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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Ring a Ding Ding

Sunrise (1927)

     After much procrastination, I finally decided this weekend that I had the necessary energy and focus to sit down with a silent film. I was drawn to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans because it was directed by F.W. Murnau, who is famous for The Last Laugh  (a silent starring Emil Jannings that features only one intertitle near the film’s close) and Nosferatu among others made in his homeland of Germany.

     I was pleasantly surprised to find Sunrise a rather riveting silent film. The story is of “the man” (George O’Brien) and “the wife” (Janet Gaynor) and the meddling of “the woman from the city” (Margaret Livingston). The man, a farmer, has been drawn away from his wife by the exotic city woman who has made an extended stay of her visit in the country. Desiring to be together, the urban lady convinces the man to do away with his wife so they can live in the metropolis . “Couldn’t she get … drowned?” the vixen asks, initially prompting an violent outburst from the man.

     The man lures his wife onto a boat trip where he plans to topple the vessel. In a highly dramatic and frightening moment, the man stands in the boat, hands in a pre-strangle stance, as his wife leans backwards in utter horror, able to read all too well the intention on his face. The man, however, does not go through with the plot and instead rows them to land on the opposite side of the lake. The wife flees onto a trolley, but the man follows her as she exits into the city and wanders about totally distraught. The man is trying to win her over, now finding he loves his wife, but the woman is dismayed at discovering the man she thought loved her, and again insists as much, intended to murder her. Eventually, after sitting in on a wedding, the two rekindle their feelings and head out for a glorious day on the town.

     Rowing back across the lake by moonlight –a second honeymoon– all seems perfect for the couple until a dreadful storm picks up. The winds and rain obstruct the vessel from reaching home and it appears as though the man’s original plot to stage an accidental drowning might bring itself to fruition. He had stashed two bundles of bulrushes in the boat to buoy himself to safety under the original plan, but instead ties them to his wife. SPOILER ALERT After the storm we find the man clinging to a rock on the shore, and he immediately sends for a rescue party. The woman from the city is woken by the commotion and watches the search from a tree, thinking her lover has done just as he was assigned. After finding loose, floating bulrushes, the man assumes the worst and makes his way to the city lady, whom he begins to strangle. In time to stop him is the news that the wife has been found and is alive.

     Sunrise is a rather surprising story about the ups and downs –the sunrises and sunsets– all humans endure. I was certainly duped at the start into thinking this would be a movie about a murder and whatever consequences or regrets would follow it. Instead, the man transforms himself from the monster towering menacingly over his intended victim, to the supremely doting husband. The acting is fantastic as one both trembles at the terror the wife exudes and the evil the man does during that moment when he considers offing her. The two actors do an equally outstanding job of conveying the extreme affection they feel towards one another later on, illustrating polar extremes of emotion.

     The movie features a unique “soundtrack.” There is no spoken dialogue, but sound effects mimicking train whistles, pig oinks and even legitimate crowd commotion at a carnival give the impression one is watching a talkie. Murnau never made a talking picture, and Sunrise would be the first Fox picture with a recorded soundtrack.

     Murnau came to America specifically to film Sunrise, but at the time it was not a box office success, so the director was given less freedom on future works and would not climb to the same acclaim in the U.S. that he had earned in Germany. Still, the film won the first and only Oscar for “Unique and Artistic Film,” which was handed out during the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Murnau would make a total of only 21 films before dying in a car accident at age 42.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com


One Response

  1. “Sunrise” is such a great movie! Along with “Wings” and “The Red Lily” it’s one of my favorite silent films.

    I thought it was really sweet and poignant, especially when they dance at the fair together and take wedding portraits.

    Since “Sunrise” and “Wings” both won best picture in 1929, it’s hard for me to decide which is better. They both have such great elements and are hard to compare because they are so different!

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