Monday, May 21, 2012

Pre-Pre-Code Parade: CITY GIRL (1929-30)

The history of Hollywood's transition from silents to talkies is so heavy with tragedies of lost film that it's a relief of a sort to share the last laugh, so to speak, with the forces of entropy and neglect. Fox Film's City Girl was long thought to be no more than a travesty of Our Daily Bread, the third and last film directed for the American studio by "German genius" F. W. Murnau. Worse for posterity, Fox added talking sequences after Murnau had left the studio to shoot his final film, Tabu, and tried to pass the results off in the spring of 1930 as an all-talking film in their advertising. Here's what Film Daily thought of their efforts.

The 67-minute film Film Daily reviewed is lost. In its place, we have an 88-minute silent film. While the extent to which it represents Murnau's ultimate intentions is still in dispute, it can't help but come closer to what he intended than the "antiquated" abomination the 1930 reviewers saw. The surviving silent falls short of Murnau's design from the very start. As noted above, he'd wanted to call the film Our Daily Bread, and the title change -- as the poster above shows, Murnau's title was used in some territories -- is supposed to be one of the reasons he left Fox. I revere the director of Nosferatu, Der Letzte Mann and Sunrise as much as any film buff, but on this occasion I think the studio had the better idea. Murnau seems to have had a notion that he was making an epic of bread with a framing device of an urban waitress, someone who serves a lot of bread, going to the countryside where the wheat is raised -- where "our daily bread" comes from. The folks at Fox must have worried that the title sounded too biblical -- though that wouldn't stop King Vidor a few years later -- or simply too pretentious. City Girl actually gets closer to the essence of the film we have today, serving as an epithet as well as identifying the principal character. If the film we have today results from studio tampering, the actual result is a film that comes across as more modern in many ways than Murnau's great success for Fox, the quasi-pastoral, folkloric Sunrise. It also comes across as a kind of antithesis or apology for some of the thematic or stylistic excesses of the earlier film, whether that's how Murnau meant it or not. Between director and studio, City Girl emerges as a transitional film from the sentimentality of silents to the sensibility of Pre-Code talking cinema.

The star of the picture is Charles Farrell, a romantic idol normally paired with Janet Gaynor, who had starred in Murnau's two previous films. But the main character is played by Mary Duncan, an actress who had appeared with Gaynor in the lost middle film, Four Devils. Farrell plays Lem Tustine, scion of a wheat-growing family whose future depends on Lem selling the crop at $1.15 a bushel at the Chicago Trade Mart on his first trip to the big city. He takes his meals at Johnson's Place, a vast diner where Kate (Duncan) toils and dreams of escape. She's only seen the countryside in advertising art, but it's gotta be better than her urban drudgery. When her fellow waitresses snicker when Lem says grace before eating, Kate is charmed by his simplicity and his tales of farm life. For Lem, Kate's a welcome distraction from the pressure of the market, where wheat has fallen below the price his dad set and is still trending down. Should he wait for the price to go up again? He finally decides to cut his losses and sell at $1.12 -- and to ask Kate to marry him. After nearly losing each other between the diner and the train station, she eagerly accepts his proposal.

For Lem's father (the baleful David Torrence), Lem's marriage is nearly as great a disaster as his failure to sell the wheat at the right price. Tustine blames Kate for distracting Lem from his proper focus on the market, and suspects her of being a gold digger. Kate doesn't take crap from anybody, however, and on the other hand Tustine isn't used to defiance. The old man literally tries to bend her to his will, but she bites his fingers and he slaps her face. She remains defiantly determined to make a man of Lem, who has slunk off submissively under his father's wrath and is soon the laughingstock of the farm workers who promptly set about ogling Kate, who finds herself waitressing again when Tustine demands that she make herself useful. Chief among the oglers is Mac (Richard Alexander) who thinks that the estrangement Tustine has forced on Lem and Kate is his opening to score with the city girl. She's having none of it, but the self-loathing Lem can't help doubting her fidelity. The crisis builds to a climax as Mac turns against Tustine in a harebrained attempt to avenge Kate and win her by ruining the wheat crop, Kate finally quits the farm after one accusation too many, and Lem finally mans up and stands up to everybody....

In Sunrise, the rustic hero is tempted to do an American Tragedy on his wife by the malevolent "Woman from the City," an archetypal vamp whom Murnau films almost like a literal one -- and he should know how -- stalking the swamps by moonlit night.  Kate Tustine is a very different woman from the city, come to the country not to prey upon its guileless men but to find refuge from the very city that spawned her. Yet rural perceptions of women from the city turn her idyll into an ordeal, whether the men look upon her with loathing like Pa Tustine or with lude assumptions like Mac. The sympathetic focus on Kate rather than Lem makes City Girl almost a full-scale reversal of Sunrise, focusing on the city girl's disillusionment with rural life or, more specifically, rural men, and you can see how, despite it sad fate, the later film was designed to appeal more to real city girls than its almost mythological predecessor. Mary Duncan rises to the occasion with a performance balancing assertiveness and vulnerability, no shrinking violet yet not implausibly masterful. Whether Murnau directed all her scenes or not, she's consistently appealing and holds the picture together as Farrell recedes sulkingly into the background until the climax.

Murnau tones down the expressionism this time, reminding us that he was a master of location shooting as well as forced-perspective sets. His setbound Chicago is no fantasyland like the city of Sunrise, though there are hints of the same aesthetic sense in the sets, and the gigantic Johnson's Place definitely looks like it belongs in the earlier film. City Girl makes its impressions more often in miniature, especially in the view of a city of billboards and elevated trains from Kate's flat. The idea is to contrast the crowded crampedness of Kate's city (and the heat; Duncan really sells her character's craving for air from fans) with the wide-open space of wheat country, which Murnau shows off with an exhilarating tracking shot of the newlyweds romping and racing through the fields. A lot of the farm sequences, especially scenes set a night, are studio shoots, albeit brilliantly shot for mood and lighting by Ernest Palmer, but the daylight scenes of actual farm labor have a documentary authenticity that grounds the film's visual contrast of city and country even as the story critiques the stereotypical contrast.  I don't know how suddenly the old man is won over in the truncated part-talkie version, but his conversion in the silent version comes after a dramatically shot showdown involving a fight between Lem and Mac on a runaway wagon, with Tustine poised to shoot the renegade Mac but just as likely to plug his son instead. In a nice touch, the climax is punctuated by a bullet blasting a lantern and plunging the screen into total darkness, finally broken by a title card that practically leaps into the seats -- "FATHER!" If City Girl strikes a Murnau fan as a ramping down from Sunrise, at least it betrays no decline in narrative or evocative power.

More than Sunrise, in fact, and more than the subsequent Tabu, City Girl inspires a wistful confidence that Murnau might have made it as a Pre-Code director. He was under contract to Paramount at the time of his death by traffic accident in 1931, but you can't help wondering what kind of talkies he would have made in a period not exactly conducive to his folkloric tales. The gritty blatancy of Pre-Code seems no better fit for Murnau than it might have been for, say, Tim Burton. I suppose we can imagine Murnau helming such Paramount horrors as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Island of Lost Souls; whether he could have made more of them than their respective actual directors is hard to say. Gangster pictures or the typical Paramount decadent romantic comedy also seem out of his league; Murnau would have had to find his niche alongside the likes of Lubitsch, Mammoulian and Sternberg, but how? City Girl shows him moving, possibly against his own will, toward a sensibility more congenial to the era he missed. If anything, it feels more like a Warner Bros. picture than anything Paramount might have assigned him -- and any resemblance to Warners is a good sign for a Pre-Code filmmaker. City Girl is nowhere near the spectacular artistic triumph of Sunrise, but its more modest accomplishment makes you believe that Murnau would have been more than a flash in the pan, and might have been around for the long haul, had he the chance.


Jon said...

Agree with just about everything here Samuel. I watched this 2 weeks ago. It is definitely a step down from previous films. I actually prefer his German period and consider The Last Laugh to be his best film. I think Sunrise is a bit too soapy for its own good, but it's still tremendous. City Girl comes across as well in a soapy fashion sometimes that doesn't ring true. I like some sequences, but overall it's uneven. It is clearly a transitional film though around the pre-code era and definitely smacks of this. I wonder if Murnau would have as high a standing in the film world if his life had continued. If he was going to be making films like City Girl and Tabu instead of Faust and The Last Laugh, would he have faded into oblivion? We'll never know.

Samuel Wilson said...

It's a step down from an aesthetic standpoint but its modesty may have proven a virtue in the long term. I'd agree that Last Laugh is Murnau's best technically, with the caveat that I'm not a big Emil Jannings fan. By default, Murnau seems a creature of the Twenties and that decade's artistic tastes, and that always leaves open the question of how he would have fared in a radically different cultural climate. City Girl, more than Tabu, is the closest we get to an answer.