime thrillers, until a 1949 automobile accident in which he was seriously injured and lost a leg. Health and age prevented him from directing more films, but a voracious reader and a skilled hobby artist, he kept busy painting and translating detective novels from English into French.