Sunrise was the peak of Murnau's career. William Fox presented the talented German with all the resources of a Hollywood studio and allowed him creative control. There are no surviving prints of Murnau's next film, The Four Devils. After that he made City Girl, a film taken away from him before he was finished with it.
City Girl began with the title "Our Daily Bread," and is another of Murnau's contrasts of urban versus rural life. Its shares other themes with Sunrise: it is about a troubled relationship between a man and woman and features a character that nearly kills a family member. It is a more politically sophisticated melodrama than was Sunrise but lacks the artistry and unity of the earlier film.
In City Girl, a strictly religious and autocratic Minnesota farmer sends his son to Chicago to sell his wheat crop. While in Chicago, the son meets a waitress and the two fall in love and get married. The Wheat Exchange in Chicago is a volatile place, and Lem, the son, ends up selling the crop for a lower price than his father wanted, and upon their return the newly married couple are met with cold anger, suspicion and contempt from the farmer.
Once on the farm, the film develops into a power struggle between these three and the lead farmhand, Mac. Kate, the waitress, is an independent woman, and neither the farmer nor his farmhands understand how that can be. The farmer believes she has dark motives for marrying his son, and the farmhands believe that because she wears short skirts and shows defiance that she is easy and available. Once again the country is not presented as an ideal place, but instead a place of repression, isolation, and fierce storms.
The last third of the film takes place at night, in a rural darkness which lanterns can barely prick. An approaching storm forces the farmer to work his hired hands at night to bring in the wheat crop, and the tensions between the four main characters come to a head in the darkness and wind.
David Torrence's farmer is not an evil man, merely one wracked by the tensions of the marketplace, the whims of which threaten the survival of his farm, and the capriciousness of nature, which threatens his crop and livelihood. He is also a man firmly set in his ways and risks the life and happiness of his son in defiance of all that threatens his traditions. In the film's ending he undergoes a radical transformation that was surely tacked on despite Murnau's wishes.
The film lacks the production values of Sunrise. It does not have the physics-defying camera moves or the dream-state superimpositions of the earlier film but has some very strong moments. One of them happens when Lem reads a newspaper article about the falling price of wheat. He is standing on a sidewalk in the Chicago loop. We see the desperation on his face and then the camera draws away from him, sinking him inside the crowd of people descending from an "L" platform. Later on, when the newly married couple first reaches the farm, the camera runs beside them through the fields of wheat in a moment of pure exhilaration.
The scenes of the wheat harvest are lyrical and full of documentary detail. The early twentieth century harvesting machine, pulled by a team of a dozen mules, is a monster on the border between twentieth century technology and pre-industrial tradition. The film was made at the nexus between the silent and sound cinema, and though it was released in both sound and silent version, I have only seen it as a silent film.
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Copyright © 1997 John Akre