The early city based scenes are packed with claustrophobic angles along with symbolic camera moves to heighten the pace at which the city en masse moves and operates. Poor Lem (Charles Farrell) sticks out like a sore thumb and his good manners and country charm are lost on everybody but Kate (Mary Duncan).
The origins of City Girl stem from a memo Murnau sent to William Fox in which he stated he wished to make a film about wheat. “I would like to make a picture called Our Daily Bread. About wheat.” That hardly smacks of box office success. Another inspiration – a more direct influence – came from playwright Elliot Lester’s work The Mud Turtle.
As stated, the sound version of City Girl is lost. But to release a silent film in 1930 was commercial suicide. Some resisted such as Charles Chaplin who released Modern Times in the mid ’30s with synchronised sound effects and a bit of dialogue. Even at such an early period silent pictures were deemed anachronistic. As noted, sound crept into the movies. There was no rush after the technology developed. Most studios didn’t want to fork out in converting theatres to be equipped with sound systems. Many actors and actresses believed it was a passing fad and after a while things would get back to normal. When they realised that wasn’t to be the case many of them hired voice coaches or their careers sunk without a trace.
City Girl didn’t stand a chance. Mary Duncan retired from the screen in the early 1930s. Kate the waitress is a brilliant character and deserves a place next to Janet Gaynor as a Murnau heroine. One does feel the sense of Murnau grinding against American believes in Sunrise and City Girl. America is a country not much interested in the past and only the undefined, but exciting future. Murnau, in setting up the battle of urban versus bucolic, certainly sees the city landscape as something to fear. The German sensibility seeks to enjoy nature and natural environments. The Man and Woman in Sunrise find trouble in the city. Lem and Kate find each other but they escape from the metropolis to forge a new life together in the farming community. It isn’t easy for Kate at all but she proves her worth.
Murnau, in City Girl, uses symbolic editing and dissolves to makes points about mass production and the use of raw materials into artificial constructs. We see the farmer buttering bread which then dissolves into an electronic toaster in a city café. The farmer, Lem’s dad, has a relationship between his land, his bread and his lifestyle. The toaster in the cafe is there to be consumed without much thought. These are not the kinds of notions enjoyed in consumerist America.
Kate’s apartment is dusty, bathed in electric light, rattles every time a subway train goes by and she keeps a clockwork bird in a cage. This is seriously depressing stuff. Is this how people should live? Kate escapes her own cage and pokey room but finds life hard going in Minnesota. Lem’s father thinks all city girls are the same. Harlots out to make money. The film opens with this very notion as a woman sees Lem’s money and tries to latch onto him. It doesn’t work.
F.W. Murnau gave American cinema lashings of style which would leave their indelible mark for years. Within Sunrise there are stirrings of what would become film noir. The city vamp played by Margret Livingston is an early femme fatale. He formed a brittle marriage between art and melodrama. Murnau was a synthesiser and collaborator. Screenwriter Carl Mayer worked with him right until City Girl when they’d parted ways.
Murnau’s lyrical style influenced many contemporary and future filmmakers from John Ford to Terrence Malick. The director’s career and life might not have had a happy ending like his films but he attains a place as a cinema great and a maverick director who pushed the medium with his collaborators to new artistic heights. He gave the world Sunrise, for that alone, we should thank him and William Fox.
Sunrise and City Girl are available through Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label from restored digital prints. They are highly recommended. Formerly lost silent pictures are being discovered here and there and Four Devils is perhaps the most sought-after. It might turn up one day. One can hope.