F.W. Murnau’s 1930 film City Girl was the third of just four that the German cinematic pioneer made in Hollywood. With 1928’s 4 Devils among the thousands of lost films from the period, we only have three left from the Director who in his home land made such iconic movies as Nosferatu and The Last Laugh. City Girl shares many themes with his masterpiece Sunrise in that it is about love and the struggle between rural life and urbanisation.
Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell) is sent from his Minnesota farm to Chicago by his overbearing father to sell their wheat crop. While in the big city, the country boy meets and falls in love with a city waitress called Kate (Mary Duncan). Lem sells the family crop, but for a lower price than his father desired and brings his new bride back to the farm to meet his parents. Kate soon discovers that life in the country isn’t all she expected it to be and with leering men much the same as in the city and a father-in-law who distrusts her, she begins to think she’s made a huge mistake.
What is evident from all of Murnau’s films is what a supreme director he was. City Girl is a fairly restrained outing in terms of his expressionist style but he still hints at his origins with long shadows and half darkened rooms. This film is notable for a couple of action scenes including a dart across the wheat fields in a pony trap which is exhilarating. Murnau uses his camera to sway from one side of the cart to the other in an inventive and exciting manner and ends the scene with a suspenseful gunshot and clever use of intertitles. Speaking of intertitles, City Girl is today a silent film but a version with elements with sound was produced side by side with this surviving piece. Unfortunately, the part sound film is yet another example of a lost film.
Murnau captures the differences between the city and the country in a variety of ways. The city scenes are bustling and crowded and every extra seems in a rush to get to one place or another. The scenes inside the café where the two leads first become acquainted are equally as busy as outside and Murnau effectively creates the illusion of sweaty, city heat to further exemplify the stifling city. The Chicago scenes are also very brightly lit. Mary Duncan’s apartment looks out over flashing neon signs and an elevated railway just inches from her window is thrown in for good measure. On the contrary to the city scenes, the country sequences are poorly lit with characters using oil lamps in order to navigate the house and fields at night. These scenes are also sparsely decorated. The family home has bare walls and minimal furniture.
Something else which differs is the score. It’s difficult to know if the version I saw featured Arthur Kay’s original score but either way, the version I heard was excellent. The city scenes features an upbeat, fast tempo but jolting score which captures the frenetic stop-start pace of city life. When in the country, the score is much more lackadaisical, with a slower pace and instruments that are more associated with country music. The score works beautifully to illustrate the differences between the two locations and it’s even better in the dramatic moments.
I don’t know if there was something in the Hollywood water in the late 20s and early 30s but many of the best romantic films I’ve seen are from this period. Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights is my favourite romantic film of all time and Murnau’s Sunrise runs it close. This film can comfortably sit in the company of the two I’ve just mentioned based on its romantic credentials. The scenes in which the couple fall in love are just beautiful and the writing and acting are superb. The film is really sweet and I was willing the couple on from the start. In the busy Chicago restaurant it’s easy to see why Kate falls for Lem’s polite, country ways and Kate’s beauty and city wits are equally as desirable. They make for a great couple. When I paused the film around the half way mark I was shocked to find that I was only forty-five minutes in because I suddenly realised that there must be something on the way which will disrupt the couple’s happiness in order to warrant another forty-five minutes. I actually got a little fearful for what was coming, so was my enchantment with the couple.
Other than love, the film makes discussion of the pros and cons of city vs. country living. The movie was made just months into the Great Depression, at a time when living was tough in both town and country but when urbanisation was on the increase in the industrialised west. It was a time when people were looking elsewhere for work and happiness and the couple’s push/pull from city to country epitomises the west as a whole at that time. The desperation that many people found themselves living in at the time is also explored with the need for the crop to be a success but this is only lightly touched upon. Fidelity and trust is another area in which the film delves into and this forms a major part of the third act.
Both leads deliver tremendous performances in City Girl. I was disappointed to read that Mary Duncan gave up the profession just a couple of years after this movie wrapped as she had real star quality. Charles Farrell had a longer lasting career and in 1950 became the Mayor of Palm Springs. I was so invested in the romance that I was hoping to read that the actors also got together but alas this wasn’t the case. The movie is a prime example of screen chemistry working at its best and the lead actors are every bit as responsible as the writer and director for making this film work. David Torrence plays the formidable father figure with great vigour and is terrifying. His constant scowl works to overshadow the central romance for long periods while Richard Alexander is quietly devious but charming as the love rival.
It’s understandable why City Girl is held up as a silent movie gem. It’s expertly made, well written and delightfully acted and has a timeless central love story which had me gripped for the entire run time.