Fox Film Corporation
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Released February 16, 1930
Cast: Charles Farrel (Lem Tustine), Mary Duncan (Kate), David Torrence (Lem's father), Edith Yorke (Lem's mother), Dawn O'Day (the daughter), Richard "Dick" Alexander (Mac), Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, Tom Maguire, Jack Pennick, Ed Brady (harvesters), Helen Lynch (girl on the train), Marjorie Beebe (Kate's waitress friend)
Eureka's edition of "City Girl" (1930) is one of the two most beautiful silent film releases to ever come out on Blu-Ray (see our review of "The Big Parade"). Eureka Entertainment is the leading independent distributor of classic silent/early sound film in the United Kingdom whose previous silent releases include "Metropolis" (1927) and "Sunrise" (1927). This 2011 release of "City Girl" certainly stands as the preeminent edition with stunning pictorial quality and a superb score composed and arranged by Christopher Caliendo.
"City Girl" stands as silent cinema at its best - and, for that reason, must be seen. All aspects of the making of this film fit neatly and tightly together like a well-woven tapestry. F.W. Murnau's direction is outstanding. The story, adapted from the play "The Mud Turtle" by Elliott Lester, is compelling and engrossing. The acting is emotional and effective, and the cinematography is breathtaking. In spite of the exceptionality of the film, it wasn't a success at the time of its release. However, that can likely be explained by the fact that the version we are seeing today is as director F.W. Murnau intended - a gloriously beautiful silent narrative. Unfortunately, what the audiences saw in 1930 was a bastardized version that had talkie sequences added and comedy inserted -- all after Murnau refused to make any changes to his silent creation. But more about the release later.
"City Girl" is actually two essentially contrasting parts. The first part is sweet romance - naïve, country-bred Lem arrives in the city to sell the family's wheat crop and he subsequently falls in love with Kate, a city-wise waitress in a lunch counter restaurant that is the proverbial beehive of activity with the next customer pushing the first from the stool as soon as he's finished eating. This romance of a country boy and a city girl is the basis for much discussion about parallels between "City Girl" and "Sunrise," both Murnau-directed with two other Murnau-directed films for Fox wedged in between. Each story has a male character who is from the country, ill-prepared for the ways of the city, and a city girl with whom the country boy is enamored. As in "Sunrise," Murnau presents an intense picture of city life with its hustle and bustle, but it's not a depiction as one would expect - a city rife with evil contrasting markedly with a life in the country filled with virtue. As Adrian Danks points out in the DVD's liner notes, "It is through Kate that we experience the continuity of the city and country in 'City Girl,' the archetypes of perception and oppression, and the parallel social structures and prejudices that fuel both worlds. The film relies upon stereotypes, prejudices and entrenched value systems to define character behavior - typical of Murnau - and refuses to view either the city or country as havens of domestic or romantic harmony." (1) As for parallels between "Sunrise" and "City Girl," yes, there are some; however, the "city girl" in "Sunrise" (played by Margaret Livingston) and Kate in "City Girl," as well as the male leads (George O'Brien in "Sunrise" and Charles Farrell in "City Girl") are entirely different.
The character difference in "City Girl" is what makes the first third of the film so charming. Kate is beaten down by the incessant demands of her job, the heat of the city, the clamor of the multitudes, and the starkness of her existence. Murnau depicts this starkness well in Kate's near-bare room, her only joy being a sickly-looking potted plant that she waters tenderly and a mechanical bird in a cage. Outside her window are the typical el train running by her upstairs window and the on-off again flashing of neon signs. Then, along comes Lem. She and a friend can't believe their eyes - this is actually a customer who says a prayer before he eats. Charmed by his innocence and refreshing personality, she (and he) look forward to his daily visits to the restaurant during the time he's in the city. However, unlike Livingston's character in "Sunrise," Kate is truly falling in love. And Lem, unlike O'Brien's character in "Sunrise," is not being unfaithful to a wife or anyone else. His love is genuine and faithful.
It is this winsome romance that actually intensifies the stark contrast we are about to see when she and Lem arrive back at the farm as husband and wife. For the rest of the film, David Torrence as the Tustine patriarch provides one of the most intensely despicable portrayals since his brother Ernest's role as Luke Hatburn in "Tol'able David" (1921). He is a stern taskmaster, undisputed master of his home, and, although he strokes the family Bible in a respectful and loving manner, his "god" is the wheat - it is his livelihood, the foundation of his existence. Murnau emphasizes this fanatical obsession with the wheat in a scene where the young daughter picks a few small stalks as if they were flowers. Seeing this, he snatches them from her hands berating her angrily - although there is wheat in the fields as far as one can see. Then he goes back inside the house, caressing the wheat, and placing the stalks inside the large family Bible, closing it on them as if pressing leaves. When Kate arrives, the young girl presents her with a "bridal bouquet" of wheat. This time, Tustine threatens to beat the girl if she does this again - then takes the wheat stalks and, again, places them tenderly and almost lovingly inside the Bible -- almost as if the wheat deserves the respect and love that he gives to God's Word.
As noted, the first part of the story revolves around the romance; however, we are introduced to Tustine and the iron hand with which he rules his household in an intensely emotional scene. As noted, Lem's purpose in going to the city was to sell their wheat - the first time his father has trusted him to do this. He demands that Lem not sell for under $1.15 a bushel. However, on the day he arrives, wheat is selling for $1.14 -- and continues to drop. After watching a continuous decline in price over his time in the city, he decides he must sell at $1.12 before the price drops even lower. Lem fears his father, and, because of his decision, he is particularly apprehensive about returning home. All of this is woven into the budding romance of the young couple in order to set the stage - and our concerns about Lem's reception when he returns home.
However, this is secondary to his joy in marrying Kate. The two are wed at the last minute and head for home. Unfortunately, he is not prepared for the reception his father is going to give Kate. When Tustine receives a telegram from Lem with the news, he tells his wife, "Good girls ain't that free and easy about gettin' married. The boy's been roped in."
"City Girl" is certainly not a one-dimensional story. There is Tustine's obstinate refusal to accept Kate and his ill treatment of her - going so far as to strike her down when she stands up to him, a emotional and shocking scene for the viewer. At his mother's urging, Lem does not confront his father about this which creates a strain on the newly married couple to the point that Lem sleeps in the barn loft with the harvesters, and he and Kate are not speaking. The harvesters add another dimension to the story as their foreman, Mac, takes a liking to Kate and raises our misgivings as he flirts, leers, and attempts to be alone with her. The story continues to escalate in suspense as a hailstorm is predicted to arrive that would destroy the entire crop. Tustine offers to pay double for overtime if the harvesters will work through the night. Mac comes into the house later that evening with a cut hand. As Kate bandages it, he takes the opportunity to try and convince her to leave the misery she is in and run away with him. Of course, Kate will have no part of this, but, unfortunately, Tustine walks in on this and announces he will find Lem and tell him what kind of wife he has. Murnau has brought multiple conflicts in the story to a culmination that promises and delivers suspense, action, and excitement for a rousing climax.
Farrell and Duncan receive much-deserved praise in regards to this film; however, a virtual unknown, Richard "Dick" Alexander as Mac delivers a performance that is perfect in execution, free of histrionics or facial contortions, and effectively incites the desired emotions from the viewer. Alexander is spot-on perfect for the role of Mac whose cockiness, refusal to be intimidated and braggadocio in forcing himself on Kate are appropriately despicable for Lem's nemesis. Few silent movie fans would recognize his name although he made appearances in "Docks of New York" (1928), "Rio Rita" (1929), "The Mysterious Lady" (1929) and "Modern Times" (1936). In all, he appeared in over 300 films and TV shows in his career, but he was always the character actor and almost always the bad guy. (2)
Few films offer us two meanies in one movie, but "City Girl" comes through with both Alexander's character of Mac and, more prominently, David Torrence's role as the cruel, self-righteous father. He is a large man, and his scowl is evident throughout the movie - not forced, but very natural and intimidating. (Interesting, a candid shot in the liner notes shows Farrell, Duncan, Murnau and Torrrence posing for the camera between takes with that same scowl exhibited on Torrence's face.) His unquestioned mastery of his home is a sore point for the viewer as we constantly want to see Lem stand up to his father and for his wife -- particularly after Tustine strikes her. Because of the conflict between Kate and Tustine, Duncan's character actually takes center stage for the larger part of the film. With her refusal to live as wife to her husband, Murnau focuses on her ordeals with Tustine and Mac. However, there are moments when we see clearly that she loves her husband but refuses to condone his inability to stand up to his father. For example, she and Lem's young sister take a wagon out to the field to feed the harvesters. Lem goes off alone and sulks. Seeing this, Kate prepares a plate of food and sends it over with the young girl - a gesture that indicates, although she may not be speaking to him, she still loves cares for him deeply.
Without a doubt, Farrell gets far more attention from historians for his pairings with Janet Gaynor in "Seventh Heaven" (1927), "Street Angel" (1928) and several other Fox films, a total of 12 together. However, his two pairings with Duncan - "City Girl" and "The River" (1928) - are of a different style with far more sexiness and eroticism apparent - in great part due to Duncan's good looks that oozed seductiveness. When she stands on a stool in the restaurant and the tops of her stockings are visible, we can understand why the male customers are wide-eyed. When Lem comes into her room one night, she's in her slip, and he tells her they can't go on this way, there's a certain eroticism to the scene as she tries to cover herself, and it's obvious he's experiencing a young husband's urgings for his wife. In trying to fight him off, she runs from the room - he in pursuit of her - only to encounter Mac standing in the main room of the small clapboard house smugly puffing his cigarette and smirking in delight at what he sees. Duncan also plays the tough girl part well, too, standing up to Tustine, reacting violently at his accusations about "the kind of girl" she is, and not being intimidated at Mac's advances. When all seems at its worst, he offers to help her "get back at" Tustine. She exhibits her strong will and independence by angrily telling him, "I don't want anything from you! I can fight for myself!"
It is difficult to express in words what the cinematography means to this film - lighting and shade used to the utmost effectiveness, stunning visuals of the countryside, and excellent depiction of bustling city life with low camera angles and tracking shots. In the farm scenes, there's a certain somberness in the Tustine home at night as it is lit only by kerosene lamp . . . and Murnau uses this to advantage. For example, Kate is bandaging Mac's hand. The moment is tense because Mac is trying to convince her to leave (will she??) and we can't help but wonder if someone will walk in and misunderstand the situation (which, of course, happens). Their faces are lit by the kerosene lamp from the left, slightly below, with darkness in the background, just as one would expect. For contrast, we see beautiful panoramic shots of the harvesters running the combine in the fields - layers of wheat with sunlight at an angle to highlight the hills rising above the stalks in the background. As a matter of fact, Murnau never lets us forget about the wheat and its centrality to the story for everywhere one goes outdoors, there are wide expanses of wheat fields - so much wheat that it grows right up to the house and requires a path through it to get to the front door. There is a metaphor for the film's original title, "Our Daily Bread," in the film that emphasizes the importance of the wheat while, at the same time, emphasizing the contrast of life on the farm and in the city. After saying grace before a meal, Tustine takes a loaf of bread from the table, holds it to his chest and begins to slice it with a knife. The scene fades out and into a close-up of a bread-slicing machine in the restaurant that spits out a slice of break almost every second. Certainly the cinematography and direction in this film exemplify the pinnacle of silent cinema.
As mentioned earlier, Murnau and the studio did not agree on how the film should be released. Keep in mind "City Girl" was filmed in 1929, and studio bosses were scurrying to transition as much of their product to sound as possible. Because of this, viewers in 1930 did not get to see "City Girl" as it was originally intended. In a Films in Review article on Charles Farrell, DeWitt Bodeen explains. "Murnau refused to reshoot portions of it with dialogue so that it could be released as a part-talkie called 'City Girl,' and two lesser directors staged some talking sequences that can only be described as deplorable. Although both Farrell and Miss Duncan were excellent in the major silent sequences that Murnau had directed, the picture was critically condemned and few ever got a chance to see it." (3)
Endnotes in the America Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films explain further. "Filmed on location in Pendleton, Oregon. Working title: 'Our Daily Bread.' In the sound version, much greater emphasis is placed upon the attempted seduction of the wife by the foreman and the father's antagonism. Following the fight scene, the husband forces the beaten foreman to apologize to his wife and confess that all the advances were on his side (not in the silent version - SAG). The sequence of the father shooting at his son is missing in the sound version. Murnau was relieved of directorial duties before completion of the film, and the subsequent ending, along with various 'comic relief' scenes interjected throughout." (4)
The mention that Murnau was relieved of directorial duties before the film was finished is incorrect because the version that we see today's is regarded as the "director's cut" - the silent version Murnau intended his audiences to see. How ironic is it that for once, the present day audiences are seeing a silent film as it was originally shot and intended by the director, and the audiences of that time did not. The absolutely gorgeous print that we have on Blu-Ray DVD is a restored 1080p high-definition 20th Century Fox restoration of the silent version. Eureka's liner notes state, "For this Masters of Cinema Series Blu-Ray edition, we encoded the HD master in 1080p AVC format on a BD25. Heartened by Fox's U.S. release of this master without any heavy-handed digital restoration, we decided against HD-DVNR, MTI, other forms of digital restoration, or grain removal, after tests revealed noticeable disruption of the tonal quality belonging to the film image in many scenes. . .The level of damage still present is exactly what you would see if you were to project this same 35mm film restoration theatrically." (5)
The 2011 Dual Format edition of "City Girl" provides both the Blu-Ray and regular DVD versions. The Blu-Ray is advertised on Amazon for "all regions" and played well on my Denon DVD-2500BTCI, although the regular DVD version did not. Included is a handsome 26-page booklet with a 2003 article by Adrian Danks, Head of Cinema Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and filled with stills and candid shots.
The score by Christopher Caliendo uses a variety of instruments, and the judicious use of violin in the country scenes adds the right flavor to this rural setting. The film is also provided with audio commentary by David Kalat.
1. Danks, Adrian. "Reaching Beyond the Frame." Senses of Cinema. 2003. (reprinted in "City Girl" DVD liner notes)
2. "Richard Alexander." Internet Movie Database.
3. Bodeen, DeWitt. "Charles Farrell." Films in Review. October 1976.
4. "City Girl." American Film Institute Catalog: Feature Films 1921-1930.
5. "City Girl" DVD liner notes. 2011.
Copyright 2014 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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