Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Movie – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Some people consider Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans to be a co-Best Picture Academy Award winner.  The first year the Academy Awards were handed out the categories were different than in all subsequent years.  Among those were separate awards for “Best Picture, Production” and “Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production”.  Wings (1927) won the Best Picture, Production award, and since all subsequent Best Picture Awards were given to the producers of the films, it is considered the equivalent of all the other Best Picture winners.  This leaves Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans on the outside looking in.  Since some people prefer it to Wings, the argument that it should also be considered a true Best Picture winner was born.  I say just watch and enjoy both films.

The premise of the movie is one that is as old as time – man and woman are having troubles and another woman tries to take him away from her.  The characters are all archetypes.  In fact, they literally do not even have names.  The three main characters are “The Man” (played by George O’Brien), “The Woman” (played by Janet Gaynor), and “The Woman from the City” (played by Margaret Livingston.)  It was directed by F.W. Murnau, who is best known for directing Nosferatu (1922) – the classic vampire movie.  If you haven’t seen it, find it.

The Man and The Woman have been married for a while and their love has faded some.  The Woman from the City sees The Man and covets him.  She uses her “city ways” to lure him away, seduce him, and convince him to kill his wife to get her out of the way.  The Man tries to go ahead with it, but he just can’t bring himself to kill her.  What follows is a great sequence that deals with The Man and The Woman figuring out where they go from there.

Gaynor won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work on this film, 7th Heaven (1927), and Street Angel (1928).  Again, the awards were done differently the first time out.  Sunrise also won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography and this leads into the “unique and artistic production” subject.

There is a visually great sequence where The Man and The Woman walk out of a building and through traffic in the street in front of it.  You are right behind them as they walk.  You can see cars driving by both on the other side of the couple, and between the couple and yourself.  You can even see the reflection of the couple and the buildings in front of them reflected in the hoods of the cars that pass between you.  This is big because the scene could not be shot in a real street.  As the couple walk along the scene dissolves into a countryside setting and then back into the city street again.  It’s a metaphor for how the two are feeling at the time.  This has to be done with mattes, but even today people speculate on exactly how it was accomplished back in 1927.

The biggest negative with the film for a modern audience is the acting style of the period.  Movies were still somewhat new and most actors were used to “playing to the back of the theater” from their stage work.  Consequently, actions and facial expressions are exaggerated.  You can tell The Woman from the City is up to no good because of the evil smile she has on her face much of the time and the way she slinks around.  You can tell The Man is torn because of the anguish on his face and the way he moves.  You can tell The Woman is scared for her life because of the way she shows the fear. 

If you have never seen a film from this era then it might come across as very overwrought.  You just have to accept that that was the acting style of the period and go with it, the same way you have to accept in action films that the hero almost never gets shot and almost never misses whatever he is shooting at.  Neither is realistic, but they provide a shortcut for what the moviemakers are looking to accomplish.

The movie is a little difficult to find.  It is available on both DVD and Blu-ray, but in limited editions.  It is most easily available as part of a set of four Oscar winning movies.  I will include links for all three of these products at the bottom of this post.

Even if you’ve never seen a movie from this era before, I say give it a try.  I think you’ll find yourself liking it.  If you do like older movies, but have never seen this one, then I highly recommend it.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

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1 comment:

  1. You don't know shit. This is the greatest movie ever made.