Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (also known as Sunrise) is a 1927 American silent romantic drama directed by German director F. W. Murnau (in his American film debut) and starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston. The story was adapted by Carl Mayer from the short story “The Excursion to Tilsit”, from the 1917 collection with the same title by Hermann Sudermann.
Murnau chose to use the then new Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, making Sunrise one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects soundtrack. The film incorporated Charles Gounod’s 1872 composition Funeral March of a Marionette, which was later used as the theme for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–1965). Frédéric Chopin’s A minor prelude also features prominently in orchestral arrangement.
Sunrise won the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929. Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in the film (the award was also for her performances in 1927’s 7th Heaven and 1928’s Street Angel). The film’s legacy has endured, and it is now widely considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made. Many have called it the greatest film of the silent era. In 1989, Sunrise was one of the 25 films selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The Academy Film Archive preserved Sunrise in 2004. The 2007 update of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films ranked it number 82, and the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll named it the fifth-best film in the history of motion pictures, while directors named it 22nd.
Although the original 35mm negative of the original American version of Sunrise was destroyed in the 1937 Fox vault fire, a new negative was created from a surviving print.
A vacationing Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) lingers in a lakeside town for weeks. After dark, she goes to a farmhouse where the Man (George O’Brien) and the Wife (Janet Gaynor) live with their child. She whistles from the fence outside. The Man is torn, but finally departs, leaving his wife with the memories of better times when they were deeply in love.
The man and woman meet in the moonlight and kiss passionately. She wants him to sell his farm—which has not done well recently—to join her in the city. When she suggests that he solve the problem of his wife by drowning her, he throttles her violently, but even that dissolves in a passionate embrace. The Woman gathers bundles of reeds so that when the boat is overturned, the Man can stay afloat.
The Wife suspects nothing when her husband suggests going on an outing, but when they set off across the lake, she soon grows suspicious. He prepares to throw her overboard, but when she pleads for his mercy, he realizes he cannot do it. He rows frantically for shore, and when the boat reaches land, the Wife flees.
She boards a trolley, and he follows, begging her not to be afraid of him. The trolley brings them to the city. Her fear and disappointment are overwhelming. He plies her with flowers and bread and finally she stops crying and accepts his gifts. Emerging back on the street, they are touched to see a bride enter a church for her processional, and follow her inside to watch the wedding. The Man breaks down and asks her to forgive him. After a tearful reconciliation, they continue their adventure in the city, having their photograph taken together and visiting a funfair. As darkness falls, they board the trolley for home.
Soon they are drifting back across the lake under the moonlight. A sudden storm causes their boat to begin sinking. The Man remembers the two bundles of reeds he placed in the boat earlier and ties the bundles around the Wife. The boat capsizes, and the Man awakes on a rocky shore. He gathers the townspeople to search the lake, but all they find is a broken bundle of reeds floating in the water.
Convinced the Wife has drowned, the grief-stricken Man stumbles home. The Woman from the City goes to his house, assuming their plan has succeeded. The Man begins to choke her. Then the Maid calls to him that his wife is alive, so he releases the Woman and runs to the Wife, who survived by clinging to one last bundle of reeds.
The Man kneels by the Wife’s bed as she slowly opens her eyes. The Man and the Wife kiss, while the Woman from the City’s carriage rolls down the hill toward the lake, and the film dissolves to the sunrise.
Directed by F. W. Murnau
Screenplay by Carl Mayer
Based on “The Excursion to Tilsit” by Hermann Sudermann
Produced by William Fox
Restored and upscaled by moonflix.com
George O’Brien as The Man
Janet Gaynor as The Wife
Margaret Livingston as The Woman From the City
Bodil Rosing as The Maid
J. Farrell MacDonald as The Photographer
Ralph Sipperly as The Barber
Jane Winton as The Manicure Girl
Arthur Housman as The Obtrusive Gentleman
Eddie Boland as The Obliging Gentleman
Sally Eilers as Woman in Dance Hall with failing straps (uncredited)
Gino Corrado as Manager of Hair Salon (uncredited)
Herman Bing as Streetcar Conductor (uncredited)
Gibson Gowland as Angry Driver (uncredited)
Original release date:
September 23, 1927