“Tell me a story.”
It’s a phrase we learn as kids, and one that some of us never outgrow.
When great friend of the blog Eddie Harrison (journalist and writer of the excellent film-authority.com) mentioned the old silent film Sunrise (1927) as one to check out to see how to do a rowboat murder scene, I figured I’d maybe get around to watching it one day and just fast-forward to the rowboat scene.
I certainly wasn’t planning to blog about it.
For what kind of story could a film with no dialogue tell that would matter in 2021?
Serendipity intervened when I found a copy of Sunrise (Blu-ray, no less) at the library when I was scooping up a batch of classic films.
We’ve already discussed Gene Tierney’s glorious villain who cruelly allows her husband’s disabled brother to drown in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Montgomery Clift’s inability to follow through with his plan to drown his pregnant girlfriend in A Place in the Sun (1951).
How would the attempted rowboat murder in Sunrise hold up against its successors?
Quite well, indeed.
The film stars George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor (who would go on to star in the first of four versions of A Star is Born, in the role most recently played by Lady Gaga) as a husband and wife living in the German countryside. She is content with her husband, farm, and young child, but the husband is bored by his mundane life and plagued by money troubles. His head is turned by Margaret Livingston as a woman from the city who tempts him.
When the film begins, the man (the characters are given no names beyond The Man, The Wife, and The Woman from the City) has already begun a guilty affair with the woman from the city. No words are needed to describe what kind of woman she is—the nylons, high heels, and smoking tell us all we need to know. She is visually contrasted by the wife, in long braids and a homespun dress that is good for farm work but far from sexy.
The woman from the city wants the man to drown his wife so they can run away to the city together. At first, he violently objects, but the idea takes root. Soon he is rowing his wife out for what she believes will be a fun day in the city. He stands up, moves across the boat, but in the end changes his mind. The damage is already done, however, as the wife clearly saw his intentions in his eyes and runs away from him the moment the boat hits land.
He follows her, and after an extended period of shock and apology, the wife begins to warm to him. As improbable as it seems, they spend the day in the city rediscovering their love. He gets a haircut and a shave, they have their photograph taken, they dance and he tries to win her a prize at a carnival. There are moments of regret and remorse, moments of tenderness, moments of lighthearted laughter.
It shouldn’t be romantic—he tried to kill her that morning, after all.
It shouldn’t keep my interest—a silent film made ninety-four years ago, before the first talkie.
And yet it is, and it does.
There’s a scene I particularly love when the couple just happens by a wedding in progress and slips inside the church. The man watches intently as the couple recites their vows. In one of the film’s few title cards, the minister instructs the groom to “keep and protect [his bride] from all harm.”
The man, knowing he has made that same vow to his own wife and broken it in spectacular fashion, buries his unworthy face in his forgiving wife’s lap and breaks down in sobs.
No words necessary.
It was only after watching that I ran to my books and learned that Sunrise was one of the last silent films, and one of the first films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects. That it was directed by F.W. Murnau, lured to American by William Fox because he wanted an esteemed German director to make an expressionist film for an American audience. That it won Best Unique and Artistic Picture at the very first Academy Awards ceremony. (The only film to ever win this distinction, as the category was eliminated after the first year.) That Janet Gaynor won the first ever Best Actress Academy Award for her work in 1927. (In the early Academy Awards, actors were awarded for their entire body of work in a year.) That it was praised for groundbreaking cinematography, and is at number 82 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Films.
But impressive as they are, none of those accolades would’ve meant anything to me if Sunrise hadn’t told me a story where I had to know the ending.
It’s unlikely I’ll make a habit of watching silent films, and it’s unlikely that I’ll recommend this film to anyone who isn’t the deepest of film buffs.
But I wasn’t bored. It told a story that felt both universal and fresh.
Never once did I consider turning it off before the end.
That’s more than I can say for a lot of movies made today.
Sunrise reminds us that storytellers will always find a way to tell stories. Take away the sound, and they’ll tell a story through expressions. Take away the camera, and they’ll tell a story with words on paper. Take away the paper and they’ll recite long poems from memory like Homer and the ancient Greeks.
“Tell me a story.”
It doesn’t matter how.
The complete film is available to watch for free on YouTube here.
- Thomson, David. The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.
Glad you got something from this! Not all silent films cut the mustard now, very few in fact. I bought a ticket for this as MOMA in Manhattan, knowing nothing more than it was a good old film that kept getting mentioned in ye olde books. Some of the staging is unintenyionally comic; The Woman from the City raised a few laughs with her vampy antics. But the rekindling of the couple’s love, beautifully described by you, is brilliant storytelling, even if a few allowances have to be made. And yes, ALWAYS keep kindling in your rowboat as a emergency floatation device, whether you’re planning to murder your partner that day or not. A film by which all rowboat romantic murder pictures should be judged. I salute your desire to investigate this film! Wonderful read!
Yes, this one was such a pleasant surprise. I have to say, as someone who rows three times a week, I am starting to be quite paranoid around my crewmates!