Director: F.W. Murnau. Fox Film Corporation.
Producer: William Fox.
Writers: Berthold Viertel, Marion Orth.
Camera: Ernest Palmer.
Music: Christopher Caliendo (2008)
Sets: Harry Oliver.
Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, David Torrance, Edith Yorke, Guinn Williams, Richard Alexander.
Country bumpkin Lem (Farrell) takes a trip to the big city to sell his father’s (Torrance) precious wheat. Whilst eating at a diner, he strikes up a romance with the pretty but downtrodden waitress Kate (Duncan). Impulsively following the direction of a fortune card, he proposes to her. Delighted at the thought of a relaxing life in the country, she accepts and the overjoyed couple travel to his Minnesota farmland home. But the loved up couple face the scorn and derision of Lem’s father, who physically assaults Kate. When Lem fails to defend her, the relationship sours and Kate finds herself chased by farmhand Mac (Alexander).
The reputation of German movie maestro Murnau towered above his peers as much the man physically did, standing 6ft 9″ in his cotton socks.
Transplanted to America under the aegis of film producer William Fox and given complete and utter creative freedom, he produced the blissful, but expensive, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, of which City Girl is a companion piece.
But Sunrise, despite all of the critical kudos it heaped on Fox’s studio, earned very little money and Murnau found his creativity curtailed and there on in he was watched a little more closely. His work, thankfully, did not suffer too much as a result: there is no complete print of 4 Devils (1928) but City Girl shows Murnau on elegant top form.
Based on the play The Mud Turtle by Elliott Lester, it continues in a similar vein to Sunrise with the contrasts between rural and urban life, but this time around it is the countryside that is the harsher environment toward the outsider, who now is the supposedly worldly wise woman whose unexpected naivety leads her out of her comfort zone, rather than the innocent man driven mad by lust for a sexually forward harlot.
This is a simple morality tale, but evocatively told. Murnau, rather than trying to crack a sweet nut with a sledgehammer, presents the contrasts vividly with consummate cinematic skill.
In the country, the bread has to be sliced by hand for the little family. In Kate’s city, toast magically appears pre-sliced on an industrial conveyor belt to cope with demand.
In the countryside there are only vast expanses of arable land for boisterous locals. In the city, solitary and depressed Kate lives next door to an ever passing train and tends to a single flower. She has only a mechanical bird in a gilded cage for company. The robotic tweeting of this pretty ornament is a near perfect reflection of the automaton, wind-me-up-and-watch-me-go nature of Kate’s function as a waitress.
In this job, there is also an obvious continuation. Kate ups sticks for the sticks but soon finds that the life of sunbathing leisure she hoped for yields only more of the same drudgery – although they wear dungarees instead of suits and hats, she soon finds herself back in waitress garb serving endless cups of coffee to endlessly famished men.
Kate also has to deal with the prejudices and snobbery of the labouring classes – waitress is spelled out in letters that loom over the viewer, a millstone of suspicion hung draped over her.
Murnau weaves into this tale some adorable visual imagery, such as the newlyweds running and kissing through the wheat fields and the initial scenes of Kate and Lem first meeting which have a coyly sexual frisson.
Farrell, who was a popular box office star in the late 1920’s and throughout the 30’s, has exactly the right brand of wholesome, apple pie beauty for such a role, a boy who seriously needs to “man up” and grow a couple. Usually more beautiful than his leading ladies, he is the eponymous wide-eyed innocent, mooning over Duncan and blushingly turning away when her skirt rides up and he can see her thighs. He makes you feel this is the sort of man who believes a fortune card prophecy that if he marries a woman he’s known for only 10 minutes it will put the world to rights.
Duncan complements him delightfully – a stellar silent movie turn of expressive eyes and suggestive, dramatic posture. Duncan was a capable performer who started late in silent movies (movie debut 1927) and retired too early only six years later.