Even if the resolutions of Jan. 1 are swiftly forgotten, it’s the time of year when new beginnings and fresh starts are foremost in our minds. Appropriately, Pacific Film Archive is kicking off 2022 with perhaps the greatest cinematic paean to new beginnings — 1927’s silent classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, screening at 7 p.m. on Jan. 8 as part of the new series “F.W. Murnau: Voyages Into the Imaginary.”
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Pacific Film Archive, Jan. 8, 7 p.m.
By the time he arrived in Hollywood in 1926, the German-born Murnau had already made most of the films he’s remembered for today, including 1922’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (the template for all vampire films to come) and 1924’s heart-wrenching character study Der Letze Mann (The Last Laugh). Produced for Fox, Sunrise was the director’s first American film and would go on to win three well-deserved Oscars — including Best Picture — at the 1929 Academy Awards.
Leads George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor play a farm couple whose marriage is threatened by a big city temptress (Margaret Livingston). Bored with his marriage and seemingly uninterested in helping raise the couple’s newborn child, The Man (O’Brien) has been surreptitiously seeing The Woman From the City (Livingston, looking extremely cheeky in trendy bangs and lace nighty), who’s persuaded him to sell his land and run away with her to the city. The Wife (Gaynor), of course, will be left behind — or worse.
Sunrise’s ominous first act climaxes in a scene I suspect was influenced by Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy. Published in 1925 — only a year before Sunrise went into production — Dreiser’s best-selling tale of marital infidelity and murder had already been adapted for the stage and was being considered for the screen by no less than Erich von Stroheim (though sadly, that film never came to be).
Sunrise, however, is no tragedy: The Man comes to his senses at the last moment, realizing that the simple life he’s been living is not so bad after all. The moment of madness passed, he realizes he must win back both both the love and trust of The Wife. Unsurprisingly, it’s no easy task.
While Gaynor deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar, O’Brien wasn’t even nominated — a strange oversight, as his performance in an extremely challenging role is every bit as good as hers. Charles Rosher and Karl Struss’s cinematography (which also won an Academy Award) provides a glorious blend of gothic rural gloom, phantasmagoric city life, and artful inter-titles (created by Katherine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell) in service of Murnau’s timeless tale of redemption.
A few observations after watching Sunrise for the first time in many years: Seeing O’Brien clumsily lurch around in his ill-fitting suit, I couldn’t help but think of Boris Karloff’s 1932 performance as the Frankenstein monster. Did Universal’s costume department take note of O’Brien’s performance, or am I seeing something that isn’t there? And how on earth did the great Gibson Gowland go from headlining Von Stroheim’s 1924 masterpiece Greed to making an uncredited, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo as an angry driver only three years later?
If you can’t make the Jan. 8 showing, Sunrise will screen again on Friday, Feb. 18. Both screenings will be accompanied by a live pianist, the first time by PFA regular Judith Rosenberg and the second by Bruce Loeb. It’s a great way to start what will hopefully be a better year than the last one — and the one before that, for that matter.