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The Beauty of 'Sunrise': Early Academy Award Winner

George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor in Sunrise

“Once picked in Cahiers du Cinema as 'the most beautiful film in the world,' Sunrise remains a virtual motherlode of expressive silent movie-making techniques. While the story is bone simple, its telling is anything but. With his gracefully floating camera, montages, dissolves and multiple-imaging, Murnau creates a world of suggestive visual poetry that exists somewhere between dramatic enactment and idealized fantasy.”

That's Geoff Pevere in the Toronto Star, referring to F.W. Murnau's melodrama Sunrise (a.k.a. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), made for Fox in 1927. In the film, female Human Janet Gaynor (wearing a godawful blond wig) plays the country girl whose beloved male Human (George O'Brien) is seduced by an Inhuman city vamp (Margaret Livingston).

Many find this tale of lust, love, sorrow, and ultimate redemption (the happy ending was insisted upon by the studio) one of the greatest films of all time. I've seen it three times, and – despite several good moments, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss' poetic lenses, and Murnau's camera virtuosity – I've never been able to warm up to either the characters or the storyline. Personally, if I were O'Brien, I'd definitely have dumped Janet Gaynor for sultry Margaret Livingston. (True, I wouldn't have tried to strangle Gaynor, though I'd most likely have set her wig on fire.)

Janet Gaynor, one of the biggest stars of the 1920s and 1930s, could be quite appealing – Lucky Star and Street Angel come to mind – but I find her performance in Sunrise to be more than a little cloying. She and the usually likable George O'Brien are supposed to be archetypes, but they – and Livingston's vamp – come across as one-dimensional stereotypes. Whenever that happens, the meanies usually have the upper hand, as stereotypical goodness tends to be insufferably dull.

At the very first Academy Awards ceremony, Sunrise won three awards: Best Actress (Gaynor, who also won for Street Angel and 7th Heaven), Best Cinematography (unfortunately, the currently available restored print of Sunrise still looks like the dupe of a dupe of a dupe – the original nitrate print is apparently lost), and Unique and Artistic Picture. That was the only time the “Unique and Artistic Picture” award, basically a “best art-house film award,” was handed out. Sunrise reportedly won in that category because MGM head Louis B. Mayer, one of the Academy founding members, refused to allow his studio's downbeat money-loser The Crowd to win. (Or so later said The Crowd director, King Vidor – whose film, in my opinion, should indeed have won.)

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1 Comment to The Beauty of 'Sunrise': Early Academy Award Winner

  1. sill

    That's my favorite silent film.