Wednesday, September 23, 2009

City Girl (FW Murnau) ****

Director: FW Murnau

Cast: Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, David Torrence, Edith Yorke, Tom McGuire

Background: Farrell and Duncan had previously worked together on the Frank Borzage lost film The River. Farrell is best known for the Borzage melodramas he made with Janet Gaynor.

Story: Lem (Farrell) goes to the city to sell his family's wheat crop. While there, he meets and falls in love with a waitress named Kate (Duncan). they get married, but when he takes his bride back home, she has trouble fitting in due to his father's (Torrence) strong disapproval.

Thoughts: One of the best things about Murnau's films is his gift for beautiful simplicity. The courtship between Farrell and Duncan in this film is one of the best examples of this. There's no huge, dramatic buildup to it. We just see two people enjoying each other's company and how that quickly turns into love. Farrell, well versed in the wonderful Frank Borzage melodramas, is as good as anyone at expressing pure love without a trace of cynicism. With Duncan, they create two convincing characters by refusing to overplay scenes for dramatic effect. In fact, the remarkable thing about the film is that no character in it is reduced to one note. Even the temperamental worker who tries to take advantage of Kate is portrayed as a three dimensional person. By doing this, Murnau allows these fully realized characters to interact in realistic and fascinating ways, as the distrust between two cultures comes to a head. Sure, the third act is melodramatic, but even the most melodramatic moments are still played with a fine touch of realism. Witness the scene when Kate is upset at Lem for not standing up to his father for her. Instead of a huge shouting match argument, Kate simply walks away from him. Murnau remarkably kept making silent films eventhough it hurt his box office grosses, but it's doubtful that a sound version of this film would have been able to achieve the kind of reserved romanticism that Murnau nails here.

Postscript: Murnau would only make one more film before dying in a car accident. Mary Duncan retired from films just 3 years later after getting married. Farrell continued acting throughout the sound era, but his most successful films were silent.

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