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F.W. Murnau
George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell MacDonald
Writing Credits:
Carl Mayer, based on the story by Hermann Sudermann

Not Rated.

Academy Awards:
Won for Best Picture; Best Actress-Janet Gaynor; Best Cinematography.
Nominated for Best Art Direction.

Fullscreen 1.20:1
Original monaural Movietone score
Alternate stereo Olympic Chamber Orchestra score
French, Spanish
Not closed-captioned

Runtime: 95 min.
Price: Available only as mail-in offer with purchase of 3 "Fox Studio Classics" DVDs
Release Date: 1/14/2003

• Audio Commentary with ASC Cinematographer John Bailey
• Outtakes with Optional John Bailey Commentary
• Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by Murnau
• Murnau’s Lost Film: Four Devils
• Original Four Devils Screenplay
• Original Sunrise Screenplay
• Theatrical Trailer


Search Products:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Sunrise (1927)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 7, 2003)

While most view 1927’s Wings as the first winner of the Oscar as Best Picture, some room for argument exists. The Academy hadn’t solidified the different categories, so two prizes went out at that first ceremony. Wings won for “Best Picture, Production”, but 1927’s Sunrise took home the trophy as “Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production”. Folks generally accept Wings as the first Best Picture, but it seems to me one could argue that Sunrise deserves that honor as well. This was the only time such an award was given.

I’ve never actually seen Wings, and likely won’t until they finally release it on DVD. As such, Sunrise currently stands as my earliest experience with Oscar gold. Directed by F.W. Murnau, Sunrise comes with the subtitle “A Song of Two Humans”. At the start, we meet The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) – none of the characters have names – takes a vacation at the seashore. She has an affair with The Man (George O’Brien), who’s married to The Wife (Janet Gaynor). Clearly The Man and The Wife are experiencing relationship doldrums, and The Man seems tormented by his infidelity. Their farm suffers as well, and The Wife feels depressed.

Nonetheless, he continues his tawdry affair with Woman, and she encourages him to kill The Wife so they can be together. The Man initially acts repulsed by the concept, but the specter of The Woman entices him too much, so he plans to go ahead with the scheme. The Man invites The Wife to go for a boat ride, and she happily accepts his apparent renewed interest in spending time with her.

When the time comes to execute the dastardly plan, however, The Man can’t go through with it. He does scare The Wife, though, who runs toward shore. He chases her to the city, where they reunite and go for a relationship renewing day and night of fun. This culminates in events that settle whether or not The Man ends up with The Wife or The Woman.

I’ve only spent brief periods with silent films, mostly due to reviews I’ve completed for the website. I enjoyed these smattering of flicks for the most part but they’ve not gotten me to become a fan of the earliest cinema. The same went for Sunrise, which I thought presented an interesting experience but not one that really dazzled me.

Sunrise worked best in stylistic ways. Apparently it continues to influence cinematographers, and I could see why, as the flick provided an innovative and distinctive piece. In addition to lovely shot composition, Sunrise manifested some technically impressive images. For example, we saw superimpositions that depicted the ghostly presence of The Woman as she tortured The Man from afar.

While it could be tough to relate to the broad acting of the era, I thought the performances of Sunrise seemed surprisingly good. Gaynor came across especially well, as she offered a sweetly vulnerable piece of work. O’Brien also brought a glowering intensity to the early scenes, but he made The Man’s transformation occur naturally.

Where Sunrise faltered related to the telling of the story. There’s not a lot to the plot, but it presented a workable tale. Unfortunately, the flick stretched the elements too far. Even at a mere 95 minutes, Sunrise lasted too long, especially when The Man and The Wife got to the city. The movie worked really well during the suspenseful sequences prior to that. Some of the city scenes also came across nicely, but many of them meandered and went nowhere. For example, we totally lose track of the story at one point to follow the misadventures of a drunken pig!

Despite some flaws, Sunrise still manifested a fairly interesting experience. It worked best during its first act and sputtered a bit after that, though it offered a very interesting conclusion. The movie offered some lovely moments and it seemed well done for its genre and format.

The DVD Grades: Picture C- / Audio B+ / Bonus B+

Sunrise appears in an aspect ratio of 1.20:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie featured bars on the sides of the screen to match the 1.20:1 qualities. Given the age of the material, I thought Sunrise looked acceptable, but it definitely demonstrated quite a lot of concerns.

Sharpness varied but seemed generally positive. Most of the shots came across as reasonably distinct and accurate. Periodically, the movie looked somewhat soft and fuzzy, but those issues didn’t arise terribly frequently. Jagged edges and moiré effects created no concerns, but I did notice a little edge enhancement at times.

Black levels came across as fairly deep and dense. Shadow detail was fairly opaque much of the time, and those sequences looked moderately too dark. Light levels varied, as the movie often flickered. That caused some distractions.

Not surprisingly, print flaws created the highest level of problems. The image tended to look jittery and wavery, and many defects cropped up during the film. Many scratches ran throughout the movie, and it also showed lots of specks, marks, tears, blotches and spots. Occasionally I noticed some fairly clean stretches, but most of the flick was rather dirty. When I considered the age of Sunrise, the quality of the image remained decent, but it definitely displayed quite a few problems.

On the other hand, the monaural soundtrack of Sunrise presented a surprisingly positive affair. Mostly the mix presented just music. The score sounded a bit too bright and it offered only modest low-end response, but the music remained nicely clear and distinct. The occasional example of effects came across as a little rough, but those elements were pretty clean and solid. As for source defects, the track offered a little scratchiness and some noise, but it seemed pretty smooth overall. No one will mistake the audio of Sunrise as demo material, but given the exceedingly primitive nature of technology from its era, I thought the sound seemed very positive.

In addition to the film’s original monaural mix, the DVD of Sunrise included a more recently recorded stereo track. This provided an alternate score and omitted the smattering of effects heard during the original track. The music showed nice stereo imaging and generally came across as clear and robust. I preferred the mono mix just because it represented the original material, but the stereo score presentation offered a nice rendition for those who prefer something with a more modern sound.

The DVD of Sunrise offers a surprisingly nice complement of extras. We start with an audio commentary from cinematographer John Bailey, who offers a running, fairly screen-specific piece. Though informative as a whole, the track seems somewhat inconsistent. On the positive side, Bailey discusses a lot of technical elements behind the film, and he also provides good background information about the participants. Unfortunately, the track sags at times, and too much of the time, Bailey simply tells us how “lovely” and “beautiful” the shots look. They may well look great, but we don’t need to hear this so frequently. Overall, the commentary provides some nice material, but it seems a bit erratic.

Next we find a collection of Outtakes accompanied by commentary from Bailey. The snippets last a total of nine minutes, 55 seconds. Big Sunrise fans will likely feel happy to see this unused tidbits, but they seemed rather inconsequential to me. I noticed nothing especially interesting about any of them. Bailey doesn’t appear all that impressed either. He tries to elaborate on them, but he mostly just discusses some minor technical elements and doesn’t really tell us all that much of use.

In an odd move, the DVD presents the same collection of outtakes a second time. On this occasion, it includes some text cards that offer a little information about the various snippets. The outtakes themselves remain identical to those seen along with Bailey’s commentary; only the additional text differentiates the two pieces. The cards offer some decent notes, but I don’t see why the two presentations weren’t just merged into one more efficient segment.

Some text materials come after this. We find the Original Scenario By Carl Mayer With Annotations By Murnau. This doesn’t display the entire script, but what we see of Mayer’s writing seems interesting, especially since his version actually names the Man and the Wife. Since Murnau’s notes are all in German, their usefulness appears limited for most viewers. Elsewhere on the disc we get the movie’s full screenplay.

After the film’s totally silent trailer we locate a Still Gallery. This area includes a poster, a lobby card, one image from the set, and the publicity shot also seen on the DVD’s cover. Speaking of the latter, am I the only one who finds it an odd choice? It shows O’Brien with a moustache that he doesn’t wear in the film itself. For a little information on the transfer, the Restoration Notes tell us about the flick’s history.

That ends the supplements that deal specifically with Sunrise, but we get some additional materials related to Murnau’s “lost film”, Four Devils. We start with a 39-minute and 45-second video essay narrated by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom. This program mostly gives us an in-depth look at the way the movie ran. Via script, photos and other materials, Bergstrom helps bring an understanding of the lost flick. She also elaborates on various production details and alternate versions of the movie. The piece seems fairly dry, but it helps expand our knowledge of this picture.

Next we get an 18-screen text affair that presents the treatment of Four Devils. We also find that film’s screenplay. All together, these different pieces offer a fine look at a lost movie.

Despite its vaunted reputation, I can’t say that Sunrise totally wowed me. Nonetheless, I found myself fairly interested in it, and it succeeded better than I expected, largely due to excellent visuals and some nice acting. The DVD’s image looked acceptable for its age but still showed many concerns. On the other hand, the audio seemed surprisingly strong given its vintage, and the package included a very nice set of supplements. Film buffs will definitely want to give Sunrise a look.

Note that Sunrise currently cannot be purchased in any stores. To obtain a copy, you must buy three other releases in the “Fox Studio Classics” series and then mail in for Sunrise. Perhaps Fox will release Sunrise separately at some point, but I currently know of no plans to do so.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.409 Stars Number of Votes: 44
5 3:
View Averages for all rated titles.