Here is the thing about death in movies: until you see a character dead, in a casket, lowered six feet underground, and the dirt has been piled on top, then that person could still be alive. Even then, there are instances of writers bringing characters back from the brink through whatever literary device they can imagine. As you read this review of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), henceforth just Sunrise, you will see how this is a spoiler for the coming events. And here I was thinking that after reviewing Modern Times (1936), I was done with silent films for the foreseeable future. Somehow, in the random scanning I do of the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, I overlooked number eighty-two on the list, that being Sunrise. I am happy to have caught up with it.
Despite its title, Sunrise does not have the happiest of beginnings. The opening crawl does little to dispel the gloom, basically telling you that everyone, everywhere, has troubles, and that they are all largely the same. This extends to those who live in the city, and those who live in the country. Those in the former vacation in the latter, and one of these city dwellers, labeled “The Woman from the City” (Margaret Livingston), which I will shorten to just “the woman,” has lingered longer than most who come for the summer season. Her reason is because she has set her eyes on The Man (George O’Brien). He is not a single man, but married to The Wife (Janet Gaynor). Look, I am not the one making up these names, okay? After putting on her make-up and a fetching dress, she walks past the Man and Wife’s house while the Wife is preparing dinner. The woman’s whistle brings an anxious Man out of the house to her while the Wife is in the other room. When the woman and Man are alone, she pleads with him for them to be together, free of the Wife. To accomplish this, the woman suggests he drown his Wife. At first, he is horrified by this proposal and tries to violently shake her away. Instead, she clutches to him all the more, and with a flurry of kisses convinces him to go through with the awful act. On the way home, he gathers a bushel of bullrushes to take with him on the boat. This way, upon capsizing the vessel, he will have something to float on while the Wife succumbs to the waves. Awaking the next morning, he tells his spouse they are going to go out on the water for the day, leaving their toddler with a babysitter. Once they are some distance from the shore, he gets up in the boat with a menacing look, apparently intent on murder. Before he can go through with it, however, he hears the church bells from their village and has a change of heart. Nonetheless, she is understandably scared out of her wits. The moment they touch the other shore, she springs from their boat and runs away. The man gives chase, and soon they are on the trolley into the city. She is still afraid for her life, but all the while he is telling her to have no fear. This lasts all the way into town, and has her breaking into sobbing as they sit at a café. She is in these hysterics not only because of her brush with death, but also due to her unspoken knowledge of her husband’s affair. He is doing all he can to cheer her, but he, too, is looking glum. All he can do is to continue offering her gifts, like flowers, and eventually this gets her to stop crying. Back on the street, they notice a wedding going on in a church across the way. Going inside, the Man is moved to tears, and it is his turn for sobbing, begging the Wife for forgiveness. She accepts, and now it is time for them to enjoy the fun to be had in the city. Before the entertainment can commence, though, she insists that he go to the barber for a shave. During this sequence, there is a test of his rededicated feelings for her when an attractive woman offers him a manicure. The Man’s refusal is all the wife needs to know about his feelings. Next, they go to have their picture taken, but have to leave suddenly when they accidentally knock over what they assume to be an expensive sculpture, hiding their destruction by putting a toy head on it. Finally, they make it to what I can only describe as a carnival on steroids. As a historian, I feel slightly embarrassed that I cannot correctly identify what is going on in these next few scenes. A better way of describing is to say what is not happening. For example, you do not see a monkey at a typewriter working on a script for Shakespeare. In any case, the Man wins a prize at a game both, which I guess is a piglet, though it gets loose. This one little porky goes on to menace the goings-on until the Man is able to catch it and is made a hero. Finally, it is time to go home, and the Man and wife settle in for a relaxing and romantic moonlit cruise back across the water. Nothing could go wrong, right? So peaceful . . . until what looks like a hurricane suddenly picks up and soon tips over their small craft. Before this occurs, the Man gives the wife the bullrushes he had been intending to use to save himself earlier. After coming to on the shore, he raises the alarm and sets out with a search party. Also roused by the commotion is the woman. As soon as they come back empty handed, the woman makes the miscalculated choice of trying to lure out the depressed Man. When he finally emerges, he goes after her with the intent to kill. His hand is stayed, though, when his voice is called from the house. The Wife has been found alive, and has returned. We close the next morning with our little family adoringly in bed together.
Despite the rules about death I mentioned in the introduction to this review of Sunrise, I worried that the Wife could have actually been dead. This hit me hardest when he goes out on the water with the search party and finds nothing but some stray reeds. At that moment I thought, man, this movie is a kick in the groin. Instead, I should have remembered what I told you in the first paragraph. There is also a lot to say about their marriage from a Catholic perspective. Earlier today, I listened to a little bit of a podcast by the Eh Bee family talking about how their own relationship is not perfect. While there has not been any infidelity between them, at least none that I know of, they indicated the need to be patient with one another. This is something that the Wife demonstrates in a Christ-like manner with the Man, and by which he is inspired. The Catholic Church stresses the importance of these traits. It is also important to note that the Man is motivated by the minister’s reminders of the vows the couple say to each other. I imagine that there are those of you today who would watch this sequence and think that these words reinforce some of the worst aspects of the patriarchy. I would simply repeat something obvious, but no less crucial in getting to the heart of the matter: men are men and women are women. As the Church only recognizes a marriage between a man and a wife, they each have a different role to fill. It does not make them separate, but rather one whole person in the eyes of God. The Man brings these ideas to fruition when he gives the Wife the bullrushes before they go overboard.
To conclude this look at Sunrise, I will leave you with a bit of trivia about it: Janet Gaynor won the first ever Academy Award for best actress in a leading role for her portrayal of the Wife. To me, that is worth the price of admission. If that is not for you, watch it for the neat early special effects.