Monday, April 25, 2011
City Girl (1930) dir. F.W. Murnau
Starring: Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, David Torrence, Edith Yorke
By Alan Bacchus
By 1930, the ‘sound era’ was well underway. F. W. Murnau (Sunrise), the German emigrant, was still working in the medium. One of his greatest films was made in the sound era – City Girl. Technically, City Girl was a ‘talkie’ as well. Murnau filmed two versions, but unfortunately only the silent one remains. Murnau was a master at silent film, and so it’s difficult to imagine City Girl being improved with sound.
It’s a simple story. Charles Farell plays Lem, a rural farm kid who is sent to the big city of Chicago to sell the family crop. He’s been given specific instructions by Pa to sell it for $15 a bushel or else they won’t be able to survive for the year. Once in the market, Lem sees the price of wheat start to drop sharply, and he sells it for $13.
Meanwhile, when he’s not playing the market, he goes to lunch at a local diner, where he catches the eye of a beautiful young waitress, Kate (Mary Duncan). They fall in love and Lem asks for her hand in marriage before he leaves. Together they move back to the farm. The honeymoon is short-lived as soon as Lem’s crotchety old father takes an instant disliking to Kate. Lem doesn’t stand up for her, which causes their relationship to falter just as quickly as it grew.
The structure provides the audience with two unique film experiences. The Chicago scenes show Lem as the outsider in the fast-paced Big City world – a world so unforgiving and high-pressure that it causes him to sell his crop short. The second half takes place entirely at the farm, where Kate is the one who is out of place. Like Sunrise, the splintered film comments on the differences between city and country.
In Sunrise, Murnau's mobile camera provided a fluid, dream-like point of view into these worlds. In City Girl, his photography of both environments is tableau Whistler-esque portrait-style framing. Though not as flashy, Murnau still frames some stunning imagery.
The remastered DVD from 20th Century Fox, included in their new Murnau/Borzage/Fox box set, is stunning to look at. Ernest Palmer’s B&W is so crisp, it's indiscernible from B&W imagery shot decades later.
Watching City Girl, it’s hard to remember this is the same director of German expressionist classics like Nosferatu and Faust. Sadly, it was the last film from this great filmmaker, as Murnau died a year later in a tragic car accident. Enjoy.
City Girl is available in a special Box Set from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.