City Girl (1930, F.W. Murnau)

A pretty simple story. Charles Farrell goes to the city to sell the family wheat before the harvest, falls in love and marries Mary Duncan on his way home. Father on the farm is pissed about the low wheat price his son got, and is a huge grouch about Chuck’s lowly waitress wife. Storm is rolling in, destroying crops in other states, so Father works the reapers all night, but slimy Mac sees the family discord and aims to run off with Mary. She leaves, Chuck follows, Dad shoots at them, then everyone forgives everyone else and continues to harvest.

Thing is, it’s just one of the most beautiful films, definitely up with Sunrise and Lucky Star.

The city girl’s hair reminds me of the question-mark on the head of a guy in Sweetie, only in this case, hopefully unintentional, her forehead reads “666”

Chuck Farrell is his usual winning, unmemorable-looking self. I wasn’t sure about Mary Duncan in The River – she seemed a little one-note – but she’s wonderful here and extremely different from her River character. Seems like she could’ve gone further than Farrell’s usual sweet-faced co-star Janet Gaynor in the acting business, but Duncan retired in ’33, five years before Gaynor.

Murnau’s second-to-last film before Tabu. Murnau wanted to title it Our Daily Bread, and had scenes and scenery in mind which the studio denied him. The movie came out in a now-lost sound version and in a version similar to this – not sure exactly how similar, or how much is known about its history, but the booklet with the Masters of Cinema DVD would probably explain some things. Production-designed by Edgar Ulmer, and based on a stage play with a funny title which everyone online mentions as if it’s still important.

Murnau dwarfs the family, hunched at bottom of the frame when father first enters. The little girl, Anne Shirley, had been in pictures since she was four, would be oscar-nominated for Stella Dallas seven years after this.

The workers, L-R:
– Guinn “Big Boy” Williams of Lucky Star, here a pretty good guy with a pretty small part
– creepy-looking Jack Pennick of every John Ford film, whose only role here is to look creepy
– baddie Richard Alexander, who kept busy playing tough-guy extras for the next 30 years

Father: David Torrence is best known, well, for having a more famous brother. Ernest Torrence had some major silent roles (Steamboat Bill Sr., Captain Hook), played Moriarty in an early sound Sherlock Holmes the year before he died. David was in some Michael Curtiz films, anyway.

A Danks:

City Girl’s bond to Sunrise is one of its most fascinating elements. In its opening movements it is as if the film evokes a key plot element of Sunrise (an innocent country boy, Lem (Charles Farrell), is approached by a “vamp” on a train ride to the city) only to then diverge from and invert it (he immediately rejects her). As in Sunrise, the city is presented as a dynamic entity defined by and constructed around movement and a curious modernity; but it also projects a subtle desperation and palpably melancholy quality new to Murnau’s cinema. It is also the home of Kate (May Duncan), the “city girl” of the title who longs for a romantically idealised country life and who subsequently emerges as one of the strongest and most clear-eyed female characters in American silent cinema (presenting a clear reversal of the moral universe – and characters – of Sunrise). It is through Kate that we experience the continuity of the city and country in City Girl, the archetypes of perception and oppression, and the parallel social structures and prejudices that fuel both worlds.

Everybody mentions Days of Heaven as a comparison, and Danks throws in The Wind.

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