Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
seen on TV @ TCM
I first saw Sunrise in my college film history class way back when. I don't recall what my reaction was. It was without a doubt one of the very first times I had seen a silent movie, for what it's worth. As a movie, it's good, if somewhat melodramatic (to say the least). I like how it's almost entirely reliant on the visuals. There are few title cards, and the ones it has are used in unusual ways. There is, of course, the way the line "Couldn't she get drowned?" is animated to look like it's going down a drain, but there's also the way some cards fade into and out of a flashback. The cards are a more integral part of the movie and not merely what comic book maestro Will Eisner might've called a desperation device (that's what he called word balloons).
George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor completely sell this movie with their faces, not just because it's silent, but because within the context of the film itself, the dialogue is sparse. It's not like in most silents where you can clearly see the actors' lips moving even though you can't hear what they're saying. There's not a whole lot of that either, which makes me think director FW Murnau worked overtime to get the actors to express what he wanted them to express.
Silent film acting tended to be big and over the top so that the emotions and the situations could be better understood by the audience, but there's less of that here. There's a greater emphasis on interior thoughts. Murnau helps sell it even further by using tricks like superimpositions. When O'Brien contemplates going through with his scheme of killing Gaynor, we see Margaret Livingston, his would-be lover, as a ghostly impression, hovering over him, seeming to clutch him close and tempt him. For 1927, it's a brilliant trick and it adds to the psychological depth.
That said, it's not a perfect movie. Gaynor's character is a total crybaby wimp who is passive to the point of helplessness; after awhile, you kinda root for O'Brien to just kill her already. Also, they reconcile way too early in the film; there's a long second-act stretch where nothing of great importance happens other than seeing the two of them all lovey-dovey. Well, O'Brien captures a runaway drunken pig, but that's about it.
Sunrise has the unusual distinction of winning the 1929 Oscar for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production, which was distinct from the actual Best Picture (or Outstanding Picture, as they called it then) winner that year, Wings. It was the first ever Oscar ceremony, and at the time the rationale was that both categories were equally important, but slightly different. Still, they dropped the "Unique and Artistic" category after Year One.
Having seen both films, I gotta say that they both seem pretty unique and artistic. The flying sequences in Wings were groundbreaking and spectacular, and lest we forget, this was during a time when film was still a relatively new medium. I suppose you could say it's like comparing Avatar and The Hurt Locker, only in this one instance, the Academy decided to give both films top honors. Then again, if they were both considered equal, why did one need to have the appellation "Unique and Artistic" attached to it? Methinks that even back then, people knew which award was meant to be the "real" top prize.