1927: 3 movies

(Last updated 12 November 2012)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Written by Carl Mayer
Starring Janet Gaynor, George O'Brien,
and Margaret Livingston
Cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss
Editing by Harold D. Schuster
Art direction by Rochus Gliese
Produced by William Fox

   After a string of hits in Germany, Murnau was invited by producer William Fox to make a movie in the U.S. The result is this gripping story of lust, murder, forgiveness, redemption, celebration, and justice. It doesn't plod through from one chapter to the next, but concentrates on mood, like a poem or a series of paintings. Every shot displays a wonderful range of visual depths and details, and the characters are great stand-ins for us with their wide-eyed amazement of city-life. Each vignette succeeds because the camera-work and the editing follow a singular line of shifting emotion; the result being one seamless, startling adventure. Of course, the sets and the performances, especially by Janet Gaynor, are absolutely vital to the structure of cinema!

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt
Directed and edited by Walther Ruttmann
Written by Carl Mayer, Karl Freund, and Walther Ruttmann
Cinematography by Robert Baberske, Reimar Kuntze,
and László Schäffer
Art direction by Erich Kettelhut
Produced by Karl Freund

   Part of the reason this movie is so good is that it was obviously preceded by the question: What is the right scope for the movie-medium? Should it deal with one person's perspective, the perspective of a few? Should it try to evoke a feeling, like a poem, or should it look to create more abstractly, arranging a variety of shapes and shades to dazzle the eyes? Should it be a collection of beautiful motion-photography? This movie answers that question brilliantly by focusing on a single city, from a train arriving into its station in the early daylight to the explosion of fireworks at night. In between, we see people going to work, working, kids going to school, people dining, going out for entertainment, and people freaking out from a build-up of stress.
   Another part of the reason this movie is so good is that every shot is a masterpiece of motion-photography. The city is captured gorgeously and hugely, and the cuts move with breathtaking swiftness, intercutting grand vistas, with close-ups of hectic action and mundane life, sometimes dischordantly, sometimes with mellifluousness. When the movie ends, we feel confident that we've experienced a day in 1927 Berlin, and we are convinced that movies can successfully balance abstract art, documentary, and narrative.
   A score by Edward Meisel was originally written for the movie, though it is often shown silently or with alternate scores. The title translates as "Berlin: Symphony of a Major City".

Starring Clara Bow,
William Austin, and Antonio Moreno
Directed by Clarence D. Badger
Co-directed by Josef von Sternberg
Written by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton
Cinematography by H. Kinley Martin

   It certainly has its flaws. Of course, basing a movie on a pop-psychology article and then using the movie to popularize the article and its author doesn't bode well for it's ability to advance cinema. But partly because of its age, we are able to dismiss a lot of the old-fashioned mores and focus instead on the overwhelmingly magnetic charm of the lead performance by Clara Bow. She's sort of a female version of Chaplin's tramp, in her brilliance. Her character is not as rich or developed, concerned as she is almost entirely with marrying a rich and handsome stud, rather than acting altruistically. It's the way Bow colors this one-dimensional character with little fluourishes of sexy clownishness, and they way she seems to bask gloriously in the camera's glare that keeps it fresh.
   Besides Bow's performance, the crisp photography captures several diverting sets and locations that keep the movie flowing. We start in a department store, go out for an evening to the Ritz, visit Coney Island, and finally end with a boat cruise. Bow's charm may have been able to find a more suitable vehicle to stand the test of time, but she will always be the first official bombshell of movies, the woman whose ability to dominate the screen paved the way for countless other female actors.

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