City Girl (F. W. Murnau, 1930)

One of the greatest shames of the history of film is the sheer amount of films directed by F. W. Murnau that have been lost. Dying at the young age of 42 following a car accident a week before the premiere of his final film, Tabu, he left a legacy of just 21 directed films, of which twelve survive. These include: Nosferatu (1922), Faust, (1926), Sunrise (1927), City Girl (1930) and Tabu (1931) – all classics. Without a doubt the most sought after lost film is 4 Devils (1928), one of only four American films he made before his untimely death. So as a result we are left with just three films from this latter period of his life. Sunrise is the most popular, having won the first Best Film Oscar (sort of [1]). The other two are readily available, and it is City Girl that I’d like to discuss today.

City Girl is a silent film released after the advent of talking pictures. The plotline covers a young farmer named Lem (Charles Farrell), who is sent by his father to sell the wheat crop in the city. After panic-selling the wheat as the prices dropped in value, he goes to a coffee shop and falls madly in love with waitress Kate (Mary Duncan). Soon after they get married and they set back to the farm to introduce her to his family. However, his father is bitterly disappointed with the cripplingly low price his son has sold his wheat for and in his anger struggles to accept Kate into the family.

Both leading actors have been captured beautifully in this shot.

Both leading stars have been captured beautifully in this shot.

What I found really unique about this film is the surprisingly modern portrayal of Kate by Duncan. She is certainly not a typical silent leading lady, and in fact throughout the film she is usually the most headstrong character. It works well as the mother of Lem is extremely passive and non-confrontational, further underlining Kate’s strength of character. Perhaps we could attribute this to the fact Katy is from the city and Murnau wished to portray city dwellers as a different beast to those from the country, but I prefer to assume it is because he wanted to show the world one of the first truly strong female lead characters. Indeed, Murnau even has a nod to a previous leading lady of his in the opening scene, with a woman looking suspiciously like Janet Gaynor’s wife from Sunrise trying to flirt with Lem on the train, only for him to give her the cold shoulder. It could be coincidence, but more likely it was a knowing nod to the audience to let them know it won’t be a repeat of his previous work – Lem looks so disinterested in her and this is underlined for the audience.

The whole film works really well, building to a ferocious storm-set climax. It must have been something to do with the pacing, but I was on the edge of my seat by the end hoping things worked out. It was a pleasure to see such a great piece of cinema for the first time and I’m only sad I won’t be able to see it again.

I’m glad I saw this. It’s the first Murnau film I’ve seen that isn’t common to the wider audiences. Whilst Sunrise and Nosferatu are must-sees, if you liked them then you probably should see what else his catalogue has to offer. It won’t take long to see everything that’s available, but City Girl is a great place to start. The next Murnau film I’d love to see Masters of Cinema release is Der Letzte Mann, a 1924 German silent picture that is currently unavailable in the UK. Come on, you know it’s right.

City Girl is available on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-ray and DVD now.

[1] The first Academy Award for Best Film is disputed because there were two awards given out on the night that were never again awarded. One for Outstanding Picture went to Wings and the other for Unique and Artistic Production went to Sunrise: A Song of Two Lovers.

[2] Mary Duncan was, incidentally, the last known person to own a copy of the film 4 Devils, which she subsequently lost… but we’ll forgive her for that as she is so good in this film.

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