City Girl (1930, F.W. Murnau)
The honeymoon period F.W. Murnau enjoyed at William Fox’s studio was over quickly. Sunrise, for which he’d been given cart blanche financially and artistically, was a kind of loss leader for Fox, an acclaimed but only moderately successful film that earned the studio little money but invaluable prestige; Fox wanted his studio to be a haven for artists. And of course, Sunrise and its seamless impressionistic style had infected Hollywood as a whole but especially the other major directors working at Fox, in particular John Ford and Frank Borzage, who immediately modeled their projects on the visual opulence and emotional depth of Sunrise. The result was a lot of excellent and exciting films, and it’s breathtaking now to imagine a studio environment in which expression of this kind was actually encouraged; but in Murnau’s case, Sunrise was sadly the beginning of the end.
We are unable to study the track that took the great Murnau from Sunrise to City Girl; the film he made at Fox between them, 4 Devils, has been missing for the better part of a century. It’s not enough to study the surviving stills and screenplay and attempt to make judgment of the reconstructions; having a film described to you is, very unequivocally, not the same as seeing it. It’s also not enough to know that Murnau’s budget was cut drastically for 4 Devils and then again for City Girl; who can really say how this would affect someone with a compelling vision? What we know is that Fox was in trouble, despite several massive hit films in the late ’20s (none more relevant to this conversation than Borzage’s titanic 7th Heaven, which is a lovely picture but admittedly took Sunrise to the bank), and Murnau — after coming to Hollywood with great fanfare — was dealing with more and more compromise and circumvention. City Girl would finally be taken out of his hands before its completion.
Compromise is evident in City Girl, which for someone who is expecting another Sunrise must come as a deep disappointment. It has moments of grace and opulence, and the characters are defined strongly, but you can sense how much — in terms of both artistic control and monetary prowess — Murnau had lost over the preceding few years. It’s all the more frustrating with the MIA status of 4 Devils, which prevents us from really getting a sense of the narrative arc in Murnau’s final act as a filmmaker.
The film is, like Sunrise, a straightforward romance quite suited to the Depression period into which it fell. The hulking Charles Farrell is Lem, a naive kid from a country farm who goes into Chicago to sell wheat just before the declining market for it abruptly results in a lower price; depressed, he runs across Kate in a bustling urban cafe. Kate, brilliantly played by the understated Mary Duncan, is sick to death of dealing with the leering morons at her job and quickly latches on to Lem for his kindness and somewhat wide-eyed and sheepish romancing of her. The two fall in love and marry and the film could practically end with their joyous leap through the wheat fields to the Tustine family farm and would have offered a perception of love and acceptance as rich and lovely as that of Sunrise.
Alas, we have a long way to go. Kate is immediately rejected by Lem’s father (David Torrence), who feels his son has gone completely mad by getting married so suddenly, and to boot he’s pissed off to no end about the wheat lowballing and suspects Kate just wanted a way out of Chicago, preferably with money attached. It’s a kind of rural Manderlay: Kate tries her best to fit in but deals at every turn with the wrath of Lem’s cruel dad, and moreover with the creepy advances of the male farm workers. In another mirroring of Sunrise, the film climaxes with a (mistaken) accusation of infidelity and a chase through the dark farmlands to find and beg forgiveness from Kate, who’s understandably run away.
The deficiencies of City Girl are clearest in that last act. Up to then, Murnau sinks his teeth into some stunning visual moments, especially the long tracking shot of the lovers jumping and running happily through the fields. Murnau was wildly ahead of his time in film and in life, and the film has a more than slight feminist bent — it consistently sides with Kate over the shaming of those around her, while (like Hitchcock in his early silent films) satirizing the sinister nature of behavior the men in the film view as innocuous, all the drooling and coercion and cruelty therein. But the film is never better than in its earliest sequences, taking place in an evocatively limited vision of Chicago and city life; the restaurant that employs Kate is an elaborate creation, full of extras and life and successfully, artfully presenting the excitement and hell of working in a big city and being surrounded by people.
Once we leave Chicago, the film becomes rather humdrum, a retread of too many other, better films about alienated women dealing with adverse conditions in the middle of seemingly nowhere; chief among these is MGM’s extraordinary The Wind, also the work of a foreign filmmaker — Victor Sjostrom. However, City Girl was in limbo for so long that we in fact can’t blame it for this. The Wind was relased three months after City Girl began shooting, despite the latter not seeing release until two years later. All the same, it’s telling that Sjostrom’s film also suffered with studio tampering, being forced to use a compromised happy ending in its dark tale of a woman driven to madness by the cruelty of others; equally telling that both films were written, in whole or in part, by women. (The Wind was scripted by the hallowed Frances Marion from Dorothy Scarborough’s novel; City Girl had many more hands in the pot but was cowritten by Fox regular Marion Orth, with some title work from Katherine Hilliker.)
As in The Wind, the worst offense of all here is the pat finale, which after an hour or so of emotional terror and manipulation finds thirty seconds for us to feel as if all is forgiven and Kate can go and live with the family on the farm with open arms, as if her own feelings about this are wholly irrelevant after she’s just been accused of cheating because a man attempted to rape her. It’s infuriating but unfortunately, those were the times; in Sunrise, the murderous and irredeemable act happened early in the film and the subsequent hour was spent with not just Janet Gaynor but the audience finding forgiveness in their hearts for it. That’s hard-earned emotion; City Girl is easy and lazy, and I doubt Murnau approved of the way it turned out.
Still, his vision comes through more often than not, at least visually — and no one who cares about the purity and poetry of the best Hollywood silent films should miss City Girl, an essential document of a specific phase in the career and life of one of the most gifted of all film directors. Murnau departed Fox in the middle of the prolonged production on City Girl because of a dispute over sound. Sound was exploding in 1928 and 1929, and the studio wanted to make this a part-talkie feature, which would require reshoots in which Murnau did not wish to participate. (Thus, the reason this has such a late release date for a silent film is that it was in fact released as a compromised part-sound version mostly completed by an assistant; ironically, that version is now lost.) His power in Hollywood considerably reduced, Murnau went abroad to make the independently financed film Tabu, regarded as a far more artistically successful venture than City Girl. Before it premiered, he was killed in a car accident, thus robbing the world of one of the most vital voices in the history of cinema; he was only 42.