“Sunrise – A Song Of Two Humans” won three Academy Awards for Best Picture of Unique and Artistic Production, Best Cinematography and Best Actress Janet Gaynor.
“Sunrise” is currently only available as part of a free mail-away order of 20th Century Fox's “Studio Classics” collection, or as part of Fox' Studio Classics Best Picture Collection (which includes "How Green Was My Valley," Gentleman's Agreement," and "All About Eve."
Originally released in 1998 on laserdisc, Fox's new DVD seriously beefs up the film with some important extras, including a commentary track by cinematographer John Bailey, best known for his work with writer/director Paul Shrader, and long a fan of Murnau's work.
Naturally the commentary is slanted towards the film's visuals, but Bailey's also a film buff, and he's prepared a list of additional topics that should keep viewers in front of the TV screen for a repeat viewing. Touching upon Murnau's career, Bailey aptly assesses the director's still-impressive tracking shots, breaking down the mechanics and background effects, and some amazing optical tricks that combined 2 or more layers for in-camera effects. Having seen surviving production stills, and himself a collector of Charles Rosher's still photography (originally hired by Cecil B. DeMille for portraits, Rosher eventually graduated to feature film cinematography), Bailey analyzes in plain language the visual craftsmanship of Rosher and co-cinematographer Karl Struss, plus Rochus Gliese's expressionistic set designs that combine some clever angles and trickery for an exaggerated perspective. (There's a bizarrely canted dinner table shot that defies conventional Newton's Law of Gravity, along with Gaynor and O'Brien's sloped bedroom.)
Present-day filmgoers spoiled by rapid cutting and sound effects will find that "Sunrise" retains a pleasantly brisk pace, including the film's middle section that, in keeping with the 'song of two humans' tagline, functions as a movement about redemption; unable to murder is wife, O'Brien and Gaynor travel to an unnamed city, where the reconstruction of their love moves through the pain of betrayal to forgiveness. Bailey offers some background material for the actors, and points out specific sequences for which existing outtakes are present on the DVD.
It's rather amazing any outtakes for a silent film still exist, and Bailey explains their relation to the finished film, comparing sections from unused master takes - including alternate tracking shots (some suffering from a bad case of hair-in-the-gate) such as vixen Livingston, out to mortally influence O'Brien's marriage in the town and subsequent lakeside rendezvous - with the more refined final versions, and key sections that were edited between other shots as well.
Because the original camera negative was destroyed in a nitrate fire in 1937, Fox's transfer was made from a fragile diacetate Movietone print archives at MOMA since 1936. As was the convention at this transitional period between silent and sound film, dual versions were shot, with the full silent negative containing a bit more picture information, while the sound version (aimed at better-equipped, urban movie palaces) required some side cropping for the Movietone optical track. Like the laserdisc, the DVD includes the sound print, featuring a digitally mopped up recording of Hugo Riesenfeld's score, and a more recent stereo score by Timothy Brock. (For a screening at Sundance in 1989, Bailey explains David Newman composed a new score as well.)
A master of visual storytelling, Murnau's best films can easily be viewed without intertitles, and "Sunrise" is perhaps one of the best gateway silent movies for film fans bearing an understandable reticence in viewing pre-sound films. Fox's overall DVD package removes some of the antique tarnish that's plagued these important milestones in film history, and includes a reconstruction of Murnau's next film - also starring Gaynor - that's now lost.
Titled "The 4 Devils," Murnau's melodrama follows 4 trapeze acrobats from their childhood to celebrated international daredevils. On tour in France, the lead male succumbs to the advances of a wealthy lady who keeps him in her fragrant embrace through sex and much boozing. Using beautiful sepia stills of cast, sets, and original production sketches, a coherent overview of this lost film is possible, combining script excerpts with periodic production facts by the narrator. Four endings were conceived, and two ultimately filmed, although Murnau's first cut received much support from a test screening. Excerpted are actual quotes from these passionate supporters, proving test screenings, audience research, and pleasing the masses is nothing new in the Digital Age of moviemaking.
With "The Jazz Singer" from Warner Bros. making a killing at the box office in 1927, "The 4 Devils" was recut to incorporate newly shot sound footage, and released under the banner "Gaynor Speaks!" - an exclamatory tagline subsequently riffed in 1930, when Greta Garbo made her own transition to sound in "Anna Christie" ("Garbo Talks!"), and comedy, in 1939's "Ninotchka" ("Garbo Laughs!").
For those more curious about this lost gem, Fox has included the original screenplay and treatment, and the "Sunrise" screenplay appears on its own, and with Murnau's annotations.
A still gallery for "Sunrise" offers an original poster, lobby card, cast portrait, and behind-the-scenes production shot; the film's original trailer - shopworn but still quite watchable - combines various clips (including, as John Bailey mentions, a few outtakes) with pull-quotes from several New York reviewers - a rather surprising use of media, since quotes are pretty much standard in a film's publicity today.
Fox's "Sunrise" DVD certainly sets a standard among a classic silent film produced by a major studio, and though not offered at the retail level, hopefully Fox and other studios will continue to take a chance in releasing some of their silent gems, generously supplied with a similar quantity of archival goodies and critical insight.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan