In the 1927 classic Sunrise, silence is as golden as the first rays of dawn breaking over the horizon. The irony is, sound nearly killed this silent motion picture.
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On Sept. 23, 1927, F.W. Murnau’s stylishly-directed melodrama opened at theaters. Thirteen days later, Al Jolson broke the movie industry’s sound barrier by uttering these words: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet” in The Jazz Singer. The rush for sound was on as audiences raised a hue and cry for more movies that gave them pictures and voices. Theater owners scrambled to wire their auditoriums for sound and the Hollywood industry frantically shifted gears on many pictures already in production.
Amid the howling storm of “talkies,” Sunrise was as quiet as a mountain lake at dawn—and certainly just as beautiful. In the “talking pictures” stampede at the box office, Sunrise got trampled by The Jazz Singer (though it would have some vindication later at the first Academy Awards ceremony: Sunrise, 3 [Best Picture, Actress and Cinematography]; The Jazz Singer, 1 [a nominal honorary award for being a “pioneer” in the industry]). I’ve seen both pictures now and I can say with full assurance that Sunrise is by far the better of the two.
I’d been wanting to see this silent classic for years but could never find it on video and was never lucky enough to catch it on TV if it played on Turner Movie Classics or American Movie Classics.
And then the Library of Congress Film Preservation Tour pulled into town. Anchorage, Alaska is the last place (except maybe Death Valley, California) I’d expect to see a week-long film festival dedicated to classic films. But when I opened up last week’s arts section of the newspaper, there it was: a film preservation tour sponsored by AMC. My heart went ka-THUMP!
Before I go on with Sunrise, let me interrupt with a brief commercial for the Film Preservation Tour. For lovers of classic cinema (like me!), telling me there’s gonna be a whole bunch of old movies playing on the big screen is like saying I can go wallow in a big vat of cotton candy. Sheer black-and-white bliss, I tell ya.
This year, 36 films—including Ninotchka, Shane, Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove—are making their way around the country as a way of educating the public on the distressing state of rapidly deteriorating films. Here’s an alarming factoid from the Library of Congress: 50% of the movies produced in the United States before 1950 no longer exist. This is mainly because those motion pictures were produced on nitrate cellulose film stock which chemically degrades and turns highly flammable. One careless match could erase years of Hollywood history off the calendar. Film archivists are feverishly working to preserve this disappearing film heritage.
To read more about the tour (and to see if it’s coming to a city near you), go to this site: http://lcweb.loc.gov/film/tour.html.
The tour’s guiding principle is that movies should be enjoyed in the theater—not on a television screen or a computer monitor. Watching Sunrise in the dim interior of Anchorage’s Beartooth Theatrepub, I can attest to the fact that the movie experience is definitely richer and more memorable when the images are as large as trees and the sound surrounds you like wind. Even the whispers of the other people in the theater weren’t too distracting (this was, after all, a silent movie, so I could “read” all the dialogue). Nope, there’s nothing like the feeling of being absorbed into the screen of a dark theater.
And Murnau’s classic certainly has the power to sponge you into the flickering images. This was the German director’s first American film (he’s best known for the early vampire film Nosferatu ). He would make only three other movies before he was killed in a car accident in 1931.
Sunrise can best be summed up in two words: Sin and Redemption. The simple story plays like a moral allegory; characters remain unnamed (we know them only as the Man, the Wife, the Woman From the City) and events are written against a scale of Biblical proportions. The Man (George O’Brien), a poor farmer, is seduced into adultery by the Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) while the Wife (Janet Gaynor) pines away with their child at their rustic cottage. The Woman, dark-haired and vamping with Jazz Age sexuality, is a stark contrast to the pale, meek Wife.
In the early scenes of Sunrise, we see the Man meeting the Woman in a fog-shrouded marsh. She drives his lust-o-meter to the boiling point while images of the bright lights/big city are superimposed over their heads. When the Man expresses remorse about his faithful wife, the Woman jumps up and declares, “Couldn’t she get—drowned?” Later, the Man wrestles with the demons of temptation as he rows the Wife across the lake toward the city.
I won’t reveal the outcome of the story, but I will say the whole plot is simultaneously trite and gut-wrenching. On the surface, it’s pure hokum—the kind of soap opera melodrama you’d find in cheap novels of the era. Yet, its earnest moral energy is appealing and even today, when adultery occurs with the same frequency as wedding ceremonies (and perhaps more!), the message has the power to sock the viewer in the gut.
The plot’s symbolism hits you over the head with a blunt instrument. The city and the hot-blooded vamp represents the corruption of society—the immorality of the rich, the oppression of the drab poor. In a way, the film could also represent what was going on between the old-fashioned Silents and the newfangled Talkies.
Sometimes, the absence of dialogue is a good thing. Sunrise even goes sparingly on the title cards—that’s how “silent” it is. The studio probably could have waited another few months or even a year to release the movie with full sound. And that would have been a complete disaster. There’s a beauty in the way Sunrise depends on posture, facial expression and pantomime to convey passion, sexual desire, regret and forgiveness. I can think of few other silent films—though certainly Greed and City Lights would qualify—where so much is conveyed so subtly.
Despite the heavy-breathing melodrama, we come to care about the characters. This is a credit to the fine acting by O’Brien and Gaynor (who earned history’s first Best Actress Oscar for her work here and in Seventh Heaven that year). So much is conveyed through body posture (O’Brien’s weight-of-the-world slump and shuffle was partly achieved by placing weights in his shoes to add to his dragged-down demeanor). You won’t find the usual histrionics and broad movements of other silent films in these skillfully restrained performances.
On the other hand, Murnau shows absolutely no restraint when it comes to the movie’s visual style. And that’s a good thing. Sunrise is every bit as visually stunning and jaw-droppingly beautiful as, say, The Matrix.
Murnau distills the art form down to its purest cinematic essence. Not an inch of the frame is ever wasted. The director, known for his Expressionism, crowds a multitude of competing sights in the small square space of the film frame. When the husband and wife venture into the city aboard a streetcar, there’s one long, unbroken shot that takes them from the country to the urban jungle. We see all the sights unfolding outside the windows of the train. I don’t know how Murnau did it (I assume superimposing some rear-projection footage), but it’s simply amazing, even by today’s standards.
Once in the city, Murnau’s flair goes wild. There are traffic jams, marching bands, a three-story circus, hustling and bustling pedestrians, and even an elephant strolling down Main Street. It’s a cacophony of sight and sound.
Yes, sound. Sunrise might be a silent film, but it was recorded with a rich symphonic score (composed by Hugo Riesenfeld) and includes some sound effects (we even hear a man’s voice yelling “Get outta the way!” in the traffic jam scene). Murnau also uses musical cues in creative and astounding ways. For instance, a French horn peals as the husband calls to his wife.
Just as that musical note sounds a plaintive cry on the soundtrack, Sunrise calls out for attention. Caught in the revolution of talkies back in the 1920s, it got shuffled aside at the end of the silent era. Now, thanks to things like the Film Preservation Tour, we can see this brilliant classic with fresh eyes—as if it was the dawn of a new age in filmmaking.
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