US Release Date: 11-04-1927
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
- George O'Brien, as
- The Man
- Janet Gaynor, as
- The Wife
- Margaret Livingston, as
- The Woman From the City
- Bodil Rosing, as
- The Maid
- J. Farrell MacDonald, as
- The Photographer
- Ralph Sipperly, as
- The Barber
- Jane Winton, as
- The Manicure Girl
- Arthur Housman, as
- The Obtrusive Gentleman
- Eddie Boland as
- The Obliging Gentleman
George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise.
Sunrise is a silent movie masterpiece by German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau. It was the Nosferatu director's first movie he made after arriving in Hollywood. It was released around the same time as The Jazz Singer and -although it was one of the first feature films to have a soundtrack of music and sound effects- it failed to find an audience that had just gotten their first taste of Talking Pictures. It was critically acclaimed right from the start, however, and is today considered to represent the absolute apex of the silent movie art form.
As the movie begins a simple farmer is being tempted by a big city vamp to drown his wife and run off to the city with her. Elements of this plot were used back in 1915 in the Fox movie starring Theda Bara called A Fool There Was and later in 1951's A Place in the Sun. In a nutshell a bad woman attempts to lead a gullible man down the path of self destruction using sex as a weapon. It's a plot device as simple and old as time itself. Sunrise is unique in the fact that it begins with the temptation and deals mostly with what comes after.
What makes the movie so memorable is the manner in which it was filmed. Murnau was a master of the German Expressionist style which was famous for using art design to create symbolic effects on the screen. He also cleverly utilized double exposures as well as long tracking shots. The scenes in the city were filmed on a vast, elaborate set that cost a then unheard of 200,000 dollars to build.
George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor play the unnamed Man and Wife. Although they both give riveting performances it is interesting to note the differences in their styles of acting. O'Brien plays it big and dramatic with many silent movie mannerisms. But he is very effective at conveying the Man's moods. He runs the gamut from sinister, to sullen, to guilt ridden, to joyous, to despondent, to murderous. He was a physically imposing man and that works well for the story. Gaynor (in a blonde wig) plays it smaller but like O'Brien she has to play a wide range of emotions. For her work in this film as well as two others (Seventh Heaven and Street Angel) she won the very first Best Actress Oscar (at that first ceremony, in the spring of 1929, the Academy gave statuettes for the best body of work in the year and not for a single performance).
Words cannot really do this movie justice. It is visually unique and remains an impressive monument to the silent movie art form. As technically innovative as it was it wouldn't be nearly so revered and well-remembered if it didn't tell a universal and emotionally devastating story. I won't give away the ending but the movie really takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride through a visually amazing cinematic landscape. At just over 90 minutes it is also one of the more accessible silent melodramas.
The arrival of sound, with it's need for microphones, limited the mobility of the camera. Stylistically those early talkies lacked the freedom of movement that silent movies had enjoyed and perfected. In 1927 movies like this one, as well as Metropolis and Wings, demonstrated a sophisticated level of camera movement and special effects that wouldn't be matched until the early 1930s. For anyone that has never watched a silent movie, or for those people who have only ever seen silent comedies, Sunrise is the perfect introduction to the silent drama. Murnau set up the composition of each shot so specifically and artistically that from beginning to end Sunrise embodies the true meaning of the term Motion Picture.
Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien in Sunrise
I concur with Patrick that the direction is quite good. I kept thinking it looked like it was filmed some five-ten years later. Murnau creates a brilliant setting. Whether in the small village, on the water or in the big city, you feel like you are there, even though it is a silent black and white film. As good as that aspect is, this story could have been told in one third the time it is.
Sunrise begins at a snail’s pace. Within the first 30 minutes we meet a married man who is having an affair with a woman who wants him to kill his wife and run away with her. The next 30 minutes is a date between the man and wife. This section is faster paced and contains some humor but, again, not a lot happens. The final third of the film is a boat ride and the conclusion. It has a dramatic storm and some emotional tension, but I hated the ending.
This guy has an affair on his wife. He seriously considers killing her and abandoning their child to run off with a vamp. Through their date he realizes that he loves her and makes every effort to save her from the storm. I never bought it.
No matter how much fun they had together at the fair, it does not erase the fact that he came extremely close to drowning her. I think someone seriously threatening to kill me over rides a fun night on the town. This is pure hokum.
Patrick spoke of the acting and Gaynor is as dull as rain water. Her reaction to the knowledge that her husband is running off to have sex with another woman is pathetic. No wonder he is having an affair. His wife is lifeless. He has to pay her a ton of attention and spend plenty of money on her before she comes around. The city girl gives it up just by him showing up in the woods.
George O'Brien in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
My opinion is closer to Eric's. Technically and visually this movie was groundbreaking and ahead of its time. The story, however, isn't nearly as sophisticated as the filmmaking techniques.
By 1925, German director F.W. Murnau was one of the most in-demand directors in the world. American studios lined up to bring him to Hollywood and it was considered a coup for Fox Studios when William Fox was the one to sign him up to his first American film. Fox was so intent on signing the German artiste that they promised him nearly unlimited creative control. Although now considered one of the greatest silent films ever produced, you have to wonder how much executives at the studio would come to regret that offer when the costs started mounting. As Patrick mentioned, the city set cost $200 thousand ($2.5 million in today's money) and when Murnau needed dry ground to get the right dust effect, he put the production on hold, including keeping 3,000 extras on the payroll for 3 extra days, while they waited for things to dry out. He also kept the props department busy churning out skewed sets and furniture to create the forced perspectives so essential to Murnau's mise-en-scene.
Murnau's artistry is undeniable. His highly stylized techniques give the film a dreamlike quality. Although Fox forced him to use a few title cards when he didn't want to use any, you could easily remove the few there are without losing one bit of the story. The soundtrack features sound effects, but this is truly the most silent of silent films in that no dialogue is needed to tell the tale. One always needs to keep in mind when watching a movie like this is that everything was done in front of the camera. Today, of course, computers can create any camera movement needed, but in 1927 when the actors moved through a set made up look like a swamp and the director wanted the camera to track their movements, something creative was called for. In the case of this film, the solution meant hanging the camera from rails on the ceilings so the camera could glide through the reeds.
While no detail of the production was overlooked, the story itself is just a simple morality tale. The plot was based on the short story, The Journey to Tilsit, although it took some liberties with the original tale. Murnau and scriptwriter Carl Mayer didn't want to end with a tragedy as the story did, so instead of having the husband ironically drown at the film's end after planning the drowning of his wife at the beginning, they wanted the story to end with the world in balance once more with the city woman returning to the city and the country couple returning to the countryside as the sun rose.
Like Eric, I had difficulty believing that a woman whose husband was on the verge of murdering her on the behest of his mistress, would so easily forgive him. Also like Eric, I found Gaynor to be incredibly dull. She's a simpleton who tends the baby while her husband openly cheats on her and then forgives him after he buys her flowers and never mind about that murder business.
One distinction this movie holds is that at the very first Academy Awards ceremony it won the Oscar for Unique and Artistic Production. The one and only time that Oscar was given. It was intended to be of equal prestige with the Best Picture Oscar, but having two such awards seemed redundant and it was dropped before the next awards were given. Given the Academy's tendency to give the Best Picture Oscar to a critical darling instead of a crowd pleaser, perhaps it's about time they brought this award back so it can be given to the film deemed the most artistic while the Best Picture award can go to films that audiences actually want to see.
Photos © Copyright Fox Film Corporation (1927)