Fox Film Corporation
Cast: George O'Brien (the husband), Janet Gaynor (the wife), Margaret Livingston (the woman from the city), Bodil Rosing (the maid), J. Farrell MacDonald (the photographer), Ralph Sipperly (the barber), Jane Winton (the manicurist), Arthur Housman (the flirt)
A young farmer is enamored of a city woman who has come to his village. Although he has a wife and young baby, he meets the city woman, who has been vacationing there for a few weeks, on the sly, at night, out in the fields. She convinces him that he should kill his wife, sell the farm and come to the city with her. Obviously distressed by this, the farmer reluctantly agrees and suggests to his wife that they take their small sailboat across the lake to the city. As they cross the lake, it becomes clear to the wife what her husband's intentions are, but at the last moment, he can't go through with it. When they reach the shore on the other side of the lake, she runs from him. He chases after her imploring her not to be afraid of him. Gradually, she is consoled, and they have a delightful day and evening in the city eating out, going to the amusement park and more. However, on the way back to their village, a severe storm comes up, overturns their boat, and the farmer barely makes it to shore . . . but where is his wife? He and all of the villagers search for her in the darkness, while the city woman watches from a distance - waiting to see if their plan will be realized.
Generally, "Sunrise" receives unlimited praise for its direction and cinematography. For example, Welford Beaton in The Film Spectator (Vol. 4, No. 9, December 24, 1927) said, "Sunrise in some respects marks the farthest spot the screen has reached in it progress as a developing art. F.W. Murnau, the director, and Charles Rosher, the chief cameraman, are the heroes. A great deal of the direction is inspired, and all of the photography is of a quality that gives the screen a new dignity as an art."
However, critics almost always temper their praise with reserved kudos for the story. As Beaton goes on to say, "As an object to dissect in a screen clinic, 'Sunrise' is a masterpiece; as a motion picture, it is not great."
From a more recent perspective, Martyn Auty commented in Movies of the Silent Years (edited by David Robinson and Ann Lloyd Orbis Publishing Limited, London, 1984), "It could hardly be argued that the plot - however much the viewer identifies with the protagonists - is anything but the flimsiest of frameworks . . . existing merely to contain Murnau's artistic experimentation in a format (namely melodrama) easily accessible to audiences."
Agreed, the storyline for "Sunrise" may be open to some criticisms - but in this case, "flimsiness" is like beauty - it's in the eye of the beholder. "Sunrise" is a sensitive and timeless story about emotions, the psychology of human nature, the fragility of marriage, the forces around us that act against our better judgment, the complexity of the human psyche . . . difficult topics for a director to tackle (which, by the way, Murnau handles superbly). The fact that these are not new topics or uncharted territories for filmmakers - even in 1927 - doesn't make the story "flimsy."
For example, O'Brien has received much criticism for his brooding, hunched over characterization - referred to by some as an "apelike" appearance. However, who can define the appearance and manner of a man who is acting out behaviors he is (at least in his mind) powerless to control - behaviors that cause him mental anquish because of the guilt he bears? As the story plays out, it's obvious he does love his wife, but he is a victim of his own humanness - and his sensibilities are not at peace with it.
On one end of the spectrum, there exists in this world the type of man who would be totally incapable of such behavior, yet, on the other end, there exists the man who very easily can be deceitful to his wife and feel no remorse whatsoever. Is there no in-between. . . and where does the husband in "Sunrise" fit in this spectrum? And if we accept this as true, is the storyline labeled as "flimsy" because it's about a human condition that is all too common?
Murnau provides us with a perfect example of the mental warfare taking place within the husband when the city woman first suggests that he drown his wife. "Sell your farm - come with me to the city," she urges him.
". . . and my wife"?
"Couldn't she get drowned?"
At first appalled at her suggestion, the husband pushes the woman away, but she is undeterred - persistent in her attempts to put her arms around him. His anger is aroused to the point that he tries to choke her, but she continues to force her affections on him, eventually calming him with a passionate kiss. The man weakens and is convinced to commit the heinous crime. What is this power that she has over him - particularly when we see that his "gut" reaction to such a dastardly deed is revulsion? Is this unbelievable or even melodramatic? No, it's human - at least for this individual.
True, the story does not impress us with originality. One could say that it's a variation on the old World War I song, "How are you gonna keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen Gay Paree?" The "rube" is dazzled by the city woman and the prospect of a more exciting life in the city than he has in his dull, monotonous village. Nothing new there. However, the greatness of this story lies in its presentation. Most of us would agree that "Romeo and Juliet" is possibly the greatest love story ever written, but there are at least a couple of earlier sources that Shakespeare drew from to write this story. Why don't we revere the earlier versions, which Shakespeare essentially plagiarized, as much as we do his version? It's because Shakespeare, through the beauty of language and skill in presenting the story, made it much greater than it ever was by its previous creators.
Murnau, although not to be compared with Shakespeare, deserves credit for a great motion picture - without caveats about the weakness of the story. Actually, the opposite should be true. Because the story lacks strength, Murnau deserves greater praise for creating the masterpiece that he did. After all, what's important is how we feel after walking away from a viewing of the film. Does anyone feel "cheated" because the film doesn't have the strongest of storylines? I doubt it. Most walk away thinking how beautiful this film is - not just in cinematography, but as a whole.
The beauty of the cinematography and sets are worthy of all of the praise that has been heaped upon them. One of the best is the meadow at night - the secret rendezvous of the illicit lovers. The man slips through the countryside outside the village during a night that is illumined by a full moon in the distance, the tall grass and tree limbs forming a charcoal frame to the image. The somberness of the set only enhances the illicitness of this meeting.
Murnau speaks to us through the visual rather with a masterful touch. One of the best, yet easily overlooked, scenes in the movie is when the city woman and the man are lying in the grassy field at night. A vision of the city appears in the dark sky above them. This is not a simple matter of two people dreaming about the city - this is what the man imagines the city to be like from as the city woman tells him of its greatness, beauty and excitement. Many writers have commented on the "futuristic" look of the city. Murnau, however, wasn't trying to present a "futuristic" city to us - he was showing us how these simple country folk saw the city. The effect would have been lost if Murnau had created a a more realistic city as it would really look in 1927.
However, the city set is just as impressive and awe-inspiring as the country sets are simple and beautiful. The sense of busyness, activity, movement - organized chaos, if you will - is presented effectively - just as it should appear to a couple from the country, unfamiliar with this lifestyle. Of course, the sheer size of the city is awesome to the husband and wife. Murnau has received many plaudits for his use of forced perspective to make the city appear larger than it really was - reducing the scale of buildings gradually as they stretched toward the back of the set and even using midgets in the background so they would seem to be at a greater distance from the camera than they really were. William K. Everson gave an example of how well the sets were done in his book, American Silent Film (Oxford University Press, 1978). "It is amazing how often film students, so completely caught up in the film's spell, ask whether the city was a studio creation or shot on location.
Other scenes during this portion of the film - the amusement park, the barber shop, the restaurant - all very modern - and, yes, "futuristic." Again, Murnau was allowing us to see the city as the peasants - the husband and wife - would see it. Yet, in spite of this modernistic setting, it appears that all of the husband's joy comes from things that have ties back to his life in the country. For example, a pig gets loose from one of the amusement park games, and the husband runs through the crowd and into the restaurant before he is able to catch it. The crowd applauds him for his success, and he feels great pride at his accomplishment. The dance he and his wife enjoy so much is danced - not coincidentally - to a tune entitled "The Peasant Dance" - just as they would have danced on a Saturday night in their rural village. And, without a doubt, the happiness of the day existed because the husband shared it with his wife. Notice the scene in the photographer's studio. They are supposed to pose for the camera, but while the photographer is loading the plates, they can't keep from looking lovingly into each other's eyes and then kissing. Appropriately, the photograph is taken of this tender moment rather than of a stiff, unnatural pose. No, their delight does not come from the activities in which they engage during their time in the city, but in the time they spend with each other.
Both O'Brien and Gaynor are perfect for their roles, and, although Gaynor had been given the opportunity to display her abilities in "Seventh Heaven" prior to this film, O'Brien had never had such an opportunity and proved himself to be equal to the task. He conveys the misery of a tortured soul very effectively through the use of his body, a judicious use of facial expressions and an absence of overly-animated gesticulations.
O'Brien was originally scheduled for the part of Chico in "Seventh Heaven" when Murnau spotted him and wanted him for the part of the husband in "Sunrise." Winfield Sheehan, then in charge of Fox's production, pulled O'Brien from "Seventh Heaven" and informed him he was now assigned to Murnau.
In an article entitled, "George O'Brien: One of the Top Stars of Westerns Was Also the Star of 'Sunrise'" in Films in Review (November, 1962 ), author David Martin said, "No other director got a performance out of O'Brien comparable to the one he gave in 'Sunrise.' Chiefly because, perhaps, O'Brien never again had a chance to interpret a script by so good a writer as Carl Mayer, under the guidance of a mind so subtle as Murnau's."
Gaynor, in spite of a bad wig, also gave a superb performance. She adeptly elicits our sympathy when, fully aware of his infidelity, she sees her husband go out the door to meet his lover. During the crossing of the lake in their small boat, we share in her fear when she realizes her husband is about to kill her. Her reaction to the safety of land as she runs from her husband when their boat reaches the city is real, and when she revels in the joy of her husband's love during the happy time in the city, how can the viewer not love her, too?
Of the scene in the boat when her husband moves toward her like a hulking monster, the Harrison's Reports reviewer said, "The face of the heroine at the time she guesses the purpose for which her husband had asked her to take the boat trip with him is such that her thoughts could not have been described more clearly if she had used words. It is a revelation of deep psychology to the highest degree."
He went on to say, "The characters are more life-like, more vivid than even real human beings. Their thoughts, their emotions, appear on their faces crystal clear. . . Miss Gaynor, as the young heroine, has never done as good work. . . The same thing may be said of George O'Brien."
Not everyone agreed about the quality of the actors' work. Beaton felt O'Brien's portrayal was "monotone" and said he wasn't "moved" by any of Gaynor's scenes. However, he did have praise for Margaret Livington, who, most certainly gave an effective performance. "One thing I like about ('Sunrise') is the opportunity it gives Margaret Livingston to do something worthy of her ability," Beaton sad. "She is a splendid actress, but has not been given many chances to prove it."
"Sunrise" is not a film for everyone. It is meant for those who appreciate the beauty of a masterfully created visual image, accept the fragility of human nature, and still believe the age-old maxim that love conquers all.
According to Everson, "'Sunrise' must be one of the very few films clearly intended and mathematically planned as a 'prestige' and 'art' production all the way, which still comes off with warmth, humanity, and seeming spontaneity . . . The poignancy and humanity of some sequences of 'Sunrise' has never been surpassed in any movie, sound or silent . . ."
Fortunately, the original Movietone score survives today, and even for the silent movie purist, this is a welcome addition. Yes, some sound effects are used, but in a way that is intended to complement the story, not dazzle the audiences of the time with the new capabilities to synchronize sound. As the Variety (September 28, 1927) reviewer said, "Nor should be neglected credit as a detail contributing vastly to a satisfying whole, the accompaniment of the Movietone. Here is a sound obligato that contributes subtly to the effect of sigh drama instead of detracting from the essential pantomime by its distracting blare. Here the incidental music blends smoothly, suggesting the mood of the scene, but without intruding into the conscientiousness."
Copyright 2007 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Dean Thompson for his contributions to this commentary.
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