City Girl (1930):
(Our Daily Bread)

Truncated, reshot and tossed off as part-talkie before its 1970 unearthing, the closer to F.W. Murnauís Hollywood sojourn is both companion piece to and reconsideration of Sunrise, the directorís (and, thus, cinemaís) culminating achievement -- it is a less obviously sublime achievement, yet in some aspects a more complex one. Painted in less Manichaean tones, the earlier filmís Madonna/whore halves get combined within the title heroine (May Duncan) not as either-or absolutes, but as invaluably mysterious human forces. The sweltering Chicago where waitress Duncan first meets country boy Charles Farrell swarms with people on the go yet is fraught with loneliness, a studio evocation of urban dislocation never more lovingly etched than in the girlís tiny flat, equipped with glowing neon signs, tram rattling outside and, inevitably, postcards yearning for a bucolic paradise. Her dreams of pastoral sanctuary dissipate, however, as soon the freshly married twosome arrives at Farrellís Minnesota farm, their honeymoon promptly crushed by the unsmiling suspicions of the ladís severe Pa (David Torrence). Originally envisioned as a "symphony of wheat," the elemental dimension remains strong in the narrative, celebrated in documentary-style harvesting shots and, unforgettably, through a magical tracking shot jubilantly following the elated coupleís dash through the fields. Yet its idealized country purity is continually questioned not simply by the surging harshness of Nature, or by the latest incarnation of the threatening forces always bearing down on Murnauís couples (personalized, as in the directorís final masterpiece Tabu, by an oppressive patriarchy), but also by the charactersí own emotions. It is only fitting that Murnau parallels Farrell and Duncanís struggle to reconnect their love for each other with the climactic race, filmed with splendid oil-lamp chiaroscuro, to rescue the harvest from an incoming hailstorm -- less ensured than at the end of Sunrise, the coupleís tentative happiness acknowledges the unknowability of relationships as an extension of the attempts to harmonize the polarized elements (city and country, man and woman, the corporeal and the spiritual) of the universe around them, and of Murnauís art in particular. With Edith Yorke, Richard Alexander, Anne Shirley, and Guinn Williams. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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