City Girl (Masters of Cinema) Review

Simple yet layered, F.W. Murnau's 1930 film City Girl seems to have gotten short shrift over the years as a sort of younger sibling to the director's Sunrise. To a point, that's understandable as the later film shares much in common with Murnau's earlier masterpiece, but it's really the differences between the two films that are particularly fascinating, specifically how City Girl alters the main dynamic of rural versus urban life. The city remains fast-paced and lonely but now it's much less toxic. The country becomes less approachable while still representing an idyllic escape. Murnau, able to use an actual farm in Oregon for his location, alters the mood of the pastoral setting by shrinking wide open spaces into small interiors. The result is a film full of conflict and sadness, with characters undone far differently than in Sunrise. Even the happy ending feels less satisfying than in the earlier movie.

It's commonly accepted that Murnau's work on Sunrise greatly influenced his fellow Fox director Frank Borzage, who went on to make 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star and The River in quick succession. But it almost seems like Borzage's films may have had some effect on how Murnau approached City Girl. That picture even hews closer in some ways to what Borzage was doing than what Murnau had done previously or would do in his other feature (Tabu: A Story of the South Seas) prior to dying in an automobile crash at the age of 42. City Girl shares Borzage's frequent leading man of this era, Charles Farrell, and pairs him with Mary Duncan, his co-star from The River. As with that film, Farrell is a naive innocent first seen away from his usual comfort zone. The character of Lem travels by train to Chicago to sell his family's wheat crop for the season. He's not in the city long before meeting Kate (played by Duncan), a waitress working at the diner Lem visits. When Kate is seen away from Lem and the restaurant, she looks consumed by loneliness in a small apartment with only a windowsill plant to protect her from the vastness of the city.

Murnau needs just half an hour to convincingly join Lem and Kate together. While the racing between the train station and the diner may now feel contrived, the pair of scenes with the couple that follow are gorgeous and heartfelt. On the train back to Lem's family farm in Minnesota, they are sweetly leaning against each other asleep. Their tickets rest peacefully in Lem's hat as the conductor moves down the aisle. Arriving at the farm, they run with joy and happiness across the fields of wheat in what is surely the single most carefree and lightest moment in the film. This transition Murnau uses between the city and the country, as well as between the inception of this relationship and its quick struggle to adapt to new surroundings, makes what follows even harsher in tone and emotion. Where the urban portion was all about possibilities and opportunity mixed with the reality of disappointment, the change to a rural setting affords far less ambition. Here it's Lem's father (David Torrence) who is the decision-maker on everything to an almost godlike degree.

He immediately disapproves of Kate - sight unseen, as Murnau makes clear by emphasizing the word "waitress" on Lem's postcard as his father reads it prior to their arrival. It's interesting here to consider the father's distrust and how it, along with Kate's eventual behavior, relates back to Sunrise. In the earlier film, the woman from the city was a sensuous vamp who had her sights set on George O'Brien's character and even suggested that he drown wife Janet Gaynor. Everyone thought the worst of the woman except O'Brien, who presumably became seduced by the attention she was showing him. City Girl has Lem's father and the rowdy team of harvesters all thinking roughly the same thing about Kate, and none of it is flattering. (His mother and sister, who would grow up to be Anne Shirley, are far more accepting and open-minded.) This image of people from the city as evidently lacking in morals and various other character traits, something more or less reinforced in Sunrise, now gets frowned upon by Murnau. He instead paints those most disrespectful to Kate as the unsympathetic villains of the piece.

This seems somewhat significant since many of Murnau's films reveal a hesitation to outsiders. By most accounts, he was a man who preferred solitude to the bustle of society. If City Girl is an anomaly which shows the potential narrowness of rural living and presents city life as inherently unfulfilling but nonetheless not entirely poisonous, it can be read as either a concession to metropolitan possibilities or a statement of slightly idealistic misanthropy that recognizes no geographic bounds. Or, perhaps, something like the idea that the city is bad but not everyone in the city is reflective of that corruption. While Murnau lets his protagonists in both Sunrise and City Girl have moments of happiness in the city and become rejuvenated, he still maintains an overall coolness to any permanence there. City Girl differs in its refusal to fully embrace the rural existence as superior. Even the spectacular scenery, in stark contrast to the moody expressionism of Sunrise, is reined in to tighten the action around Lem's family home. The majestic fields teased as the couple enter the property are soon discarded for tight rooms of tension and acrimony.

Resolution gets a neat bow at the end, but it doesn't quite feel right. Emotionally, it may be satisfying. Logically and in the narrative arcs of these characters, it comes off as too abrupt, too easy. To be sure, City Girl is a phenomenally rich and moving film, and only a few shades below Sunrise overall. It's slightly hindered by a pair of false notes, though, and the second of these is an ending that, despite the film basically painting itself into this corner, neither captures the Borzage sense of transforming the possible to the inevitable nor expands on any of the themes laid out in the rest of the picture. It may be intended as ambiguous, but it really doesn't feel that way. This conclusion, which Murnau may or may not have approved of, instead comes across as tacked-on, like an antidote to the inexplicably fast blowup of Lem and Kate's relationship upon arriving at the farm (which is the other major weakness in the narrative). Neither detracts too strongly from the whole, however, and there's little reason why City Girl shouldn't be held up as one of Murnau's finest, most emotionally complex films.

The Disc

Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series is doing something with its release of City Girl that I don't believe has quite been done before. The title is being issued only on the Blu-ray format and without a standard DVD equivalent ever having been made available in the UK. Not only that but City Girl also hasn't had a standalone R1 DVD either, as it was part of Fox's 2008 "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" box set. With MoC now having taken on Sunrise and City Girl in 1080p and the BFI adding 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star, Liliom and The River across a pair of DVD volumes dedicated to director Frank Borzage, that R1 set seems to have been well-mined in the UK. (Those truly interested in these directors still shouldn't dismiss the R1 box outright considering it also contains Borzage's Lazybones and Bad Girl as well as another four films and a feature-length documentary.)

But what do we make of this idea of exclusively releasing a film (and one with a fairly limited prior availability, to boot) on a format that most consumers still cannot utilize? Is it forward-thinking or elitist? Smart or risky? Practical or foolish? Surely it's a combination of those. Without being privy to facts and figures, I can imagine that a label which has dedicated itself for a few years now to widening the availability of quality cinema in quality editions has its reasons for this decision. Some of these could include concerns of greater piracy when dealing with DVD versus Blu-ray, the likely truth that MoC's clientele probably includes more earlyish adopters of Blu-ray than an average sampling, and the realization that DVD is becoming less relevant with every passing month, meaning future sales are destined to shrink compared to Blu-ray. My hunch is that two additional factors play an even larger role in all of this, with one being the limited resources (time and money particularly) available which must go into every single MoC title whether it's DVD, Blu-ray or one of each, and the other being the clear superiority of Blu-ray over DVD. When done properly, a high definition rendering of a film like City Girl will outshine its standard definition counterpart, and anyone committed to replicating the cinema viewing experience while watching movies at home is highly likely to embrace that technology.

Naturally, this approach leaves those unable or unwilling to plunk down for a Blu-ray player out in the cold. (Also graduating from the world of tube televisions is recommended but it's not absolutely essential for playing Blu-ray discs in the proper player right now.) My main concern would then be with how releasing Blu-only editions hinders the overall goal for (legal) availability. It strikes me as unfortunate that, just to use City Girl for now, only those people with access to Blu-ray players or the ability to get hold of the R1 disc can legitimately watch this film. That said, every time an otherwise hard-to-see picture is screened anywhere in the world there are only a limited number of people who are actually able to enjoy that viewing. It may not be the perfect solution but there are several practicalities that have to be considered. What MoC is doing seems fair and straightforward to me. It's easy to see why some DVD loyalists would be disappointed, but the pros do, in my opinion, outweigh the nonetheless legitimate cons at the moment and, particularly, when thinking ahead to the future.

It also helps that this City Girl disc is region-free. When (and not if since it's going to happen soon enough) a region-locked Blu-ray exclusive title hits then we'll have another wrinkle to consider. Now, though, is the time to praise a staggeringly beautiful image. The Fox R1 disc of this film already stood out for how crisp and detailed the picture looked but the bar has certainly been raised by rendering it in high definition. MoC's transfer, in the narrow but proper 1.19:1 aspect ratio, makes a stunning film look even better. There's a parade of grain here that is brilliant in motion. The black and white contrast looks pleasantly natural and strong. Some mild flickering is present at times but the image comes through as quite stable and smooth. Only frequent scratches and vertical lines of damage slightly hinder the image. Really quite lovely to watch, though.

City Girl was released in cinemas as a partial talkie but it was the silent version, done for foreign markets and unseen for years afterward, that Fox made available on DVD and which is now being released on Blu-ray by MoC. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track of Christopher Caliendo's 2008 score blazes through the speakers. It's a triumphant accompaniment that fits the action on screen well. No subtitles but there really isn't an opportunity for them as the film already has English intertitles.

Turning to the extras now, David Kalat's commentary is both entertaining and informative, not a surprise to those familiar with Kalat's tracks. I'm not sure who else could manage mentions of Fritz Lang, Richard Lester, Sarah Palin, Green Acres, the Marx Brothers and Darth Vader during a film that's less than 90 minutes and make them all seem reasonably relevant to the points being made at the time. This isn't necessarily a complaint, but he does spend what seems like a very long time discussing Murnau's relationship with Fox Film Corp. when most of what he has to go on is just well-reasoned speculation. Kalat does talk enthusiastically throughout City Girl, but I might've preferred a sharper focus on discussing the merits of the film

The included booklet runs 28 pages, with only a reprint of a 2003 Senses of Cinema essay written by Adrian Danks and a collection of still images inside. Indeed, the booklet is more picture-heavy than is usual for MoC, with Danks' essay occupying just 5 pages of text. Film and disc credits can also be found here.

Final Thoughts

I can write a love letter to the Masters of Cinema Series another day, but I'm sure most anyone acquainted with the label will be, again, thrilled with this release. Some may bristle at the lack of a concurrent DVD release, but the logic in going Blu-only for certain titles seems sound and, hopefully, will allow for even more films to get a similar treatment. The only real downside I see is holding those without Blu-ray capabilities back from seeing such an exceptional film like City Girl.

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