Turning from the grand, sweet allegory of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), F.W. Murnau unknowingly had only three more films in him before his tragic, early death. Between that most excellent of films—perhaps the greatest ever made—and the director’s partial collaboration with documentarian Robert Flaherty, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), Murnau’s 1930 film City Girl tends to be lost. Much smaller than Murnau’s first film in America, and much less dramatically esoteric and unexpected than his last film (and not inspiring the mystery of one of the most missed of missing films, 1928’s 4 Devils), City Girl in such a context proves what should be an axiom for cinema: it is not what is being filmed but how one films it that is all that matters.
The film pulls from Sunrise’s parable-simple use of country/city dichotomies and the naïve/savvy characters associated with them to tell a simple—starkly simple—story of a young farmer (Charles Farrel) bringing home to his farm his new wife (Mary Duncan), a waitress from the city he met while on a trip to sell his father’s crop. At home, economic disappointment and bitterness in the family patriarch (David Torrence) turns him against his son but most especially against his son's “waitress” wife-of-the-city, and the boy simply isn’t strong enough to stand up to him. Idylls dreamt, punctured, contested, and won—Sunrise all over again on a third the budget, right? Perhaps, but what City Girl lacks in scope and allegorical grandeur Murnau more than makes up for in focus, in beauty, in sensibility.
Murnau is realism + poetry, and slimming down his materials to such a leanness as in City Girl lets his hand water, flower, and blossom every element at his disposal. You have never seen a city diner in American film, felt its heat, its hubbub, its routine, its turnover, its charm, its tedium and its spunk until you have seen City Girl and you see how Farrel casually meets and unconsciously courts Duncan at the diner counter. You have never seen the loneliness of life in the city until you see the light of a passing elevated train sputter across Duncan’s face and her tiny potted plant in her cramped apartment.
The enchantment of a farm has never been put on film—and perhaps has never been found again—until Ernest Palmer’s camera follows with expressionist joy the gleeful run of the young married couple across the family’s wheatfield upon their arrival. The evocative screendoors and angles of the small family house that seems to open up to the nighttime loneliness of the surrounding farmland:
The unbelievably beautiful and carefully expressed realism of the lantern lighting, cutting hard lines across the sparse homestead interiors. The physical leer of the exquisitely type-cast Richard Alexander as a seasonal harvester, who has a look that would make any married man fear for the sanctity of his wife:
The discreet charm of smaller roles, especially the sister and the mother (notice the hat in second shot, bearing the solemn weight of the man missing from the picture: the father):
The subtle, rich development of space (behind the customers in the diner, the staircase outside Duncan’s bedroom at the farm)—the list of the film's detail and beauty of expression could go on.
Luckily, City Girl is finally available on DVD through Fox's Murnau, Bozage at Fox collection, which includes a very small handful of Murnau (Sunrise, special features on 4 Devils, and City Girl) and a great number of Borzage (including such masterpieces as 7th Heaven and Street Angel), so such discovery—or rediscovery—is now much easier. Let us hope it is just availability that has been holding the reputation of City Girl back and not its existence within a largely unseen filmography that is overpowered by the heights of Sunrise and influence of Nosferatu (1922). Now that the film is on DVD in fine, fine quality, one can hopefully—thankfully—look at Murnau and understand what this man means to film beyond the most iconic of all vampire movies, the camera movement of The Last Laugh, and the most exquisite of all American studio films.