The 1st Academy Awards (1929)
Welcome to another “Oscars Fortnight” where for the next two weeks we’ll be reviewing all your favorite Oscar nominated films. Films like, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans! All the kids love 96-year-old silent movies… Right? No? Well then maybe we need a reboot. Maybe it’s about time Dwayne Johnson changes the hierarchy of the Sunrise-universe. Okay, so if the cool kids don’t care about silent movies. Why should you? Let’s talk about it and see if I can sell you on a timeless love story filled with strangulation and trippy carnivals.
I can tell you the reason I watched Sunrise is because in 2007 the American Film Institute made a Top 100 of the Greatest American Films of all time. And after 16-years I only have 7 films left–I swear the they’re gonna update the list right before I finish. I imagine Sunrise is a film a lot of even the most dedicated cinephiles put off. A silent movie? From the 1920s? It doesn’t even have a Nosferatu in it! But it was German Auteur F.W. Murnau’s Hollywood debut and it did nab a few Oscars at the first ever ceremony.
I should note that traditionally, we (Mildly Pleased), try to only cover films nominated for the top prize for this segment. BUT at the first Oscars they didn’t exactly have a top prize. At the first Oscars they had the categories “Outstanding Picture” and “Best Unique and Artistic Picture.” Which I interpret as the best Blockbuster and the best Arthouse movie. Like if you had those categories today, “Outstanding Picture” would probably go to Top Gun: Maverick and “Best Unique” to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. And since many today consider the latter category more impressive I’m gonna count Sunrise as a Best Picture Nominee/Winner on technicality.
With all that preamble how did I like it? It was fine. Ha, I’m not trying to be a jerk here but I’m not a big fan of silent movies. I see the importance in them, the way silent movies acted as the building blocks of cinema, but there are so few that I can get through in one sitting. I think a big reason is image and sound quality, the exaggerated movements, and overall pacing. BUT I will say out of the handful or so silent movies I have seen, Sunrise is surprisingly savvy when it comes to cinematic technique.
The story concerns a woman from the city known as “The Woman from the City” (Margaret Livingston) who travels to a small lakeside town. There she meets the Man (George O’Brien) and they kindle an affair together, despite the fact that the Man is married to the Woman (Janet Gaynor). The Man debates over whether or not he should leave his wife while the Woman from the City suggests, “Couldn’t she get drowned?” Damn, lady.
The Man attempts to take the Woman out on the water to drown but after the Woman realizes what’s going on he decides he can’t go through with it, she runs from him. She takes a trolley where the Man meets up with her again and tries to patch up their relationship. The couple then passes through several set pieces including a wedding and crazy carnival. I’ll give Sunrise credit for one thing, it’s never predictable.
My issue with the Man is it’s just so hard to sympathize with him after he cheats on his wife and then considers killing her. He’s also prone to choking and slapping women a lot. I know it’s just for dramatic effect but I want payback. Maybe a Nosferatu could kill him? The Woman on the other hand has a real magnetism to her presence and actions. Janet Gaynor stars and not only won an Oscar for her performance but would be nominated again in the 1934 talkie A Star is Born.
Earlier I mentioned “cinematic technique” and the film goes all out with tracking shots, transitions and fades to give it a stylish flair. It’s also one of the earliest movie to have a synchronized soundtrack. That’s right, it’s not one of those silent movies where’d you have to go to the theater and then wait for some guy with a handlebar mustache to bang out a ragtime melody on a piano. This shit has a score, a good one.
The film looks great for the time. The story is weird but that’s kind of the charm of it. I can see why cinephiles love it. It was miles ahead of its contemporaries and is still worth watching today. You can even watch the film on Wikipedia of all places! I You have no excuse. I don’t care how cool of a kid you might be.