Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was German director F. W. Murnau’s first Hollywood movie, filmed for Fox in 1927, and featuring the first ever professionally-produced soundtrack. Although it was well-received critically - it won the only ever Academy Award for ‘Artistic Quality of Production’ - Sunrise disappointed at the box office, although its reputation has grown over time, and it’s considered by many to be the greatest silent movie ever made. Technically, it’s incomparable, boasting a creative visual style that alternates between dreamlike-borderline nightmarish in the early rural scenes, and a bustling dynamism in the lengthy city sequence. It’s just a shame that Carl Mayer’s storyline is so prosaic.
George O’Brien, a once prominent actor whose sound career would consist almost entirely of B-movie Westerns, plays a married farmer ensnared in a passionate affair with a vivacious city girl (Margaret Livingston) on vacation in the country. His desire for the girl is depicted as kind of addiction which he is powerless to resist. His wife is played by Janet Gaynor, her long dark tresses hidden beneath a mousy wig shaped like a helmet to emphasise her plainness compared to the city girl’s spirited nature. The
city girl has a nasty streak. She wants O’Brien for herself and unsubtly suggests that he do in his plain wife and sell his farm to join her in the city. Initially reluctant, O’Brien’s infatuation gets the better of him and he lures his wife into a boat on the lake at night in order to drown her.
Silent movies never seemed to give their sympathetic female characters any kind of independence of spirit, preferring to view them simply as an appendage of the hero, and Sunrise is no different. Knowing her husband is out carousing with another woman, Gaynor’s character simply mopes wanly in their modest farmhouse instead of confronting them both or cutting up his trousers or something, and you can sort of understand why the city girl‘s offer would appear so appealing to the husband, even if it was probably doomed to failure. Anyway, hubbie gets cold feet at the crucial moment and, overcome with guilt, he follows his wife into the city, presented here as a kind of wonderful, riotous theme park. She eventually forgives him for cheating on her and giving serious consideration to killing her, and they enjoy a magical time which revives their marriage and mutual love.
The prowess of Charles Rosher’s and Karl Struss’s camera is without bounds, and Murnau’s stylistic virtuosity shines from every frame, and it’s for this that Sunrise is justifiably revered. It’s also for this reason that it will be most appreciated by film buffs with an interest in the style and shape of a movie, and will be a complete turn-off for anyone viewing simply to be told a story. Leading man O’Brien displays a tendency to overact at moments of high emotion, but Gaynor gives an admirably restrained performance.