Friday, 7 December 2012

A symphony of wheat… City Girl (1930)

Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan

This is one of those late period silents that make you realise how technically adept the form had become and what little positive impact sound could have on the fluidity of the story-telling. City Girl was almost fatally compromised by the Fox studio’s drive towards sound as it struggled to compete with Warner Brothers squawky innovations.

Director FW Murnau’s penultimate film (before Tabu and his tragic early death) looks as fresh today as when it was made - crystal clear and full of his trademark visual invention. Yet he walked off the film as Fox insisted in imposing sound re-takes (to be directed by Broadway’s Buddy Erickson) and the truncated “talking” City Girl, was the one that did the rounds until the silent version was rediscovered in 1969. It had only previously been shown to the overseas markets that lagged behind in the sound revolution.

Interestingly, Sunrise had actually been the first film with a synchronised soundtrack – music and some sound effects and a few words - using Fox’s Movietone system. Murnau had assumed the same for this film and the lost 4 Devils, he also wanted it shot in massive 70mm “Grandeur Film”… but commercial forces came into play.

How much this compromised his vision is debatable but what’s on view is so consistent and strikingly realised that it certainly feels like something close to top quality Murnau. The silent version would have been completed by editor/writers HH Caldwell and Katherine Hilliker both of whom were regular collaborators with the German and were able to maintain his intentions. Debate rages over the ending but Murnau definitely filmed it and, overall, we are able to view something close to Murnau’s film.

There are so many lovely shots such as the young couple’s jubilant run through the wheat fields on Lem’s return to his home, which includes some jaw-dropping camera-tracking – I’ve no idea how they kept the camera straight over the bumps and surprises of a field. Then there’s the massive harvester cutting its way across the rolling fields and, back in the City, the way Lem and Kate move in and out of significance in two crowd scenes when they are agonising over whether to seek the other out… the perfect metaphor for uncertain young love and smartly done.

There’s not the same variety and scale of built locations as in Sunrise but the film-makers still had enough funds to buy a huge orchard and turn it into a wheat field… (they sold the wheat after production…) and to build large-scale cityscapes in-studio as well as replicas of the wheat fields containing fake-farms that move just a little too quickly alongside the mighty harvesters…

The story is deceptively simple and is based, in part, on the play The Mud Turtle by Elliot Lester (Richard Lester’s father), but whilst the play starts with the couple’s return, Murnau builds in a back story, showing how they met. He doesn’t show their wedding but their *decision*… and it’s a beautiful thing.

We start with Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell) heading into Chicago by train and under strict instructions to sell the family’s annual wheat crop at no less than $1.15 per bushel. Nervously he counts his money but he’s impervious to the charms of a blonde fellow-passenger who eye a free lunch – more likely oblivious.

Meanwhile we see Lem’s authoritarian father chastise his sister for playing with just a few strands of wheat: he is a man who lives by the letter of the Good Book and has seemingly squeezed all joy out of his life…
We cut to a busy down-town dinner where the employees are working their socks off from the cramped sweaty kitchen to the cramped sweaty men at the tables. There’s one waitress, Kate (Mary Duncan) who dreams of rural idyll: surely life would be simpler and nobler in the country?

She spies Lem praying before he eats and is fascinated by his gentle ways and later impressed by his resolve as he threatens another man who has impugned her honour. Here is a real, two-fisted, man from the country and, actually, she knows what she’s looking for…

Lem and Kate’s relationship overshadows his sale of the wheat at a less than optimal $1.13… a loss of almost $800… and they decide to wed and return together.

Kate confronts Tustine

Their jubilant run through the fields is quickly cut short when Lem’s father (David Torrence) discovers his failure in getting a good price. He ignores Kate and then, while they are alone, accuses her of being a gold-digger. Kate is made of stern stuff and fights back, aiming to “make a man of Lem” even if his father won’t. Bested in the verbal exchange, Old Man Tustine falls back on brute force and slaps Kate down.

He leaves and Lem returns but he won’t retaliate for Kate, he can’t hit his own father (watcher patience is running a tad thin at this point but bear with it…). The rift starts to build and, until Lem returns to the upstanding guy he was in the city, there can be no proper union with Kate.

The Reapers are impressed by Kate's arrival...
Now events really ramp up as the reapers arrive to help them harvest the wheat. They’ve heard of the marriage difficulties and rather graciously decide to help out by trying to encourage the city floozy away for themselves. Chief amongst Kate’s would be paramours is Mac, (Richard Alexander – later a baddy in Flash Gordon!) who makes a number of plays for Kate as Lem continues to hold himself back.
And all the while the screen is getting darker as the mood slips away from the light…

Kate "caught" with Mac
It is only when his father tells him that she is about to run away with Mac that Lem starts to stir… he doesn’t quite believe it but as usual on the farm, falls short of decisive action. Now the weather begins to turn and the wheat must be brought in over night but Mac and the men refuse as a way of leveraging Kate out of the house… but she’s already gone leaving a note for Lem… and you really should watch the film to find out the rest.

City Girl doesn’t quite match Sunrise but it’s another lovely visual experience from start to finish. Farrell is handsome as heck and well on the way to stardom (enabling this film’s belated release) whilst David Torrence is suitably intense as the bible-bashing dictator who cherishes crops above human feelings. Edith Yorke is superbly harassed as his loyal wife, still afraid more for him than of him….

Just look Lem ya great lump!
But it’s Duncan who excels. Kate is the most rounded character in the film and is the heart of the story. She’s consistent throughout and even whilst she thinks “living on a farm must be wonderful”… she is actually remarkably free of rose tints saying later that “bein’ here’s alright…I don’t think much of the company.” It’s the behaviour of the men which is disappointing and not the location or the way of life.

Kate is a strong character disappointed with life so far who clings onto Lem as she knows their love is genuine and it’s The Chance. Duncan gives such a clever performance… on the two occasions when Kate almost loses Lem she collapses back into him more in exhausted relief than joy: real love and not pantomime! She knows what she wants all the way through and is so true to her self that she pulls all of the male characters around her: truly one of the strongest women characters in film.

French critic Jean George Auriol was bowled over: “Mary Duncan is the most intelligent woman of the cinema; she has the gift of exceptional insight, intensified at times by troubled intuitions.”

There’s excellent support form a good number of, largely comedic specialists, in the café as well as the Reapers and City Girl is high on humour reminding you of its expressionist agenda.

Murnau had apparently given some thought to where the sound sections might fit in but this obviously didn’t go far enough for the studio who wanted more talk and less expression. Luckily we can see something like the full force of what Murnau intended and, whilst his visual focus was no longer fashionable, it would be a long time before any sound film director could match what he achieved in emotional narrative.

I watched the Eureka Master of Cinema Blu-ray/DVD double pack which has a ripping new score composed in 2008 by Christopher Caliendo. There’s an informative booklet as well as an excellent commentary from David Cabot which debates the impact of sound on Murnau and his – successful – collaborations in Hollywood. You can see it in all the all familiar places… it would make an ideal Christmas present for someone you really care alot about…

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