“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (1927) is a silent romantic drama starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston. Directed by F.W. Murnau, this film ranks among the best ever made. The story begins with a small town farmer, played by George O’Brien, neglecting his wife, played by Janet Gaynor, and having an affair with a vacationing woman, played by Margaret Livingston, from the big city across the water. When the woman suggests that the man kill his wife by drowning her on a boat ride to the big city, he is consumed with the thought of escaping his life in the village. Once he is on the boat and ready to commit his horrible act, he looks into his wife’s eyes and realizes the love that she has for him is more powerful than the fling he is having with the woman from the big city. After reaffirming their love for each other they embark upon a second honeymoon through the city. Unfortunately, a storm hits as they are crossing the water back to their home.
In terms of production design and photography, “Sunrise” represents the very best of Hollywood. Even though its commercial success was limited by the competition of the new talkies, “Sunrise” was an enormous critical success. The impact of “Sunrise” as a film, and of German director F.W. Murnau as a new artistic leader was enormous, especially at Fox where directors tried to emulate his style. The story is rather simple, but the innovative cinematography is mesmerizing and stands alone as a wonderful display full of beautiful scenes and images. Many of the camera techniques used in the film were avant- garde for the time and seta new foundation of filmmaking for future directors. I noticed that the camera was extremely mobile, especially in fairly small and limited areas. I liked the suspense and tension as well as humor and humanity that the film offered in some scenes, particularly the one where O’Brien breaks down in tears in front of Janet Gaynor when he remembers their wedding vows. What impressed me the most about the film was that it was almost told with just visuals and music. There are hardly a dozen subtitles for a 90 minute film. This is a testament to Murnau’s talent for storytelling. A beautiful, poignant film with superb performances by the two leads, “Sunrise” is a masterpiece of the silent era. It is interesting to note that Janet Gaynor won the Best Actress Academy Award for her body of work that also included “Seventh Heaven” (1927). Cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Krauss got an Oscar for their work in “Sunrise” (1927). “Sunrise” itself received an Academy Award for “Most unique and artistic production.”
With his good looks, outgoing personality, and athletic credentials, George O’Brien was a natural for Westerns, a genre in which almost all of his sound career was spent. He became a star in John Ford’s “The Iron Horse” (1924) and ended his career as a character actor in two Ford films, “Fort Apache” (1948) and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949). O’Brien was able to immerse so totally in the character of the husband in Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927) that one cannot wonder why an entirely different career did not open for him. O’Brien was very much the answer to the Latin-lover type, a well built, all-American who could ride and fight. He was a former boxer, who had initially wanted to be a cameraman, and he starred in two boxing features, “The Roughneck” (1924) and “Is Zat So?” (1927). O’Brien looked good stripped to the waist, as he usually was in most of his early films. “Sunrise” changed O’Brien’s image; it proved that he was also a very fine, sympathetic actor, but it went contrary to his studio-created personality. It did, however, obtain for the actor the starring role in “Noah’s Ark” (1928), which again brought out a strong performance from O’Brien, playing both a Biblical and modern hero. O’Brien’s sound films, virtually all action pictures, are fun to watch because of the actor’s cheery disposition, but they all hint at lost opportunities. George O’Brien died on September 4, 1985. He was 86 years old.