After earning critical acclaim, but only moderate coin on SUNRISE/’27, his Hollywood debut (and still on any 'Best Of . . . ' short list), German director F. W. Murnau quickly found his carte blanche contract status at crisis-ridden FOX studios less blanche than promised. His next, the circus drama 4 DEVILS/’28, now lies among the missing, but one last silent triumphantly survives. Converted, without Murnau’s participation, into a shortened sound version (now lost), the silent release, at about 90 minutes, looks nearly complete (the end perhaps slightly truncated) and flat out wonderful. It’s also in superb physical condition on a stand alone DVD via 20th/Fox-Archives with a fine new country-flavored score from Christopher Caliendo. Like SUNRISE, the story is a simple affair (country boy meets & marries city girl/city girl adjusts to country life) visually orchestrated by a total master of the medium. But where the earlier film still had one foot planted in Europe, GIRL is both all-wonderful and excitingly All-American. The only debate possible is whether the opening city-based act or the last two rural-set acts are more revelatory. The stunningly well-executed diner where the two meet; the lonely, infinitely expressive apartment where the girl lives with a wind-up mechanical songbird; a startling sexually suggestive run thru ripe wheat fields*; the rush to bring in the harvest before a raging storm arrives. (You can feel the plug being pulled before that storm has a chance to come in and bust the budget.) As the waitress turned bride, Mary Duncan is a remarkably modern presence, a spit-curled beauty who can stand up for herself. And Charles Farrell, immensely appealing as the handsome son not yet able to take on his ornery dad (David Torrence). But then, every actor, every piece of the meticulous sets, every pause, parry & punctuation; most of all every composition (portrait & landscape) is the stuff of movie magic & legend. And if it’s not quite the supreme masterpiece SUNRISE is . . . well, what the heck is.
DOUBLE-BILL: *Ripe fields of wheat have a similar erotic effect on Miriam Hopkins & Franchot Tone in King Vidor’s superb rural romance THE STRANGER’S RETURN/’33, still not out on DVD.