Film #7 in the Sunday Film Series, an occasional series of important, forgotten, or neglected films. . . or maybe just films we want to talk about—
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (USA, 1927)
Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien in a publicity still from Sunrise
In the late 1920’s, in the halcyon days before the Stock Market Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, William Fox (head of the Fox Film Corporation) was looking to make an artistic impact. Fox had experienced a meteoric rise in the film world since starting his film company in 1915, and he was starting to rival the great early studios. He owned a chain of theaters, had made millions on popular fare (such as the Tom Mix westerns), and was starting to ink deals like the purchase of Broadway’s former Roxy Theater, the Cathedral of the Motion Picture (sadly demolished in 1960). For a moment he was poised to buy out the Loew family’s interest in MGM, which would have changed the landscape of film-making in those days if not for the interference of the Justice Department’s antitrust investigation and the subsequent stock market crash.
William Fox succumbed financially to a triple whammy of ill fortune—the Justice Department’s antitrust investigation, a personal auto accident, and the Stock Market Crash of 1929. He ultimately lost control of his film company and spent several years fighting bankruptcy. He ended up serving 6 months in jail for attempting to bribe a judge during his bankruptcy proceedings. He spent a small fortune trying to enforce his patents to the Movietone sound-on-film system that was instrumental in the transition from silents to talkies, but the courts rebuffed him. He retired from film after his jail sentence and died in relative obscurity. His name lives on, however, in the entertainment world: 20 Century-Fox, Fox News, the Fox Network.
But in the glory days of the late 1920’s, Fox was on top of the world, and he had the luxury to pursue art in the cinema. He became enamored of the great German director F.W. Murnau and lured him to America to give him unprecedented artistic freedom to make the movie of his dreams, which turned out to be Sunrise. Murnau was relatively unknown in America at the time. His legendary vampire film Nosferatu was held up in court by a lawsuit from the Bram Stoker estate (Stoker being the author of the novel Dracula). His great film The Last Laugh hadn’t been released in America yet, but Fox had screened it and deemed it one of the greatest films ever made. Thus, Murnau came to America with a charge to make an artistic film with little to no studio interference, and his entire German apparatus (including his usual favorite screenwriter) virtually intact.
There is no question that Sunrise is a beautiful film. It may seem trite by today’s jaded standards, but the majesty of the film and the primal emotions it portrays have a timeless, parable-like quality. The characters are Everyman characters: The Man, The Wife, The Woman from the City, and so on. The story is simple. A man and his wife live with their baby and housekeeper in a quaint seaside village. The man falls for a vacationing vamp from the big city and contemplates leaving his wife. The vamp persuades him to kill his wife and make it seem like an accidental drowning. When the man takes his wife out on a small boat to do the dirty deed, he cannot bring himself to do it. The wife flees and he chases after her, and they end up travelling together to the city, where they fall into a whirlwind rediscovery of how much they love each other as they take in the sights and sounds of the bustling city. But on the way back to the village in a small boat, a storm whips up, and it looks like she drowned anyway. . .etc.
The performances are classic. George O’Brien is the perfect Everyman, strong but vulnerable. Janet Gaynor is the epitome of girl-next-door. And Margaret Livingston, as the vamp from the city, moves like a snake. Murnau believed that a silent film should tell its own story without an excess of title cards. He achieved that goal in The Last Laugh and Sunrise more than any other of his films. And yet, for all its silence, Sunrise is a masterpiece of early sound-on-film. The soundtrack, using Fox’s patented Movietone system, puts the music into the film like no other film to that date, and even though there is no dialogue, it includes a lot of sound effects (like honking and other city noises). When the Man is calling out for his lost wife on the water after the storm, his voice is the plaintive wail of a horn calling her name, and it is all that much more haunting.
Sunrise won the only Academy Award given for “Unique and Artistic Production” at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. They never offered that award again, but perhaps it would be a good idea to honor art films with such an award. Nowadays, a film has to be nominated as a foreign film to appeal to the same sensibility that gave Sunrise its Oscar (although I should mention that the name Oscar wasn’t applied to the Academy Award until the mid-1930’s, and nobody really knows where the term “Oscar” came from.)