By Luke Aspell.
Taken as lost, City Girl dramatizes its own predicament in reverse. Our Daily Bread, the story of wheat from which this 1930 Fox release was re-cut, would have hymned the cyclical sense of Tustine’s (David Torrence) life of toil. In the light of that perspective, it is difficult to imagine how the story, however nuanced, could be other than one of capitulation. Lem (Charles Farrell) and Kate (Mary Duncan) are not archetypes; the farm he brings her home to isn’t a landscape, it’s somewhere in Minnesota. Lem and Kate were not shaped to fit, and the story of wheat might find it simpler if they were. Taken as a remnant, the film’s purposes seem opposed to those of the form from which it was wrested; it is a spoiled Sunrise.
However, if taken as a Murnau film, it constitutes a turning-point: it is here that the breakthrough in worldview takes place that would make Tabu possible. Film history, always a partial, conditional thing, long seemed in Murnau’s case an expressionist canvas, broad lines of vivid emotion carrying us over the obscurities of missing films, and rarities known to most only by reputation. In the presence of so many landmarks, it only needed to be said of City Girl that it was ‘mutilated’, compromised, beneath the autonomy of Sunrise and Tabu, landmarks different enough from each other to make the future direction of his interrupted ouevre impossible to predict. Now those landmarks exist in a continuum. Even compromised, City Girl legibly introduces a new kind of ‘architecture’, one that, rather than weaving the course of characters as one strand in a plait of motion, is formed by the interaction of individuals in space.
The difference is apparent from the opening titles. These wheat fields are not the scenery of earlier Kate’s calendar idyll, or the emanation of a demiurge, but terrain, startlingly bright and sharp in Ernest Palmer’s cinematography. Throughout the film, the bitterness of Tustine will gain no purchase on such images; the crisis he precipitates remains a determinedly interpersonal one, not a crisis of prana, the relation of man to nature agnostic, the work of hands.
City Girl is the sort of title that would become common in the early thirties, piquing curiosity by drawing attention to how much it elides. It has an air of journalese – to acknowledge it at all seems to be to take it too seriously; its blankness invites the viewer’s suppositions. Once the film arrives in Chicago, in contrast to Sunrise‘s joyous vistas of modern bustle, we only see as much of the city as Lem and Kate can lay their hands on. Their visionary power is confined to the dream of a shared future.
In his authority over family and property, Tustine seems incognizant or his own mortality, or the need for new life. His tyranny over his family is absolute, but the arrival of farmhands led by Mac (Richard Alexander) cuts it down to smaller than life-size. In a scene of domestic humiliation that touches notes of claustrophobia unique in Murnau’s work, the cold emptiness of Tustine’s moral outrage is vividly demonstrated as he wilfully subjects his daughter-in-law to the pawings of Mac’s gang. The Biblical dignity of the struggle against the economy and the elements, indicated in the film’s opening minutes, is demolished by Tustine’s pathetic affect. His authority only extends to those he can overpower by appeal to emotional blackmail or physical threat; among the strong and amoral he remains silent.
This exemplifies the dialectic of the film, which seems almost, as Adrian Danks observes in an essay included in this release’s booklet, to have a ‘critical relationship’ to the rest of Murnau’s cinema. In the film’s opening scene, Lem’s conduct on the train to Chicago seems to place him in line with the luminously pure-hearted figures of Murnau’s previous rural idylls; as a figure merely, his father has gravitas, and attracts our sympathy; contrasted with Kate’s one-room apartment, the clear bright fields of wheat seem like freedom. Soon after Lem and Kate’s arrival on the farm, she discovers the meekness that lies behind that goodness, moves into a room more cramped than her apartment, and encounters a malign piousness less honest than the blithe vulgarity of the cafe customers. The determining incidents for the film’s climax take place in a single room, within the light of a reading lamp.
The silent version of City Girl now most widely seen, and released on DVD and Blu-ray in region 2 by Eureka/Masters of Cinema, was preserved from the violence inflicted in the film’s conversion to a 67-minute semi-musical part-talkie on its original American release. Some uncertainty has been expressed concerning the provenance of the ending, with some historians suggesting that this may be one of the changes made to the film after Murnau’s resignation. While a tragic ending comparable to that of Tabu would be, in melodramatic terms, more conventionally satisfying, it seems entirely appropriate that the ending denies the apocalyptic gesture, and is, like that of Sunrise (but more explicitly), not the restitution of an order but the establishment of a new one. This is not redemption conferred by a deterministic order, nor the oppressive resignation of Sjostrom’s The Wind (1928), but a new chance for life in the world, not seeking to escape it.
Luke Aspell is a filmmaker and writer. His work deals with language, the relation between narrations constructed by form and the problematic authority of ‘master narratives’, and the socio-political implications of these. He is currently working on a series about the passing of videotape, its history and aesthetic legacy.
City Girl received a dual Blu-ray and DVD release in the United Kingdom as part of Eureka Entertainment’s “The Masters of Cinema” series. Special features include a restored high-definition master, a new score composed by Christopher Caliendo in 2008, full-length commentary by film scholar David Kalat, and a 28-page illustrated booklet with an essay by Adrian Danks.