Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A "Sunrise" in Bloomington

Periodically, I, Poseidon, will depart The Underworld and surface in another locale for a brief excursion. Recently, I made a sojourn to Bloomington, Indiana, taking in an event there that I thought might make a nice tie-in post here. Incidentally, Bloomington is a charming town with many delightful restaurants, shops, bookstores and antique malls and happened to be in the midst of eye-popping fall color while I was there.

Indiana University created a new theatre space on its campus in 2002, rendering the original (smaller) theatre virtually unnecessary. Fortunately, this old space has been lovingly developed into a beautiful, luxurious place in which to screen movies. Now dubbed IU Cinema, the building holds showings of all sorts of movies, new and old, often in series (such as an upcoming one devoted to Alfred Hitchcock and his frequent scoring collaborator Bernard Herrman.) These photos of the theater are not from the night I was there, but rather from the grand opening earlier this year.

I went there to visit a longtime friend who is pursuing his PhD at IU and to take in what I felt would be a unique experience: seeing the 1927 silent film Sunrise on the big screen with live piano accompaniment. It truly was a unique and memorable experience indeed.

The movie theater is splendid in its appointments, with cozy, padded seats, eggplant-colored walls with a matching draped curtain, four gorgeous panels of artwork (two of which on the sides of the auditorium are covered up electronically once the movie starts!) and gorgeous vertical lamps lining the walls. Some dough was spread around here, folks, and it was much-appreciated by me and hopefully by the student body and faculty there as well!

Attendance was substantial, so in time we were packed in pretty fully. A lady came and sat in front of me and was wearing a headband around her blonde curly locks that appeared to be made of fur. I've yet to meet a chain that I didn't love yanking so, as she went to sit down, I said, “I hope she's going to take that beast off her head.” She turned and said, “Don't worry, I'm taking this off!” I said, knowing right away that she was ripe for some good-natured ribbing, “Oh, you mean that's not your hair?” She replied, “I have a story about this headband” and I said, “I'm sure the animal did, too!” She got the piece at Goodwill. It turns out that it was a real, fur collar that had been removed from an old coat and repurposed into a warm headband (the fact that it was in the 70s that day didn't seem to faze this apparently cold-natured woman at all!) She said that I probably wasn't born in the '60s, so I wouldn't know about these coats, which prompted me to reply that the lighting in the theater must be amazing! As she showed off and described this coat collar-cum-headband, I finally remarked, “You went from Mamie Eisenhower to Raisa Gorbachev in one fell swoop!” This prompted her to ask me if I was a writer to which I did respond “yes” though that's probably something of a stretch! (If you've slogged through The Underworld for any length of time, you should know that I have no true legitimacy as a writer and have never met a comma or parenthesis or a run-on sentence that I didn't abuse!) Sadly, she soon departed the row in front of me, not because of my heaping abuse on her, but because (as I found out later) a woman nearby was drenched in some hideous perfume.

Anyway, the movie Sunrise was run as an IU graduate, who is now a professional pianist and composer, provided the live accompaniment. It was just the captivating, special experience I had hoped it would be.

I had seen Sunrise once before on TCM. My (at the time) 32”, regular definition TV couldn't possibly provide the same effect as seeing it blown up last Saturday did . The director F. W. Murnau filled the screen with so much expressionistic imagery on elaborate sets that it was a revelation to see these things brought out in their original splendor.

The storyline of Sunrise couldn't be any more basic. A simple farmer, married with a wife and baby, falls under the spell of a vacationing vamp who has gotten her hooks into him. She decides that they'd be better off if he took his wife out for a boat ride from which she never came back! He's so smitten with the worldly, sensually-ravenous woman that he plots to do just that. Only, once it's time to dump his wife overboard, he realizes the error of his ways. Thus begins an eventful journey of discovery for the farm couple once they've docked the boat and reached a nearby city. The city is a wonderland, futuristic in its design and innovations, that stimulates the couple into rediscovering each other. Every turn of a corner brings a new adventure, most of them tenderly amusing. Now recommitted to one another, they head for home. But do they arrive there okay? Will life deliver one final irony? That is for you to find out should you ever watch it.

The technique employed by Mernau in this film, one of the very last (and very best!) silents, is dazzling to behold. In the fluidity of the camera and the innovativeness of the special effects, it is worlds ahead of the early talkies that would soon come flooding into theaters. Some have wondered which city was used as a location for the bustling, congested, yet expansive, streetscape sequences. In fact, the entire city, along with a gigantic dance hall, an elaborate barber shop, a restaurant and even an eye-popping carnival, was constructed in one of the largest, most extravagant film sets ever made.

Along the way, the protagonists (who are only referred to as The Man and The Woman amidst a welcome lack of subtitles – and those are usually handled very creatively as well), meet a plethora of compelling and colorful supporting players. The bemused photographer, the jaded, rather fruity, barber and the lecherous customer who keeps edging closer and closer to Gaynor until she's up against a hot towel steamer(!), to mention a few. There are hilarious encounters with a headless statuette and a carnival game piglet, comedic situations that are universal in their depiction and still funny now.

The story is not meant to be a realistic, kitchen sink depiction of life. It's a fable. The actual title of the film is Sunrise: A Song of Two People. It wears its heart on its sleeve deliberately. I'm amazed when I see people wondering why Gaynor's character acts the way she does (resignedly going along with her husband, forgiving him, etc...) as if she's some liberated, enlightened 21st century female. The whole arc of the story is symbolic for the way a man was led astray and finally realized that what he had all along was practically perfect, but almost forgotten. I feel that it should be required viewing for any married couple who is growing apart or even facing the merest threat of such. Its “the grass always looks greener on the other side” message couldn't be more pertinent still today.
Gaynor has never been a favorite of mine, but I appreciate the tenderness she brings to this as well as the exuberant joy she demonstrates when with her little baby and also with her newly-attentive husband. She falters just a tad in some of the emotional scenes (there's a point where she seems to have her face turned away from the camera or buried for what seems like an eternity!) However (with the awful blonde wig and a sort of brain-like hat notwithstanding), she really delivers an appealing, fresh performance. She won an Oscar (the first ever for an actress and, indeed, the first Oscar ever handed out in person) for this film along with two of her others that same year, 7th Heaven and Street Angel.

The film also won for its cinematography (which employs many clever, striking tricks along the way and is unbelievably atmospheric) and received the first and only Oscar in the category Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production. This category was done away with after only one year. (Wings was the “official” Best Picture that year in a whole other list of nominees.) The art direction received a nomination as well.

Thus, the movie tends to be given historic footnotes due to it's director Murnau (who had earlier given the world Nosferatu), star Janet Gaynor or the work itself. Far less attention seems to come to George O'Brien. This is ironic because, for me and for others I know, he is one of the chief draws of the film! For one thing, despite the focus being on the farm couple and their relationship, the story is really his. He has the initial scenes with the enjoyably nasty city woman (played by Margaret Livingston, who sadly retired from films in 1934) and then shares the screen with Gaynor afterwards. He occasionally employs some heavy-handed acting, some of which (the dark, scary, intimidating parts, for example) were surely asked for by Murnau and others (wide-eyed, excited moments) that might not have been. Still, he is generally completely captivating, exquisitely emotive and just plain dead-sexy!

O'Brien was a burly, muscularly-defined ex-sailor and boxer who possessed a thick head of hair and a glorious smile. He started out as a stunt swimmer and fall guy before finally breaking out in John Ford's 1924 silent The Iron Horse. Sunrise was easily his most challenging role and he's excellent in it. (He later became the star of many popular, but less demanding westerns.) He runs the gamut from sexy adulterer to threatening, would-be murderer to shamefully remorseful wreck to dazzlingly affectionate hunk to devastated shell, all of this and more in the course of this 95 minute film. Yes, the film has its creaky moments and, yes, he has his own share of dated gestures and expressions, but for the most part he is shockingly contemporary throughout! The film purports to be “...of no place and every place...” and while its fairy tale type of characters and place do often remain steeped in the 1920s, there are many times when O'Brien comes off as a person you could come upon today! Unlike many male silent film stars, he is unmistakably masculine and virile, eschewing for the most part the heavy makeup that often ruled the day. Both ladies in the film, when kissing him, plant smooches all over his face as if he's edible. And, you know what? He is.
As a bonus to you for having read this account of my trip and of the film I saw, I give you a selection of photos of the handsome, virile, endlessly sexy George O'Brien. There are shots of him in portrait form, in swimwear (with pal Johnny Weissmuller, having a ball and fishing for fun in the pool) and in stills from other films. Do also note in the shot below that two ladies are peering off in the distance, bored to tears, but the fella in the middle knows just where the real view is! I hope you like George at least a fraction as much as I do myself. He will be back again in an upcoming photo feature that focuses on a certain photographic concept, so this isn't the last of him, but I think it is some of the best of him!


Anonymous said...

Great post! I love the pics of George - he is delicious!

Anonymous said...

It's really wonderful to see that there is still interest in movies seen in a real movie palace. I would love to see one in a setting like this. George really was quite the hunk; wish he had dropped the "fig leaf" in the last shot! TB

Topaz said...

Oh yes, more George O'Brien please! Want to read his story the way that only you seem to be able to do.

That shot of him in the sweater almost looks contemporary.

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks for your comments, guys. I agree, Topaz, that the sweater shot looks like it could have been taken yesterday! Timeless good looks.

Scooter said...

I remember seeing Sunrise on TCM years ago and being completely blown away by George O'Brien. Great post!