City Girl (1930) Director: F.W. Murnau
F.W. Murnau is sometimes called the ‘first great poet of cinema’ and with good reason. Murnau’s City Girl is a poetic return to his earlier classics like Sunrise (1927). Much like Sunrise, City Girl explores the tension between urban and rural lifestyles, but it categorically rejects the utopianism of either the urban or the rural allure, instead portraying the deep challenges facing both lifestyles. Therein lies the genius of Murnau’s signature style. He is not a propagandist, but he does seek to expose nuance, tension, and complexity in his films.
City Girl hearkens back to the heyday of silent cinema, though it was released during the emerging “talkie” period in which sound was possible. In fact, there were two versions of the film initially released: one included portions of sound, and the other was entirely silent. I watched the entirely silent version (as was intended by Murnau prior to studio revisions with the addition of sound sequences). City Girl was Murnau’s penultimate film before Tabu in 1931 which was followed by his untimely death. The story for City Girl was based on a play called “Mud Turtle” by Eliot Lester. The working title for the film was “Our Daily Bread.”
The story takes place during the Great Depression. A young man and his family are rural wheat farmers in the American Midwest. He is sent to Chicago to sell wheat just as the price begins falling. Meanwhile, a young girl works as a waitress in the city but she grows tired of her busy life in the city. She dreams of a life in the country. In Chicago, the two meet and fall in love. She agrees to return with him to his family’s farm, and she agrees to be his wife. However when they arrive at the farm, she is quickly shunned by his family. Also, a group of lusty farmhands arrive on the farm which complicates matters for her. In particular, one of the farmhands aggressively pursues her. All is made right in the end when her husband finally steps in against the farmhands, against her father, and he rejuvenates their love. As in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, their relationship is redeemed in the end.
City Girl is the last of F.W. Murnau’s three films made in Hollywood before his tragic and untimely death, and perhaps appropriately, he ended his career with a notably American-themed picture.