Sunrise sits at the rare intersection of great art and great commerce. Perhaps the film could only have been made through an unlikely alliance between two opposing personalities: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, an educated auteur who transferred his European sensibility to Hollywood, and William Fox, a self-made businessman determined to obtain for his company a level of prestige it had never before approached.
William Fox’s family moved from Hungary to the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he was an infant. He went to work at age eight, quit school at eleven and, by 25, had enough capital to purchase a nickelodeon. From these humble beginnings his business grew into the powerful Fox Film Corporation. Fox defied the Edison Trust by innovating the vertically integrated studio model in which motion picture exhibition, distribution, and production were accomplished within a single company. Rivals studios Paramount and MGM began following this model in the 1920s, however, Fox fell behind in the race to dominate theater screens.
Most of Fox’s income came from its melodramas and westerns rented to small town and neighborhood theaters. Fox had occasionally attempted to make large-scale pictures, but he preferred low budgets and reliable profit margins. In 1924, the epic western The Iron Horse premiered at a posh Times Square theater, a Fox first. Hugely popular with audiences, it was booked in all classes of theaters. The popular epic western made a name for its director John Ford and garnered a critical acclaim Fox films rarely achieved. As Fox began purchasing and constructing opulent venues in choice theater districts across the country, he was also producing ambitious films that could justify higher ticket prices and greater publicity for his downtown movie palaces.
That December, William Fox was among the first to see the latest masterpiece from the German film industry. Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) starred Emil Jannings as a doorman with a defiant yet fragile dignity. The film relied on visual storytelling, using only a single explanatory intertitle. Its “unchained” camera and Expressionistic lighting and set design was a world away from the routine product churned out by Fox. In March 1925, newspapers announced that The Last Laugh’s director F. W. Murnau would come to Hollywood the following year to direct for Fox.
Before leaving Germany for Hollywood in July 1926, Murnau completed adaptations of Tartuffe and Faust, both starring Jannings. Fox promoted its new artiste as “the German Genius” and ballyhooed the unprecedented degree of freedom Murnau would be granted. He would be allowed to handpick many of his collaborators, including Carl Meyer who had scripted The Last Laugh and wrote the Sunrise scenario in free verse.
Charles Rosher, one of the top cinematographers in Hollywood, had spent time with Murnau in Berlin serving as an unofficial consultant on Faust, the director’s most effects-laden film to date. Rosher worked alongside Murnau as a student as much as an advisor, learning about the innovative German camera methods that amazed American critics and filmmakers.
Rosher recruited Ben-Hur cinematographer Karl Struss to help him shoot Sunrise on Rochus Gliese’s elaborate sets. Gliese built a vast indoor city set designed to appear even larger through the use of forced perspective. It cost $200,000—nearly the entire budget of a typical program picture of the day. He also created a studio-bound marsh with an uneven floor that could not accommodate a dolly setup. Instead, tracks were attached to the ceiling and Struss filmed upside-down, a maneuver Rosher had observed on the Faust set. It was only one of many radical techniques used in Sunrise. Nearly every shot in the film involves a striking effect, whether from an unusual light source, a superimposition, or a complex camera movement. Yet each is motivated by allegiance to the story and its emotions. Murnau told an interviewer, “I do not take trick scenes from unusual positions just to get startling effects. To me the camera represents the eye of a person, through whose mind one is watching the events on screen.”
To play the husband and wife in Sunrise, Murnau chose two ascending Fox stars. San Francisco native George O’Brien had been working as a muscular Hollywood stuntman until John Ford chose him for The Iron Horse. Leading lady Janet Gaynor also had San Francisco ties. Though born in Philadelphia, her family moved to the city by the bay when she was a teenager, and she graduated from O’Brien’s alma mater, Polytechnic High. Upon relocating to Los Angeles, she first landed roles at Hal Roach’s studio then at Fox.Sunrise premiered on September 23, 1927, just two weeks before The Jazz Singer. William Fox had anticipated the coming of sound, investing in the Movietone sound-on-film system to rival Warner’s technology. Though silent prints were made for Europe and other locations not yet wired for sound, Sunrise was presented with a recorded musical soundtrack in audio-equipped venues.
In the face of the enormous expenditures that the Fox Film Corporation had made, Sunrise was a box-office disappointment. Although some reviewers criticized the idea of a big-budget spectacle touting artistic pretensions, others immediately recognized the film as a singular achievement. Life magazine’s Robert Sherwood called it “the most important picture in the history of the movies.” Many independent theater owners remained unconvinced.
Sunrise may not have recouped its own staggering cost, but it became an artistic template for many of its studio’s biggest hits. Fox directors Frank Borzage, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, and John Ford all entered a Murnau-esque phase after Sunrise, producing films that stretched their aesthetic repertoire and still turned a profit. After seeing a rough cut of the film, Ford declared it “the greatest picture that has been produced.” His 1928 film Four Sons was tremendously influenced by Sunrise and was even filmed on some of Gliese’s sets, as were parts of Borzage’s Seventh Heaven. Both films were great commercial successes.
Just as he was able to refurbish the image of his studio, William Fox’s days as a Hollywood mogul came to an ignominious end. He was attempting a hostile takeover of MGM in 1929 when the stock market crashed. Outraged by Fox’s maneuvering, MGM head Louis B. Mayer sought revenge by fomenting an antitrust suit against the Fox Film Corporation. Fox, recovering from a severe auto accident and drowning in debt, was forced out of his own company. In 1936, he declared bankruptcy. When it was discovered that Fox had bribed the judge on the case, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Upon his release, the dethroned magnate was shunned by Hollywood. He died in 1952. Fox Film Corporation lived on, having merged with 20th Century Film in 1935.
Director Murnau’s career after Sunrise was also brief. He made two more silents for Fox, 4 Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930), but both were severely altered when the studio inserted talking sequences shot by other directors. Once free of his Fox contract, Murnau teamed up with ethnographic documentary filmmaker Roberty Flaherty to shoot Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) on location in Tahiti. It turned out to be his last film. He died in a car accident shortly after its completion. By then, the silent era was over, and Tabu, with its musical score but no dialogue, was already an anachronism. Yet it was a modest hit for Paramount, perhaps signaling that audiences will always exist for films made by a master of visual expression such as Murnau.
Presented at Silent Winter, February 2009 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer