Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927) is my favorite silent film, one of my favorites of any genre really. It is a rich, strange, gorgeous film. Directed by the great gay filmmaker and visionary F.W.Murnau, it was his first Hollywood film after much success in Europe. He shows what a true artist from the silent era could accomplish cinematically.
Sunrise startled its first audiences, astonished by the boldness of its visual experimentation. Murnau was one of the greatest of the expressionists; his Nosferatu (1922) invented the vampire movie, and his The Last Laugh (1924) became famous for doing away altogether with title cards and telling the story entirely with images.
Summoned to the United States by William Fox to make a film for his new studio, Murnau worked with the cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss to achieve an extraordinary stylistic breakthrough.
The film was released the same year that silent films were giving way to sound pictures; The Jazz Singer was already playing in theatres. Murnau’s film has a soundtrack, avoiding dialogue but using music and sound effects in sync with the action. But by the next year, audiences would want to hear the actors speaking.
Sunrise was not a box-office success, but Hollywood knew it was a masterpiece. When the first Academy Awards were held, the top prize was shared: Wings won for “Best Production” and Sunrise won for “Best Artistic Picture”. Last year, The Academy toyed with this idea again when it was proposed that there would be an award for “Best Popular Film” and Best Picture. I think it was to honor Black Panther and future blockbusters, but they didn’t go with idea.
It didn’t matter, Sunrise tells a story that needs a few words. It is a fable; the characters don’t even have names. They are The Wife (Gaynor), “The Man” (George O’Brien) and “The Woman from the City” (Margaret Livingston).
In a quaint lakeside village, The Woman from the City has come for a getaway, and lingers on to seduce and entrap The Man. Bored with his wife, their baby and the dull routine of farm life, The Man (O’Brien) falls under the spell of The Women from the City who convinces him to drown his wife so they can escape to the city together. The Wife becomes suspicious and runs away to the city, The Man pursues her, slowly regaining her trust as the two rediscover their love for each. The emerging and semi-dangerous emancipation of women in the 1920s was captured in the character of the diabolical yet erotic modern Woman from the City.
In a remarkable early sequence, we see The Woman from the City smoking in her room, prowling restlessly in her lingerie, and then walking through the village to the lighted window of the man’s cottage, where she whistles (there is an ominous musical note on the soundtrack). Inside the cottage, the man hears her, we see torment and temptation in his face, and finally he slips out of the cottage; when his wife returns to the table with their dinner, he is gone, and there are shots that juxtapose her embracing their child while The Woman from the City embraces The Man.
Exquisitely visualized and photographed. Breakthrough camera tracking movements fluidly and sophisticated moves through space: a trolley ride, boats, dance halls, trolley cars, and city traffic, creating an unusual illusion of depth and vastness. The use of the moving camera influenced future films, including Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane (1941). The sets were for the film were constructed to recede slightly in the distance, to produce illusions of depth.
Sunrise has a sophisticated use of light, dark and shadows, and moods. The contrast between rural ”country” life and urban ”city” life are emphasized through sun-lit and studio-lit exterior and interior shots.
Rich, strange and gorgeous, Murnau’s Sunrise shows what an artist of the late silent era could accomplish cinematically, backed by a big studio budget and fueled by the highest aspirations even for the simplest of morality tales.
Gaynor was a superstar of the silent screen. She won the first Academy Award, in 1927, for the three films Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel (that’s how they did it at the start of the Academy’s giving of awards). She held the record as the youngest Best Actress winner for almost 60 years. She was bested by 21-years-old Marlee Matlin for Children Of A Lesser God in 1986, in case you are trivia minded.
Unlike most other actors from the silent era, Gaynor successfully made the transfer to sound films. She was Oscar nominated again for the original and best version of A Star Is Born (1937) with Fredric March, directed by William Wellman. Not the one with Streisand with an afro.
After Sunrise, Gaynor became the highest paid female in Hollywood. She made 36 films in 10 years for Fox Studios. She was shining in light comedies and musicals that exploited her special qualities of innocence, vulnerability and natural sweetness. But, she had real acting chops.
Fox used Charles Farrell and Gaynor in a series of 11 melodramas , romances, and light comedies. As a box-office incentive of sorts, studio publicists and the fan magazines came up with a Farrell-Gaynor off-screen love affair. Never mind the fact that the two were not lovers, in fact they were both gay. Farrell became mayor of Palm Springs from 1948 to 1953. They had terrific on-screen chemistry and were friendly in real life, and for the sake of their careers, they were more than happy to oblige the gossip rag’s photographers with pictures of the two of them canoodling.
Gaynor moved to Brazil and lived there nearly full time in the 1950s and 1960s. This seems to have been a way to get away from the gossip magazines that had begun paying attention to her special closeness to Broadway star Mary Martin, who had a farm right next to Gaynor’s in Brazil. All three of Gaynor’s husbands were gay. The second was MGM‘s legendary costume designer, Gilbert Adrian, whose credits ran simply as “Gowns By Adrian”. Gaynor was noted for her demure femininity on screen, but she was a feisty butch thing in real life. Adrian made the trousers and Gaynor wore them. The couple had a son, Robin Gaynor Adrian. Rumor had it that during labor, doctors told Adrian his wife might lose the baby, to which he replied:
“Oh no, I’ll have to go through that again!”.
William Mann‘s terrific, juicy, meticulously researched book Behind The Screen: How Gays And Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969 (2001) says that Gaynor wasn’t bisexual, but a real lifelong lesbian. Cutie pie actor Robert Cummings once quipped:
“Janet Gaynor’s husband was Adrian, the MGM fashion designer. But her wife was Mary Martin.”
Gaynor may have frequently played the naive waif in films, but in real life she was quite worldly and rather tough stuff. An early advocate for better roles and more money for females in the biz, she did the seemingly unthinkable by going on strike against Fox Studios, paving the way for future stars to throw around their clout.
Sunrise is available on YouTube: