Judge Michael Nazarewycz is considering taking a vow of silents.
"This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time."
In the decades I've had this thing I've called an addiction to movies, I've watched a lot of films from Hollywood's Golden Age. But rare has the occasion been that I have watched a silent film. With great respect to Charlie Chaplin, whose films I love (and whose films I consider "Chaplin films" more than silent films), the genre does very little for me. I have respect for it, and for its historical significance, but it's something that simply hasn't resonated with me. Given my recent history of exploring areas of film that are new (or new-ish) to me, I thought I'd give Sunrise—not only a silent film but one of the Academy's first Best Picture winners—a go.
Facts of the Case
Sunrise tells the story of The Man (George O'Brien, Fort Apache) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor, 1937's A Star Is Born). They have fallen on hard times and The Man is lost. With the recent addition of a baby and growing financial troubles, he has sought the physical comforts of The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston, Smart Money). So desperate is she to be with The Man, she convinces him to kill The Wife by drowning her and making it look like an accident.
The man intends to carry out the murder, but he can't. What happens instead is that the event strengthens his relationship with The Wife, and the couple comes to enjoy a newfound romantic spark. This relationship renaissance, though, must survive one more potential great tragedy.
Sunrise is a remarkable film, thanks in large part to how relatable it is to the viewer. This all starts with the characters' names—or lack thereof. The Man. The Wife. The Woman From the City. These are characters who have no names and they don't need names because they are more than characters in a story; they are representatives of us all.
At some point in our lives, we have thought the worst was upon us. At some point in our lives, we have been in love and have watched that love wither. At some point in our lives, we have been the victim of someone else's ill intent…or maybe we were the ill-intending…or maybe we were the other (wo)man. And hopefully at some point in our lives, we have loved and almost lost, yet found that love renewed again.
In 90 silent minutes—90 minutes that simply breeze by—director F.W. Murnau (1922's Nosferatu) beautifully captures all of that: the desperation of hopelessness, the sorrow of a dying love, the fear that all is forever lost, the hope for a better future, and the joy of a love renewed. And he does it not only without the benefit of dialogue, but with very few intertitles. He allows his direction to tell the story.
Murnau also allows the actors to tell the story. Livingston is fine as The Woman From the City. She plays temptress well, letting her looks and attire do a lot of the work. As The Man, O'Brien is mostly great, particularly when he is fearful his actions have lost him The Wife forever. His ability to convey desperation through only physical action is really quite good. When he's angry, though, he looks more like a zombie with a vicious underbite. The star of the picture, without a doubt, is Gaynor, who took home the first ever Best Actress Oscar for this, as well as for Seventh Heaven and Street Angel (the individual awards were more about an actor's body of work for the year). I've not seen those other two films, but I don't know that she needed them. Her performance is flawless.
The Blu-ray's 1080p transfer is excellent. A great deal of restoration has been done to the film and the disc really highlights that hard work. (This becomes particularly evident when you see some of the unrestored footage in the extras; the degradation is shocking.) The audio, however, is magnificent…in glorious Dolby 1.0! To explain:
Sunrise is one of the first films to place sound on the film reel—not dialogue, but music and sound effects. This was called the "Fox Movietone Score" and it's what filmgoers heard when they saw the film in theaters in 1927. That's how I wanted to hear it. Speaking of restoration work, the clarity of the restored audio track is quite perfect, and the best way I can describe it is to quote the restoration notes, which says the goal of the restoration efforts was to ensure the sound was "…historically accurate and demonstrate[d] both the limitations and the potentials of this early sound process." It succeeds and then some, which is surprising given the source limitations.
In addition to the film's original version with the Fox Movietone Score, the disc includes a new score by the Olympic Chamber Orchestra on a separate audio track in Dolby 2.0.
The best extra is the European silent version of the film, which is notable for two key reasons. The first is that the aspect ration is full frame 1.33:1, not 1.20:1 like its US counterpart. The reason for this is that the US version need the space on the film reel for the audio track. The other difference is that the European version was cut down to 79 minutes.
A multitude of other extras include commentary by ASC Cinematographer John Bailey on both the film as well as 10 minutes of outtakes. These are not outtakes of the humorous variety; these are scenes—sometimes short snippets of film—that did not make the final cut, nor were they restored. Those same outtakes are available separately on the disc with text cards.
Onscreen printed works include the Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnau (39 images); the Sunrise Screenplay (102 images); and Restoration Notes (9 images). Rounding out the extras is the silent, 1:51 film trailer and a DVD copy of the film (both US and Euro versions). Unfortunately, there is no accompanying booklet.
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Scales of Justice
• European Cut
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