Sunrise (1927)

Toronto Film Society presented Sunrise (1927) on Monday, March 20, 1967 as part of the Season 19 Monday Evening Silent Film Series, Programme 5.

(Main Auditorium, UNITARIAN CHURCH, 175 St. Clair West)


Programme No. 5

Monday March 20, 1967
8:15 pm

1922: Buster Keaton in Cops 
1927: Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien in Sunrise



Presented by Joseph M Schenck
Released by First National
Starring Buster Keaton
Written and directed by Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

We had another film in mind when we vaguely promised “a Buster Keaton short” for this date; but apparently the only silent short of his that is readily available is this one, which we showed as recently as January 11, 1965.  However, we feel confident that those of you who were members of the Silent Series at that time would far rather see Cops a second time than not see any Buster Keaton film at all.


Produced by Fox Films
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Scenario by Carl Mayer
Based on the novel A Trip to Tilsit by Hermann Sudermann
Designed by Rochus Gliese
Photographed by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss
Copyright 12 June 1927 (Released c.Sept 1927)

The man: George O’Brien
The wife: Janet Gaynor
The woman from the city: Margaret Livingston
The maid: Bodil Rosing
The photographer: J. Farrell MacDonald
The barber: Ralph Sipperly
The manicurist: Jane Winton
The obtrusive gentleman: Arthur Housman
The obliging gentleman: Eddie Boland
(Among the “bit players: Barry Norton, Robert
Korman, Gino Corrando, Sally Eilers)

NOTE: We wish we could claim credit for the excellent musical score that accompanies this film; but the music is in fact right on the sound track–the original sound track of 1927, when the film was released (in those theatres already wired for sound) as a Fox Movietone special.

If, heaven forbid, I had had to select the five great American films, instead of the 50, one of those five would most certainly have been Sunrise.

(Joe Franklin in Classics of the Silent Screen)

*     *     *

During the 1920’s, Hollywood’s successful variant of the old saw was: “If you can’t lick ’em, get ’em to join you“.  As Herb Howe wrote in one of his Photoplay Magazine columns around that time, Hollywood was like the old Chinese Empire which simply swallowed its enemies and never lost its bland smile (or words to that effect).  When European companies began making films that crowded the Hollywood product at the box-office–not only in Europe but even in North America–the American companies simply combed the European studios for their best talent: actors, directors and technicians, and lured them to Hollywood with irresistable salaries.  Not all this talent flourished in the alien soil; but American films were most certainly enriched by European (especially German) filmmakers, whether directly, by this imported talent, or indirectly, by the stylistic influence of the better European films.

Thus it was that in 1926 Fox Films triumphantly brought to its studios the great German director, F.W. Murnau, and gave him practically a free hand to make a film from a script by his old colleague, Carl Mayer, adapted from Hermann Sudermann’s novel A Trip to Tilsit, with still other compatriots as set designer and photographers.

F.W. MURNAU was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld, Westphalia, in 1889.  Like man other German film directors and actors of that period he worked in the theatre under Max Reinhardt (whom Warner Brothers eventually lured to Hollywood in 1935 to make A Midsummer Night’s Dream) beore drifitn into films.  Some of his early pictures were Janus Faced (1920), The Haunted Castle (1921), The Burning Acre (1922) and Nosferatu (1922) (recently shown in Toronto by the National Film Theatre).  His most famous German film was The Last Laugh (1924) (likewise shown by NFT–and by just about every Film Society at one time or another); he also did Tartuffe (1925) and Faust (1926), both with Emil Jannings, before succumbing to the siren spell of Hollywood.  The free hand and open purse that were given him for Sunrise proved (as with Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, years later) to be the last, and nothing else he made in Hollywood afterwards approached it.  Only his last film, the unforgettable Tabu (1931)–significantly made far away in the South Seas–takes its place among his masterworks; and he had barely completed it when he was killed in an automobile accident, at the age of 42.  (Legend persists that he preordained his own death by violating a Polynesian tabu during the making of the film.  Contemporary Hollywood gossip had it that he ordained it in a much less romantic manner).

Film writers have long complained that directors are always being given credit which rightly belongs to the writer.  More power to the director for successfully “realizing” the writer’s ideas, of course,–but it is the writer who invented those ideas, not the director.  The relationship between writer and director is a delicate and varying thing, and one should not make sweeping generalizations.  Admittedly many scenarists have been mere hack writers dominated by producer or/and director.  But we can be sure that in the case of Sunrise, much of the credit must certainly go to CARL MAYER.

Mayer was born in Graz, Austria, in 1894, and in the course of a nomadic youth had dabbled in every branch of theatre; but he had never done any writing until he met Hans Janowitz in Berlin, just after World War I, and the two collaborated on the script for what became the famous Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Thereafter Mayer was in the front rank of German film writers, and his poetic vision had influence on the films of other writers and directors as well.  He was the writer of The Last Laugh, a film which was the product of the collaboration of himself as writer, Murnau as director, Erich Pommer as producer, Karl Freund as cameraman, and Emil Jannings as star.  Although he didn’t go to America himself, he wrote the scripts not only of Sunrise but also of Murnau’s second film for Fox: The Four Devils.  It was Mayer also who originally devised the famous poetic documentary Berlin, the Symphony of a Big City.  When the Nazis came to power he was forced to leave Germany, and in 1932 he settled in London, where he lived till his death in 1944.

Mayer’s style in writing a film script seems to have been peculiar to himself.  In an article on “The Screen’s Greatest Poet” (FILMS IN REVIEW, March 1953) Frank Daugherty quotes two passages from Mayer’s script for Sunrise, which we hereby pass along to you, partly to illustrate Mayer’s unorthodox way of expressing his vision–a kind of free-verse poetry–and partly to demonstrate the raw material which Murnau (and his collaborators, designer Gliese and cameramen Rosher and Struss) translated into the pictures which you are about to see for yourselves.  (Before you criticize the poetry as literature, remember that the original is in German and this is only a translation).  Both passages occur at or near the beginning of the film–so you’ll be able to watch for them.

The first is the very opening of the film:

Summer – vacation time
Quick fade in:
Vacation trains
Just leave.
Overcrowded with perspiring, travelling public.
Waving through windows.
Then: The trains have left.
One sees through tall, glass arches
The City plaza in front of the railroad station.
With highest houses,
Ships, automobiles, street cars,
Autobuses, elevated structure, people
In hot asphalt vapor.

Later in the early part of the film comes this sequence:

Camera somehow shooting down upon the ground:
The place where they fought.
(Where they were lying in the morass).
But no one there now?
Only trodden-down reeds.
Traces left of the wrestling in the mire.
So for seconds:
As though the camera examined the ground.
The camera goes further down to the ground.
Trying to get extreme closeups of clues.
Slow perambulator shot across ground.
And then:
Traces of the two?
His heavy footprint?
Her high heel print?
Now the camera
Follows these traces
Footprint after footprint.
And footprint again.
In zig zag lines.
While the ground gets muddier and muddier.
Appearing in the picture, her high heel?
Yes, indeed.
Now her other high heel.
Doesn’t she walk any more?
Heels sticking in the mud?
Now one foot makes a short step.
Now one foot takes a short step.
And now, while the muddy water oozes from her last footprint,
She bends down
To pull out tall bulrushes growing there.
Many times.
Now turning toward him.
He who stands in a somewhat elevated position.
And is visible only from the waist down,
She shows him the bulrushes
And whispers significantly to him.
..After the capsizing –
save yourself with these!

Again the title cuts apart
To a vision fading in!
A boat sinks.
But he – floating on top of the water,
Without swimming much
Because many bundles of bulrush are bundled about him.
And then!
Dissolve into close-up solid:
Tensely whispering to him.
With her hands filled with bulrushes,
She embraces his waist!
Now slowly fading out.
And now
The screen is all dark for seconds.
And then!
Slowly fade in:
Shooting upon trees in front of Ansass’ cottage (night):
Shadows of trees upon the wall.
Gently moving
For seconds –
Ansass approaching
Bundles of bulrushes under his arm.
Now: he stops?
Looking down at the bulrushes fearfully.
As though the bulrushes were burning him.
He looks toward the door of the cottage.
Still bewildered.

(You won’t make much out of this excerpt if you have never yet seen Sunrise–but that of course will soon be remedied).

*     *     *

There are always sober critics who feel that Serious Art has to be solemn and earnest, and for whom Comedy is distressingly Vulgar (unless of course it is Satire, which is o.k.)  These gentry have always been sure that a Great ARtist like Murnau could not have been responsible for the crude comedy that “mars” the middle section of Sunrise, and that this must have been inserted by the studio bosses to “lighten” it for American tastes.  Yet obviously this comedy, like a scherzo in a symphony, is a structural necessity for this part of the drama.  (Shakespeare would have approved).

That Murnau was at home in comedy as well as pathos is proved by the closing sequence of The Last Laugh–a sequence which of course still continues to distress the Sober Critics who refuse to believe he did it voluntarily.  (Incidently, has no one ever remarked that the device of having the author openly00with Brecht-like alienation–intervene in the story to bring about arbitrarily the requisite happy ending . . comes straight out of “The Beggar’s Opera”?)

Many of the more serious contemporary critics felt that the opening sequence of Sunrise, with its atmospheric photography, its slow, Germanic pace, and its somewhat stylized acting, was the “real” Murnau, uncompromising in his Artistry; but in fact it is the more naturalistic middle section of the film–the whole sequence in the city (including the “scherzo”)–that holds up best and is as beautiful today as it was forty years ago.  Nowadays (to a certain type of unsympathetic viewer, at any rate) the opening section has a way of looking like a compound of corny melodrama and pretentious artiness, aggravated by George O’Brien’s obvious limitations as an actor.

But we submit that both of these viewpoints overlook the whole point of this opening sequence.  The dream-like stylization is in keeping with the state of mind of the young husband, under a spell of infatuation for the woman from the city, for whom he is ready to do anything, like a man drugged or hypnotized.  Then suddenly, as he sees the terror in his wife’s eyes, the cloud lifts from his mind and with a shock he realizes clearly for the first time exactly what he is doing.  Once the husband has recovered his sanity, the rest of the film from that point on is naturalistic in style.  Far from indicating an artistic compromise, the change illustrates Murnau’s (or Mayer’s?) sensitiveness and artistic subtlety.  (There is a similar change of style for the concluding “happy-ending” sequence of The Last Laugh).

Incidently, the implied comparison with a symphony (one without pauses between movements) is not unwarraned.  The first movement is the aforementioned opening sequence: the husband in his madness planning his wife’s “accidental” death.  The lyric and emotional second movement in his remorse and reconciliation; the scherzo is their fun on the town; and the Finale resumes the tense drama when the elements come alarmingly close to carrying out the husband’s cancelled plans.

*     *     *

Since the film is an adaptation of a novel called A Trip to Tilsit, one can assume that the story takes place in and around the city of Tilsit (then in East Prussia, on the Lithuanian border; today in Soviet hands and renamed Sovetsk).  But it will be noticed that the locale of the story is left deliberately ambiguous; it could be in America, it could be in Europe; in short, the story could happen anywhere.

 *     *     *

It may come as something of a surprise to learn that Sunrise was a big-budget film, for it is not one of those spectacularly expensive productions in which every dollar waves frantically at the camera.  But everything–exteriors as well as interiors–was recreated and shot in the studios, and the money was laudably spent in making everything look right.

 *     *     *

JANET GAYNOR was born Laura Gainor on October 6, 1906, in Philadelphia.  After World War I her stepfather took the family to various parts of the States, coming to rest in San Francisco, where she and her sister Helen graduated from high school; then on to Hollywood in 1924 where the two girls managed to get work in films as extras.  Laura (Janet by now) was the one who gradually made her way up, playing leads in low-budget Western comedies at Universal concurrently with bit parts.  Her break came when she tested for the second lead in The Johnstown Flood (1926) for Fox, and did so well in that picture that she was put under contract.  After four more films that year she was given the leading roles in Fox’s two prestige films, Sunrise and Seventh Heaven, which were made in that order (it is said she finished work on the first one and began work on the second on the same day), though the latter was the first to be released.  Her performance with Charles Farrell in Seventh Heaven is one of the great treasures of the silent screen, and the film shot the two of them into top popularity, and they were teamed together in a dozen films, both silent and sound–the last being Change of Heart (1934).  (In March 1951, on the 25th aniversary (?) of Seventh Heaven, Lux Radio Theatre called Gaynor and Farrell out of retirement to repeat their roles in a radio adaptation of the play).  Sunrise, released after Seventh Heaven, reaped the box-office benefit of Gaynor’s new popularity.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed that year (1927) and the following year bestowed its first awards.  Janet Gaynor has the historical distinction of being the first recipient of the Best Actress awared–not (in those days) for a single film but for her performance in three films: Sevventh HeavenSunrise and Street Angel (1928).  (See Page 8 for the other awards of that year).

So successful was she at projecting the image of genuine sweetness and unsophisticated youth and innocence that she was type-cast in such roles in bad films as well as good, and inevitably her box-office appeal waned; and when in 1935 Fox Films merged with 20th Century, the new boss, Darryl F. Zanuck, refused to renew her starring contract.  Her first film as a freelancer was Selznick’s A Star is Born (1937); not to be confused with the 1954 remake with Judy Garland) which proved one of the best films she ever made, and she gave (some say) the best performance of her career.  it put her back on top again, but she made only two more films; and after proving in The Young at Heart that she could play an utterly non-Gaynor-type sophisticated role, she married MGM’s dress designer, Gilbert Adrian, and retired from the screen.  Their son, Robin, was born in 1940.  Adrian, too, seems to have retired, and they spent more and more of their time in Brazil.  From time to time she returned to show business, as in the 1951 radio version of Seventh Heaven, and a small role in the film Bernadine (1957).  Adrian died of a heart attack in 1959 while she was in New York rehearsing for her stage debut in “The Midnight Sun” (which opened in New Haven on November 4 and closed in Boston before the end of the month).  In December 1964, at the age of 58, she married Paul Gregory.  The following October it was announced that she was preparing a new Screen Gems comedy series for television to be called “Emma’s First National Bank” (did anything more ever come of this?).  We’ve probably not yet heard the last of Janet Gaynor.

(See FILMS IN REVIEW, October 1959, for a more detailed biography and a complete list of her films).

 *     *     *

GEORGE O’BRIEN is primarily thought of as a Western star, which is not unjust since half of his seventy-four films were Westerns; though stated another way, that means that half of them were not Westerns.  It was not until after sound came in that he became prodominantly associated with cowboy movies.  But even before that itme he was never specially noted as an actor; the performance Murnau got out of him in Sunrise was undoubtedly the best he ever gave or was ever called upon to give–and at that, the scenes calling for “emoting” (in which Murnau evidently tried to make him give a quasi-Jannings performance) are the least successful (or to put it less delicately, are almost embarrassing) . . though nobody can fault him in the less demanding parts of the film.

He was born in San Francisco on April 19, 1900.  After his father became a policeman (he eventually rose to be San Francisco’s chief of police and police commissioner and California’s director of Penology), he was allowed to curry and ride the horses, and a friend of his father’s had a ranch where he learned to rope and bulldog steers . . thereby laying a useful foundation for a future Cowboy star.

Not that he did this deliberately.  He was a high school athlete and (during World War I) light heavyweight boxing champion of the Pacific Fleet, and he had his sights set on studying medicine; but a friend of his happened to introduce him to Tom Mix, who offered him a job as a second assistant cameraman.  After a year of this he began doing bits, stunts, and other odd jobs on both sides of the camera; and because he had the necessary qualification of horsemanship he tested for the juvenile lead in the forthcoming Fox spectacular, The Iron Horse directed by John Ford.  He won the role, and with the film’s release in 1924, O’Brien’s career as a successful actor had begun . . and only ended in 1940 because he returned to the Navy for active duty.  He saw combat in the War, and by the time he was discharged in 1946 he was a Commander.  Between 1947 and 1951 he played small roles in four films (including two by his old friend John Ford: Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), but he has appeared in nothing since The Gold Raiders (in which Monte Blue also had a small part).  He has been active, but not before the camera.

(See FILMS IN REVIEW, November 1962, for biography and list of films).

 *     *     *

MARGARET LIVINGSTON, though never a star by any means, was prominently active in films around this time.  (It was her voice that was dubbed-in for Louise Brooks when the latter defied Paramount’s orders to all members of the cast of The Canary Murder Case (1928) to return to the studios so that they could convert he already-completed film from a silent to a talkie).  She was later married to Paul Whiteman for awhile.

 *     *     *


Speaking of Academy Awards, you might be interested in the rest of the winners of that pioneer season when the first Oscars (as they werelater to be called) were presented.  They were given for the season of 1927-28, and not, as now, for the calendar year, and you will notice that in some cases the recipient received his award for distinguished work in several films rather than just one.  Here’s the full list:

Production: Wings (Paramount)

Best Actress: Janet Gaynor for Seventh Heaven, Sunrise and Street Angel (Fox)

Best Actor: Emil Jannings for The Way of all Flesh and The Last Command (Paramount)

Direction: Frank Borsage for Seventh Heaven (Fox)

Direction (comedy): Lewis Mileston for Two Arabian Knights (UA)

Writing: original script: Ben Hecht for Underworld (Paramount)

Writing: adaptation: Benjamin Glazer for Seventh Heaven (Fox)

Writing: subtitles: Joseph Farnham for The Fair Co-edLaugh, Clown, Laugh and Telling the World (MGM)

Cinematography: Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for Sunrise (Fox)

Art Direction: William Cameron Menzies for The Dove and The Tempest (United Artists)

Engineering Effects: Roy Pomeroy for Wings (Paramount)

Artistic quality of production: Sunrise (Fox)

Special Awards:

Warner Brothers: “for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer talking picture which has revolutionized the industry”.

Charles Chaplin: “for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus“.

 *     *     *

Notes by Fraser Macdonald


Our sixth and final show of the season in The Cat and the Canary, April 17.


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