Film Title: City Girl
Studio: Fox Film Corporation
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Charles Farrell
- Mary Duncan
- David Torrence
- Edith Yorke
- Anne Shirley
By all rights, F.W. Murnau’s third and final American film, City Girl, shouldn’t even exist. Murnau walked out on this production when his champion William Fox was badly injured in a car accident, and control of Fox Film Corporation was wrested away from him. At the same time the commercial viability of silent film was proving untenable with exhibitors. The common practice of the time was to bring in stage directors to add dialogue sections to films that had been filmed as silents. Murnau had seen this happen to his previous film 4 Devils. The film itself might well have been scrapped were it not for the precipitous rise in popularity of the film’s star Charles Farrell at just this time. City Girl was released in a truncated 67-minute part-talkie version in 1930. It quickly disappeared. To make matters even worse, a 1937 vault fire at the Fox facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey caused “most of, if not all, pre-1935 Fox films” to be destroyed. Presumably, gone were the negatives of Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans, 4 Devils, City Girl, and hundreds of films by the likes of Frank Borzage, John Ford, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, almost all of the films starring Theda Bara, early Shirley Temple and Will Rogers, and many, many others. Over the years a small number of release prints of some of those films destroyed in the fire surfaced, notably Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans, some of Borzage’s films, and most recently John Gilbert in Monte Carlo. Murnau’s 4 Devils has never been found and is presumed lost. But in 1969, two film historians stumbled across an oddity while going through 20th Century-Fox vaults in Los Angeles.
A print of a 90-minute silent version of City Girl was discovered. A 90-minute silent version? Fox has no record of the film ever being released in a silent version in the United States. While it is true that the European market exhibited silent films longer than was done in the States, there is no conclusive evidence that City Girl ever showed anywhere but in the 67-minute part-talkie version. That version has never surfaced, so there is no way to compare the two. How the devil did this print ever come to be, and how did its existence escape notice for nearly four decades? The truth of the matter is that we will probably never know.
If you do a little research on this film you’ll find that this version is a compromised version of Murnau’s grander vision for his film. But the problem with that theory is the rather obvious tendency on the part of many to make the studio executives the villains in contrast to the pure artists whose brilliance was not recognized by the powers that be at the time. Based on what? The facts are that William Fox hired Murnau in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to do one film, Sunrise. Contrary to the popular notion that the commercial disappointment of that film led Fox to rein in his star director, in 1927 Fox signed Murnau to another contract, this time to make four more films. Murnau completed 4 Devils and had substantially completed City Girl as a silent film when the power struggle happened at Fox Film Corporation and his champion William Fox was ousted. At the same time it was deemed that 4 Devils and City Girl, in order to be commercially viable, had to include at least some dialogue scenes. Before his famous exit from his Fox contract, Murnau left detailed instructions for how and where sound should be applied to City Girl. It would seem that Murnau, knowing that others would be hired to supply these scenes, decided to call it quits with Fox. But that still doesn’t explain how or why this 90-minute silent version ever came into being.
In his 2003 essay, Adrian Danks states, “Most accounts of the film, and indeed of Murnau’s oeuvre in general, rely on incomplete prints, half-forgotten memories and rather contradictory accounts of the film’s fate in relation to the introduction of sound. Most critics consider the extant version of the film to be a doctoring of Murnau’s grander vision . . . This position or critical approach manifestly fails to account for the film’s extraordinary consistency, symmetry and self-conscious (perhaps even critical) relationship to much of the rest of Murnau’s cinema.” It has been noted that City Girl is sort of the inverse of Sunrise. City Girl’s hero, Lem (Charles Farrell) travels from Blair, Minnesota to Chicago to sell his father’s wheat crop. On the train he is “vamped” by a spiritual cousin to “The Woman From the City” in Sunrise and blatantly ignores her. Arriving in the city Lem is smitten by a waitress at a diner, Kate (Mary Duncan). She in turn sees in Lem an honesty and moral cleanliness that she falls for. They flirt and when Lem must return to the family farm Kate runs after him. They cross paths when he returns to the diner after receiving his fortune, “If you marry the one you are thinking of all will be well.” They reunite, marry, and head for home. That’s when the trouble begins. Lem’s father (David Torrence) seems to have an inherent distrust of city folk. After receiving the telegram from Lem announcing his arrival with his bride, Lem’s mother (Edith Yorke) smiles wistfully, while the word “WAITRESS” literally jumps of the page in Father’s eyes. All is not destined to be roses and honeymoons for Lem and Kate. But neither life in the city nor in the country defines happiness for these characters. It is the strength and honesty of their relationship that ultimately matters more to them than where they find themselves.
City Girl is every bit as visually stunning as Sunrise albeit without the big city pyrotechnics. The location shooting took place in Oregon where Fox bought a farm and planted it in wheat (does this sound like an economic reining in?). There is almost a documentary feel to scenes of the wheat harvest that anticipates Terrence Malick’s similarly themed film Days of Heaven some fifty years later. Lem and Kate’s approach to the farm through the wheat is as gorgeous as anything I’ve seen on film. A nighttime fight through the wheat fields in a runaway wagon is illuminated by a single lantern, creating another stunning visual sequence. Murnau’s characteristic use of characters within a frame and out of frame is brilliantly employed, significantly when Lem, reading a newspaper on a crowded Chicago sidewalk discovers that the price of wheat is falling: the camera stays on him as he reads the paper and then pulls back and Lem is almost lost out of frame only to make his way through the crowd and back into frame, but now overpowered and rendered insignificant by the city masses. This just doesn’t look like a compromised vision to me.
Lem is played by Charles Farrell whose star rose based on a series of late silent and early sound films he made with Janet Gaynor, among them the immensely popular Seventh Heaven released by Fox in 1927. He is quite good as the sincere country bumpkin who is challenged to find the inner strength to grow into manhood. Mary Duncan, who plays Kate, had worked with Murnau in 4 Devils and would work again with Charles Farrell in Frank Borzage’s The River released in 1929. She nicely captures the poor waitress pining for something different in her life, and the desperate woman fighting for her marriage amongst the wheat fields of Minnesota. Farrell would continue to have success in films throughout the early thirties, and would end his acting career playing Gale Storm’s father in the popular television series My Little Margie (1952-1955). Duncan married and retired from the screen in 1933. Her final screen appearance was with Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory. Murnau, whose films continue to inspire and influence filmmakers worldwide, would complete one more film, Tabu: A Story of the South Pacific (with Robert Flaherty) released in 1931, before he died in a car accident on March 11, 1931. He was forty-two years old.
There are at least three DVD versions of this film available at this time. I’ve seen two of them. My most recent viewing was of the Eureka Masters of the Cinema high definition region-free (contrary to what’s listed: I own it; I’m sure.) Blu-ray out of England and available through Amazon.com.uk. It is a perfectly stunning release. No grain removal or digital restoration was used in creating this transfer and this “is exactly what you would see if you were to project this same 35mm film restoration theatrically” according to the folks at the Masters of the Cinema series. The same process was used in their Blu-ray transfer of Murnau’s Sunrise. Included on this disc is a commentary by film scholar David Kalat. This is not so much a commentary as, by Kalat’s own admission, a “thesis” on Murnau, the making of the film, and the conditions in Hollywood under which the film was made. I found it educational and entertaining. The film is presented with a 2008 score composed and arranged by Christopher Caliendo. It is fine. This release comes with a 27-page booklet of photographs, film and restoration credits and a 2003 essay by Adrian Danks titled “Reaching Beyond the Frame: Murnau’s City Girl.”
City Girl is also included in the mammoth 12-disc box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox released in 2008. The City Girl disc also contains what survives of Frank Borzage’s film The River also staring Farrell and Duncan. Only fragments of this film survive and they are augmented by title cards explaining the missing action. I have seen this version and the print of City Girl is virtually identical to the one presented on Blu-ray without, of course, the added visual details that can be seen only in a high definition transfer. The single City Girl disc is available for rental from some on-line companies.
Televista has also released a DVD version of City Girl. It appears that no extras are included, and although I have not seen this version, reports are that it has some framing problems which affect picture and title cards, and that the film itself may not look as good as other releases. Caveat emptor on this one.
Whether you end up falling into the “tainted Murnau” camp, or, like me, you believe this is an accurate version (as much as anyone can know for sure) of Murnau’s filmmaking brilliance, this is a must see (and quite possibly a most own) film. Murnau’s influence on film is still very much in evidence today, although not as much as I wish it were in today’s Hollywood. City Girl, if not quite reaching the heights of Sunrise, is an amazing film. Since you are reading this review on The Midnight Palace site, you are exactly the type of person who will enjoy this film.
Click HERE to purchase this DVD!