BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Apr 17th, 2003 •

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1927 Fox Film Corporation
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Unless they uncover very early film footage of Lincoln’s assassination, the big film restoration event of 2003 will be the DVD release of F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE. It is interesting to note that SUNRISE, probably the most exciting, and visually expressive of all silent films, was released in September, 1927, a few weeks before THE JAZZ SINGER introduced the movie soundtrack.

During the mid 20’s Hollywood producers noticed that artistic German films generated big American bucks. One of the German directors they had their eye on was F.W. Murnau. His films, like NOSFERATU, THE LAST LAUGH and FAUST, depended very little on explanatory title cards. His use of facial expressions, props, camera placement and editing told a story in incredible detail on their own.

Murnau was invited to move from Germany to America by Producer William Fox. At the newly formed Fox Film Corporation, Murnau was allowed to make a Hollywood film of his choosing. Basically Murnau had almost complete creative control. The resulting film, SUNRISE, was based on a short story, “Die Reise Nach Tilsit” (A Trip To Tilsit) by Hermann Sudermann. The screenplay was developed in Germany by Murnau and his writer, Carl Meyer. The entire film was shot in Hollywood studios and at Lake Arrowhead, California.

The story of SUNRISE is wonderfully simple. A farmer, (George O’Brien) feeling distant from his wife (Janet Gaynor) has an affair with a seductive woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). The farmer nervously takes up the woman’s suggestion to kill the wife in what will look like a boating accident. At the last second, the farmer has a change of heart, and learns to truly love his wife. The remainder of the film follows, in inventive visual terms, the re-birth of their marriage, and what becomes of the frighteningly clever woman from the city.

Fox had high hopes for this breakthrough visual poem. The original theatrical trailer for SUNRISE (available on the new DVD of the film) places Murnau’s name above the title. (Side note: The first film to have a trailer was THE ADVENTURES OF KATHRYN in 1912.) The 20th Century Fox DVD of SUNRISE has the best possible visual restoration: it looks great, despite the fact that a fire at Fox in 1937 destroyed SUNRISE’s negative. You just look at the DVD and you can see why the Motion Picture Academy had to invent a special category in order to give SUNRISE an Oscar (It won in 1929 for “The Most Unique and Artistic Production”)

John Bailey, a leading Hollywood cinematographer, provides the commentary track, pointing out that SUNRISE’s main cinematographer Karl Struss was snubbed in the opening credits. (Struss is incorrectly billed below Charles Rosher.) Struss’ other film credits include Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, DeMille’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, THE MACOMBER AFFAIR, THE FLY, and Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT. Future cult director Edgar Ulmer worked with Struss on the film’s tricky camera movements, some of which involved the camera being attached to a ceiling mounted crane. Listen to Bailey talk about SUNRISE’s “drunk piggy” scene, it’s pretty funny. You have your choice between the original Fox Movietone soundtrack, whose mood music is haunting and creepy for certain scenes. In a comically tense scene, the tune “Funeral For a Marionette” is used. You will recognize it as the playful theme for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. In this sense, Murnau beat Hitchcock by decades. The second score, which is more modern, was performed for a 1989 Sundance Film Festival showing of SUNRISE.

The extras don’t stop (I was up to the wee hours of the morning with this DVD treat) You also get SUNRISE out-takes (which includes an alternate take of the beautiful tracking shot of O’Brien lumbering through the swamp, hopping a fence, and cutting though the weeds to meet his wicked mistress, all in one take.) Another out-take actually shows Murnau at work. However, the back cover misleads. You would think THE FOUR DEVILS, a circus melodrama Murnau made right after SUNRISE, again with Janet Gaynor, is included. It’s not. What you get are production stills, sketches and screenplay excerpts from this missing film. The screenplays for both SUNRISE and FOUR DEVILS are included.

SUNRISE is, to date, the latest of 20th Century Fox’s DVD releases of their classics. Other than SUNRISE, their best DVD is that timeless spaceship classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. (Where you can get the special effects department’s blueprints for building the spaceship.)

Written by Carl Meyer
Directed by F.W Murnau
With George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

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