Posted by David Kalat on August 25, 2012
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is one of those reliable standbys certain to show up in most critics’ Best Of lists. Thanks, Greg, for noting that Sight and Sound placed it 5th in their latest silly list. It was the very first selection chosen to inaugurate Eureka’s Masters of Cinema DVD collection. It won (for all intents and purposes) the first ever Oscar, has been placed on the National Registry, and was the first silent film put out on Blu-Ray. I could keep going—you get the point. This is one of those “safe” choices, beloved by the pointy heads but not a crowd-pleaser (I mean, c’mon, with a pretentious title like Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, are you kidding me?). Right?
A few weeks ago I played around with viewing Last Year at Marienbad through the lens of science fiction, by way of making its more obtuse aspects less alienating. But Marienbad is a deliberately off-putting exercise. Sunrise is, by contrast, a picture whose artistry is intended to be accessible to mass audiences. It is conventionally beautiful, conventionally narrative, conventionally stirring. It needs no apologies or excuses, it’s just excellent in every way.
But that won’t stop me from approaching it from an oblique angle, just to be ornery. The fact is, Sunrise can actually be enjoyed as a comedy. Yeah, you heard me. Now click that “more” button below the fold and let’s have some fun!
For those of you who haven’t seen it (and why is that, really? What are you waiting for? An invitation? A blog that makes it sound ripping cool?), Sunrise presents a sexy, vampish “Woman of the City” who invades a rural idyll where her very presence corrupts a naïve young man. In order to pursue this temptress, the young man comes to believe his only escape from his existing small-town romance is to kill his girl, which he utterly fails to accomplish, and thereby sets in motion the plot developments of the rest of the film.
And just six months before Sunrise hit theaters, American audiences saw the exact same plot in Harry Langdon’s comedy Long Pants!
And my point isn’t that Murnau played as drama what Langdon mined for giggles—not by a long shot. For one thing, Langdon’s film crossed enough taboos (or do I mean tabus?) that some audiences didn’t find it funny at all. More to the point, Murnau does play Sunrise like a comedy, and its contents are not very much distinguishable from what constituted comedies of the same period.
Long Pants precedes Sunrise by half a year, but half a year after Sunrise we get more reference points. Sunrise’s main characters go on a date to a carnival, where they run into money problems and an out-of-control animal (see Harold Lloyd’s Speedy), and the film climaxes with a catastrophic storm (see Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr.)
Let’s break it down: The young man (George O’Brien) rows out to the middle of the lake with his trusting wife (Janet Gaynor) where he intends to drown her. But when push comes to shove, as it were, he loses his resolve and rows mindlessly to the opposite shore, where they board a trolley car. And in one of the most astonishing sequences in all of cinema, the shell-shocked couple gather their wits as they are transported from what might as well be a medieval village straight out of Nosferatu through a forest to an industrial patch (is that a factory, then a mill?) and finally arriving in a futuristic Metropolis that you half expect to be populated by sentient robots. All in the span of a couple of minutes. There is no such trolley ride anywhere in the world—this thing might as well be a time machine.
The transformation is absolute. The opening scenes take place in a silent movie world of exaggerated gestures and portentous symbolism. But the city reveals more naturalistic acting, more observational in tone. And the city scenes are obsessed with the details of the setting—the cars, the clothes, the architecture, the store fronts, the people-watching, the traffic.
Dramas do not often get bogged down in such observational fascination with their setting. It happens sometimes—as with the semi-documentary approach of Billy Wilder’s People on Sunday, or perhaps Robert Wise’s Star Trek, as we’ve discussed. But it happens a lot in comedies, where the observational detail is part of establishing the ironic commentary. Think Jacques Tati’s Playtime, or Chaplin’s City Lights, or Jean Renoir’s Boudou, or just about anything by Harold Lloyd.
Murnau has introduced two outsiders into this cityscape—scraggly, haggard refugees from a horror film who have stumbled into this world in a state of high emotional dudgeon and will encounter it as if they are visitors from another planet. Again, the parallel is to a comedy’s structure, with the outsider hero(es) providing for a commentary on the world around them. Charlie Chaplin rarely stumbled into any of his adventures after a botched murder attempt, but all Murnau has done is to provide a context for his protagonists’ alienation where someone like Chaplin uses his costume as a shortcut to the same ends. Like Boudou or Mr. Hulot, George and Janet are outsiders invading this space. We will witness its familiar contours through their eyes.
It isn’t just that the preoccupations with location prefigure the themes of so many comedies, it’s that the specific juxtaposition of old versus new in terms of location has been so resonant a factor in such important comedies (Steamboat Bill Jr., Mon Oncle, Modern Times, YoYo) and also specifically places Sunrise squarely in the zeitgeist of late 20s comedy.
For example, consider what happens once George and Janet arrive in the city. They proceed to stumble from one episodic set-piece to another. In one of these, they crash a wedding ceremony and are overwhelmed by the moment. Wedding vows take on an eerie significance when juxtaposed with trying to kill your wife. George breaks down, begs for forgiveness, and the two stagger into the street in a romantic haze. In another transformation of setting not unlike the trollycar ride that brought them here in the first place, they lose track of where they are and see themselves in the fields of home—until car horns bring them back to reality. And what ensues? Slapstick havoc, that’s what—a punchline, just like you’d expect.
Traffic-based gags abound in comedies of this era. But what exactly is the root of the gag? Is the traffic there to underscore the joke, or is the joke there to draw attention to the traffic? If we think it’s the former, then what’s the joke? Well, it’s that traffic is a bear, right? Either way, the scene emphasizes the modern tribulation of city streets packed with noisy cars going every which way.
But as an observation, that is at once universal and also rather banal. In other words, the sort of observation that one might find in a standup act today. It is fundamentally the stuff of comedy, and back in the 1920s it was fundamentally the stuff of movie comedy. Thanks to the coincidence of the age of movies and the age of cars, there wouldn’t have been much to say about traffic prior to the dawn of film. And it doesn’t really belong in any other medium. Paintings can’t capture the movement well; theatrical performances can hardly stage this indoors; no one would write a book about traffic because it isn’t a literary subject. But 1920s comedians, working in film because standup wasn’t yet really a thing, put such material into movies all the time.
Sunrise is a rumination on modernity—with a vaguely European old world giving way to a new American urbana—just as post WWI-Europe post was giving way to new American century. At the same time, the film industry was maturing (the arrival of sound technology upending the old order and bringing new sophistication).
Pointedly, Sunrise does not view this transformation as a bad thing. It seems to be tilting that way in its early scenes, the way the evil vamp is called “Woman of the City,” as if her corruption is connected to her sophistication, as if City=Evil. But once George and Janet arrive in that city, what they find is wonder, fun, and welcoming strangers. The city folk are sometimes a little perplexed by the two rubes, but never in a mean way—and no matter what George and Janet do or break or misunderstand, they are greeted by smiles and tolerance.
Sunrise shows how the new world, threatening as it is to the old, doesn’t have to lead exclusively to corruption—it is possible to navigate your way through this modern world and still come out morally whole. And as such, Sunrise is about hope in the face of wrenching change—and this is what comedy was going through at the time, tossing out the familiar old world of slapstick chaos and replacing it with sophisticated rom-com. It would be a destructive transformation, to be sure, but not exclusively so.
On one side of that divide would sit the likes of Charlie Chaplin, artists with a sensibility forged in the remnants of the nineteenth century, and they would be more threatened by the coming maturity of the film industry, no matter how central they had been to nurturing that maturity. And on the other would sit the likes of Cary Grant, a fundamentally twentieth century sensibility. And between those poles are the Charley Chases of the comedy world—the pioneers who emerged from silent comedy’s slapstick era to point the way to what was next.
But I get ahead of myself.
I’m not spoiling the next couple of blogs to note that the primary transformation would be a recalibration of male and female gender roles, at least as far as their onscreen gender roles went—I’ve said this here before. The solo comedians of slapstick’s Golden Age had to make way for a new breed of female stars, who took equal footing with their male costars.
And what came of that transformation would be the screwball comedy, whose genre conventions presuppose flirtation as a form of combat, or vice versa. The stars of 1930s romantic comedies meet cute and engage in reel after reel of open combat, before discovering that hate is just a variation on love; you have to really care for somebody deeply to want to fight them that badly. And so, fists give way to embraces and the former opponents end up in each other’s arms.
A template, by the way, that you’ll find in F.W. Muranu’s seminal comedy, Sunrise—in which the couple starts off as opposed to one another as humanly possible, and end up as tightly allied as conceivable.
It isn’t just that the film is structured like a comedy, it is absolutely jam-packed with comedy actors, too. Janet Gaynor, the female lead, was a fairly inexperienced young actress whose resume before showing up here largely consisted of comedy work—Laurel and Hardy’s 45 Minutes From Hollywood, Syd Chaplin’s Oh What a Nurse, Clara Bow’s The Plastic Age, Charley Chase’s All Wet, various and sundry Hal Roach one-offs.
Once she and her hubby/attempted murderer George O’Brien make their way into the city, they spend the rest of the film encountering comic actors.
Ralph Sipperly, the Barber, came from Fox’s own comedy shorts division. Jane Winton, the Manicure Girl, came from such comedies as Footloose Widows, Why Girls Go Back Home, and Millionaires.
And then there’s tthe Obtrusive Gentleman (Arthur Housman) and the Obliging Gentleman (Eddie Boland). Both Housman and Boland were small-time comedy stars who were brand names in their own right, having toplined their own respective series of comedy shorts.
And on top of all the comic actors, there are actual jokes: the wedding reception mistaking the peasant couple for the bride and groom, the business at the photographer’s and the headless statue, the comic misunderstandings at the salon, and a drunken pig!
This is a “silent film” in that no dialogue is spoken, but it has a synchronized soundtrack that includes sound effects and music, and sure enough the various slapstick punchlines get their little “boing!” and “wah-wah” music cues just like you’d expect. They are supposed to be laugh getters.
Murnau’s allegiance with the world of comedy continued in the follow-up feature to Sunrise, City Girl (whose title, a riff on “Woman of the City,” signals from the outset its agenda vis a vis Sunrise). City Girl opens with a scene in which a rube on a train unwisely reveals a fat bankroll and his own unwary attitude towards his money, rendering him an easy mark for the attention of a grafter. And once again we find Murnau pulling plot points from the films of Harry Langdon—in this case, the short Lucky Stars.
Murnau stuffed the cast of City Girl with comedy veterans, too: Eddie Boland is back (briefly); Guinn “Big Boy” Williams was a regular supporting actor in silent and talkie comedies (including the brilliant Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath with Jimmy Finlayson); David Torrence earned his slapstick comedy credentials a few years after working with Murnau, in the Laurel and Hardy film Bonnie Scotland; and Richard Alexander was on the front end of what would prove to be a wildly varied career that would range from All Quiet On The Western Front to playing Prince Barin in the Flash Gordon cliffhanger serials. His slapstick credentials? He’s in Harry Langdon’s See America Thirst, as well as Laurel and Hardy’s Them Thar Hills and Babes In Toyland.
Finding such comedy references in a Murnau film may be jarring, to those who think of him only in terms of Nosferatu and other grim fables. And that may be a sizeable contingent, I realize. It is generally the tendency of critics who write about Murnau’s films to identify the comic elements as something imposed on Murnau against his wishes by the studio in an effort to Americanize and popularize his films.
The primary English language text on Murnau is Lotte Eisner’s Haunted Screen—the very title of which signals its preoccupations and prejudices when it comes to Murnau. And so in her fealty to those prejudices, Eisner skips over, dismisses, or otherwise brushes under the rug any of Murnau’s works that don’t fit the bill.
Lotte Eisner suggests that all these tawdry jokes were inserted into Sunrise by Fox gag men and Murnau was obliged to go along with them. Hey, but wait a minute–Sunrise was famously made without studio interference, and even after his falling out with Fox, Murnau never said that Sunrise was anything other than a work of total creative freedom. The thing is, you can’t have your cake and eat it too—you can’t say Murnau had total creative freedom but he also had to tolerate jokes inserted into the script against his will. If Sunrise was Murnau’s vision, his vision was prone to flirt with comedy.
Now might be the time to note, ahem, that The Last Laugh has its own comic elements, in which a bleak story comes to a tragic end, and then reboots itself as a comedy for its final reel—inspiring the English language title.
For that matter, Murnau made Finances of the Grand Duke, a mild action-comedy about a master thief that in many ways anticipates similar lighthearted fare along the lines of Arsene Lupin or To Catch a Thief or a fair chunk of Steven Soderburgh’s back catalog.
I’ve long been of the opinion that comedy and horror are very similar modes of entertainment and expression. You exaggerate something to an extreme, and you provoke a reaction—that reaction may be a scream or a laugh. And people can laugh when they’re scared (a common enough response to John Carpenter’s The Thing) or scream at a comedy (a common enough reaction to Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.). It doesn’t much surprise me that Murnau would dabble in both.
(Next week: Harold Lloyd time travels to team up with Preston Sturges in the major crossover event of 1947!)
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