Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stubs - Sunrise

SUNRISE (1927) AKA SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor Margaret Livingston. Directed by F.W. Murnau. Written by Carl Meyer. Story by: Hermann Sudermann. Produced by William Fox. Run Time: 95 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Silent, Drama

Anyone who has been to Hollywood and Highland or who has knowledge of the Academy Awards will tell you that the first film to win Best Picture was WINGS (1927) a World War I actioner starring It girl Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen and a very young Gary Cooper. However, that first Academy Awards, held in 1929, had two categories for the top films: Best Picture and something they no longer give: Best Picture: Unique and Artistic Production. While WINGS is renowned for its realistic flying sequences, it is by and large a forgotten film. It is the only best picture film not to be released on DVD.

SUNRISE on the other hand is still considered a classic. Made by F.W. Murnau, SUNRISE clearly has its roots in German Expressionism, a post-world war I movement that used symbolism and mise en scene (design) to add mood and deeper meaning to a film. Because money was tight in the Weimar Republic, German directors were forced to develop their own style, rather than try and compete with the films coming out of Hollywood. Murnau, best known for his Dracula adaptation, NOSFERATU (1922) and THE LAST LAUGH (1924) starring Emil Jennings, was one of Germany’s most influential silent era directors and a prominent German expressionist. In 1926, William Fox, invited Murnau to come to America and the result is SUNRISE.

The plot of the movie is slight melodramatic. A Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), travels to the countryside on vacation and meets the Man (George O’Brien). The two have an affair right under the nose of the Wife (Janet Gaynor). The Woman tells the Man to sell the farm and come back to the city with her. The Wife, the Woman suggests, can be drowned in the lake and made to look like an accident. While the Man protests, he ultimately capitulates.

The Wife suspects nothing when the Man suggests a trip to the City. However, she grows suspicious of her husband’s motives when he stands up menacingly in the boat to throw her overboard, but stops when he realizes he can’t go through with it. When the boat lands on shore, the Wife flees.

She catches a trolley to get away, but the Man catches it, too. In the City, she runs into traffic only to be saved by her husband. Slowly, as the walk through the City, the Wife forgives her husband. He buys her flowers; they go to a church and watch a wedding. The Man breaks down finally and the two of them have reconciliation. After which they only have eyes for each other.

They wander through the City doing rather mundane stuff. They get their photograph taken, he gets a haircut, they go to an amusement park, they play a game in the Midway and they dance. When darkness comes, they jump on a trolley to begin the journey back home.

On the lake, their lazy moonlight trip home is disrupted by a sudden and violent storm that capsizes the boat. The Man wakes up on shore, but there is no wife around. He gets help from the townspeople and they search the lake for her, but only find a broken bushel of reeds that he had wrapped around her.

The Man goes home to cry for his loss. But the Woman from the City, thinking her plan has worked, goes to the Man’s house. But instead of finding an accomplice in crime, she instead finds the Man grieving for his Wife. Instead a warm embrace, he has a murderous rage and chases her down. When his hands are around her neck, the Maid calls out that his wife is alive. She had survived by holding onto the reeds and had been pulled from the lake by a fisherman.

As Sunrise comes, the Man and the Wife are a loving couple and the Woman from the City leaves town on a cart.

The acting, despite Janet Gaynor’s Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, is a bit wooden. And the wig that Gaynor wears throughout is almost laughable. But it is not the acting or costume design that sets this film apart.

It is the style of the film and especially the cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. The tracking shots are very impressive, with one of them lasting over four minutes. The most impressive to me was the shot when the Man is going to meet the Woman by the Lake. The camera starts out trailing after him and ends up in front.

Also, the use of sets. Not only did Murnau spend a lot on the sets for The City, but he made it seem even larger through the use of forced perspective. As an example, in the foreground will be normal-sized people and normal-sized sets, but in the background are little people and smaller sets.

Another thing that is noticeable is the infrequent title cards. Silent films and their audiences had developed a certain sophistication in story telling that did not require a title card for every piece of dialogue for the plot to be followed.

Watching SUNRISE is seeing an art form at its pinnacle right before it becomes obsolete. The same year SUNRISE was released, Warner Bros. released THE JAZZ SINGER and talkies became the rage. It would take Hollywood several years to regroup and in the meantime the artistry of films would also suffer. Some might say it never has fully recovered.

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