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Carl Mayer, Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell (Theme: Hermann Sudermann)
George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell McDonald, Ralph Sipperly, Jane Winton, Arthur Housman, Eddie Boland
Passed (National Board of Review)
By the end of the 1920s, the silent feature was dead. Sound had moved in for the kill to take over box offices and profits. Unfortunately, silents had just reached a peak of creativity and influence. From the sci-fi classic “Metropolis” to the silent comedy “The Gold Rush,” silents had found their way into a creative and stylistic zenith.
F.W. Murnau was brought to American by Fox to create one of silent film’s greatest masterpieces, “Sunrise.” Murnau was the famous German director behind horror classic “Nosferatu” and comedy classic “The Last Laugh” brought his continental style to Hollywood and managed to keep the Hollywood influence minimal.
“Sunrise” is the story of a farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor). They’ve been married for awhile and have had a child together. The problem is there’s a beautiful city girl (Margaret Livingston) in town who has managed to seduce the farmer and pledges him to kill his wife and move to the city with her.
The scenario is they are out in a boat and the boat capsizes and she drowns “accidentally.” The farmer tells his wife that he wants to take her into the city. She’s overjoyed and they leave that day for the city by boat where the murder will take place. He almost succeeds, but looking into her terrified eyes, he can’t bring himself to end her life. Instead he continues rowing to town and after apologizing numerous times, they spend the day in town.
The story is quite simplistic and to some would seem saccharine-laden. The story may be simplistic, but it leads the way for a better appreciation of the immense visual wonder. The German cinema heavily favored large, indoor sets on a grand scale. They also enjoyed the camera movements and “Sunrise” is definitely filled with both.
The most magnificent of the sets constructed, completely indoors nonetheless, are the streetcar scene where they travel through a completely manufactured countryside and the carnival scene with a structure that stands several opulent stories.
Gaynor proves that she deserved that first best actress Oscar (she won it for three films: “Sunrise,” “Seventh Heaven” and “Street Angel”). O’Brien, on the other hand, was quite wooden towards the beginning, but softened enough by the end of the film to be mildly enjoyable.
It’s very hard NOT to be taken in solely by the visuals, but the story keeps you on track. Together, the two elements work an intricate magic that most modern films can’t even touch. Intertitles, big in silent features to describe dialogue and action, are kept to a minimum. The performances and images tell the story without fail.
The film deserved every one of its Oscars, including cinematography and artistic quality of production and should have won for interior decoration. It honestly SHOULD have been nominated for best production and won over the less-impressive silent “Wings.”
“Sunrise” is one of the best films ever made, including over several color and sound features. A classic that every serious film lover should see, but unfortunately hard to find. At the moment, it is only available on laserdisc, but is easily a film welcome in any home film library.
October 29, 1999