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An astounding silent film that will leave you speechless

silent film masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans Janet Gaynor George O'Brien F.W. Murnau
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

If you haven’t yet seen it, I can guarantee you’ve never seen a film like “Sunrise”. Astounding in its visuals and staggering in its emotion, it is no wonder this film about love and the bonds of marriage versus sex and desire has sometimes been called the greatest film ever made (the influential French magazine, Cahiers du cinéma, lists it as the fourth greatest film of all-time). Directed by F.W. Murnau, one of the masters of silent films, it is a breathtaking reminder of how we don’t appreciate what we have until we lose it. The film’s full title, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” is very apropos as the story is universal, told in a highly lyrical manner, with all characters and places remaining nameless. “Sunrise”, like no other film, is pure poetry onscreen. A masterpiece I truly hope you watch.

George O'Brien and Margaret Livingston in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans FW Murnau classic silent film
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

“Sunrise” was released the first year films were honored by Academy Awards and it was nominated for four and won three, including one for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”. That award was as prestigious as “Best Picture” (which went to “Wings” that year), but the Academy did away with “Best Unique and Artistic Picture” category the following year, keeping only a “Best Picture” category.

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, FW Murnau classic movie
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

Without giving away spoilers, this unforgettable film focuses on a peasant farmer who is tormented between love for his wife and lust for a sophisticated woman from the city. The journey they all go through is so visually stunning and emotional you can’t help but gasp. “Sunrise” is particularly noted for its technical artistry including dissolves, superimpositions, composite shots and montages – all impeccably used for flashbacks, flash forwards, and day dreams, enhancing the film’s emotional dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish quality. This film is cinema at its best. As there were no computers or even optical printers at the time, all the effects were done inside the camera (shoot a scene, rewind, then shoot a different shot over the same piece of film). These effects superbly heighten what’s at the heart of the film - the bond between the peasant couple, making for an intriguing rollercoaster ride. The two leads are so believable, vulnerable, and heartbreaking you can’t help but feel for them both.

George O'Brien and Margaret Livingston in "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

Also omnipresent in “Sunrise” is the juxtaposition of the country versus the city. Arcadia versus civilization. The differences are brought to light time and time again through editing, costumes, hair, lighting, and story - the most obvious being the differences between “The Woman from the City” and “The Wife”. Surrounded by simple folk, “The Woman from the City” is blatantly out of place in the country. Sophisticated in her satin dresses and stockings, she’s sexual, devious, and evil. “The Wife” on the other hand is plain, honest, innocent, and devoid of sexuality.

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor star in F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans classic German Expressionism silent film
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

At the helm of “Sunrise” is the inspired cinematography and style. The lighting and photography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss is so exceptional that every frame’s exquisite composition look like a painting. Both men won "Best Cinematography” Oscars for their work in this film. The set designs and decoration are also extraordinary, and art director Rochus Gliese earned an Oscar nomination for his art direction on this film.

F.W. Murnau classic silent movie film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

F.W. Murnau

All of the above help give “Sunrise” that poetic quality. The sets and miniatures are magnificent, such as the farmhouse, the marsh, the restaurants, the city, and the amusement park. The set of "the city" was built with a forced perspective using children and Little People as extras in the rear to enhance the effect. The wonderfully stylized look of “Sunrise” has major traces of the German Expressionist film movement (a movement in film, primarily in the 1920s - which I particularly love). The asymmetrical framing, forced perspectives, off kilter tables, slanted ceilings, angles, lighting, and shadows are all indicative of that style of film, of which director F.W. Murnau was a key figure. I’ll talk more about German Expressionist films when I present a different film in an upcoming post. Murnau is one of cinema’s most impressive directors, and you'll discover why when watching “Sunrise”. A master at visual storytelling, his enormously creative directing is filled with mood and emotionally charged undercurrents, and brimming with meaning. While it is never slow or boring, “Sunrise” takes its time, capturing thought and emotion rather than action - an approach almost lost in cinema today. Murnau uses many very long takes, letting the action, emotion and atmosphere happen within one shot. A fantastic example of this is near the beginning of the film, when “The Man” is walking through the fog to meet “The Woman from the City”. It is a lengthy shot that changes points of view and emotion while leading us to the woman. It alone became an iconic shot in silent films and cinema. “Sunrise” was Murnau’s first American film. He was a German director whose film credits read as a list of silent film classics, including "Nosferatu", "The Last Laugh", "Faust", "4 Devils", "Tartuffe", and of course "Sunrise". He made one sound film titled “Tabu” which has also become a classic. Sadly, eight of the 21 films he directed are considered lost. Murnau was gay, and perhaps that is partially the reason the male character in “Sunrise” is the object of desire, while in the majority of films it is the female. F.W. Murnau died in 1931 of complications from a car accident in Santa Barbara, California. He was only 42 years old. His directing work is truly unsurpassed.

George O'Brien in FW Murnau classic silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

George O’Brien

George O’Brien stars as “The Man”. Known for his athletic physique, this hunky actor is perfect for this role. His sexual appeal and acting skill make it easy to believe that this “simple” farmer could be guided by lust. He is very manly, yet with an emotional depth that is heartbreaking. It is such a powerful portrayal that one can’t help but feel all the complex emotions going on within his character. And remember, his haunting performance was produced with only his face, eyes, and body language. O’Brien was a decorated World War I US Navy hero, after which, in 1922, he started appearing in small parts in films. In 1924 director John Ford cast the practically unknown actor as the male lead in "The Iron Horse” which made him a star. After “Sunrise”, his next big film was Michael Curtiz’s “part-talkie” classic 1928 film, “Noah’s Ark”. With the advent of sound films O’Brien's career changed, and from then on he acted almost exclusively in Western films. George O’Brien was a top box office star through the 1930s. Come World War II, he re-enlisted and actively fought in the war. Afterwards, when he returned to Hollywood he only had moderate success and made just five more films and one TV show appearance. After his final appearance in the 1964 classic, "Cheyenne Autumn”, he retired from acting. His portrayal in “Sunrise” is his best remembered role, and along with those mentioned, his other notable films include “The Blue Eagle”, “Salute”, “The Seas Beneath”, and “Fort Apache”. He was married and divorced once. George O’Brien died in 1985 at the age of 86.

Janet Gaynor Academy Award winning role in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

Janet Gaynor

Janet Gaynor, who stars as “The Wife”, was an actress with a wholesome, sensitive, and sweet screen persona. Like George O’Brien, she too was perfect for her role in "Sunrise". She is wonderful at embodying innocence and simpleness while always maintaining a huge likability. Her performance is filled with a multitude of emotions, and the camera often lingers on her face giving us clear insight into her heart. It takes a very skilled actor to accomplish that. Janet Gaynor garnered “Sunrise’s” third Oscar, winning the very first ever Best Actress Academy Award. She was given the award for appearing in three films that year, “7th Heaven”, “Street Angel”, and “Sunrise”. It was the only time an actress (and actor, Emil Jannings) were awarded Best Actor/Actress Oscars for a body of work instead of one particular film’s performance. Gaynor was only 22 years old at the time. Around the time“Sunrise” was released she became a top box office name. She started appearing in bit parts in 1924, and had her breakthrough role in 1926 in the film “The Johnstown Flood”, after which she landed leading roles. Gaynor had a voice that fit her persona to a T, and with the coming of sound films in 1928, she became one of Hollywood’s most respected and popular actresses and the number one box office star of the early 1930s. Her most remembered role came with the 1937 classic “A Star is Born” opposite Fredric March. Gaynor would receive her second and final “Best Actress” Oscar nomination for that film, losing to Luise Rainer in “The Good Earth”. "A Star is Born” was later remade as a musical three times, which I’ll talk more about when I present one of the versions. Although Gaynor’s version is not a musical, I think it might be the best of the four. In addition to the films already mentioned, her other notable films include "State Fair", "The Farmer Takes a Wife", and "Ladies in Love “. As the 1940s approached and audiences’ tastes were changing, she started losing popularity since executives at 20th Century-Fox continued to typecast her as the same type of character. The 1938 film “Three Loves Has Nancy” would be her last, with the exception of her appearance in “Bernadine” in 1954. Gaynor also made a few appearances on television and stage late in her career. She was married three times, including her marriage to costume designer Adrian, who I talk about in the The Philadelphia Story” post. Janet Gaynor died in 1984 at the age of 77.

Margaret Livingston in FW Murnau classic silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

Margaret Livingston

Margaret Livingston, as “The Woman from the City”, gives us insight into what was deemed sexy in the late 1920s. She is marvelous as the “vamp” (a sort of sexual femme fatale). With her dark bobbed hair, make-up, stylish look, and haughty nature, she hits the mark as a wicked temptress. While she made about 80 films from 1916 until 1934, she is remembered today for her role in “Sunrise”. She worked a lot in silent films, mostly in “vamp” type roles, often playing the second female lead. She transitioned to talking films with no problem, and even dubbed the voice for silent film star Louise Brooks in the film “The Canary Murder Case”. Some of Livingston’s other notable films include “Smart Money”, “Seven Keys to Baldpate” and “Call Her Savage”. She was married once, to bandleader Paul Whiteman. Margaret Livingston died in 1984 at the age of 89.

FW Murau's classic silent movie, the best of cinema George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

“Sunrise” is a film you have to see to believe. Its beauty and depth are mind-blowing, and it is a leading example of why many film historians (and my grandmother, who grew up during that period) say that the silent film era was the greatest in cinema. Get ready for a film the likes of which you’ve probably never seen. Get ready for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”. Enjoy!

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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):

"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

There is a quick shot in “Sunrise”, in the photo studio while the farmers are waiting for their photograph, when “The Wife” bounces on a couch with pillows, seeming to discover them for the first time. Every time I watch these few seconds I can’t help but think of the first audiences who ever watched films. They saw things in films they had never seen before, just as “The Wife” does in her trip to the city.

"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

The town where the farmer and his wife lived was actually a set built at Lake Arrowhead, just outside Los Angeles, California.

"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

There are many famous scenes in “Sunrise”, one being the trolley ride to the city. For that scene a working trolley was built with tracks at Lake Arrowhead (which is used at the very beginning of the sequence), and another built with tracks running behind the film’s sets on the Fox Studio lot (which is the construction you see outside the windows near the end of the sequence). The cinematography in that scene is a breathtaking achievement in film. The scene is beautifully repeated when they leave the city, with the couple having totally different body language in the same spot on the trolley, subtly reenforcing the changes in their relationship. There is so much thought put into this film in just about every scene.

"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

Another iconic scene is “The Man’s” walk in the marsh to visit “The Woman from the City”. That scene was filmed on a set, and according to the blu-ray disc’s extras, Murnau weighted down George O’Brien’s shoes, and had an uneven floor constructed to enhance his laboring walk. The camera was suspended from an overhead track, and since the set was small, O’Brien walked through it in a figure 8 pattern. It is mesmerizing.

on the set of the FW Murnau silent film "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"
Filming the famous walk in "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

Yet another iconic scene happens just after “The Man” and his “Wife” come out of the church “renewing their vows” so to speak. As they walk arm in arm, they are finally invulnerable to the harm and influence of the outside world. This sequence was filmed using many special effects techniques, and is utterly magical.

Janet Gaynor in "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"
"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans"

The last thing I’ll point out is how the “Wife”, in contrast to “The Woman from the City”, has no sensuality or sexuality during the entire film until the very last shots. Other than the final shots, she is in clothes hiding her form, with pressed down hair that almost looks like a cap. At the very end, after “The Man” rekindles his love, her hair is down. She now looks womanly, beautiful, and sensual - the way the “Man” now sees her.

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