From the large wheat patches to the dark love triangle, City Girl was an instantly familiar film. Like many a silent film, the overwrought romance destined for tragedy carried most of the picture, the melodramatic beats as strong as ever. It’s also nestled amid the work of the great F. W. Murnau, responsible for such other silent greats as Nosferatu and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. However, the most familiar aspect is that the film is a clear precursor to a little film called Days of Heaven.
Kate (Mary Duncan), a waitress in the bustling modern city, meets an unlikely customer who changes the course of her life. He’s a country boy named Lem (Charles Farrell) who comes into the city to sell his father’s wheat crops. As Kate sees more of this gentle, kind and considerate man, she falls in love not only with him, but the idea of living on a farm.
For her, the city life has become a cesspool of dirty scoundrels with only one thought on their mind. In-between clearing the counter and delivering meals in the hot, stuffy diner, she stares at a painting of a farm back near the kitchen, fantasizing how easy and enjoyable life must be in such a place. When she returns home she’s surrounded by artifices of life: a dying plant and a mechanical bird.
Kate and Lem are swiftly married and the two return to Lem’s parents on the farm. While the two lovers run joyously through the fields, carefree and happy, Kate is lured into believing her fantasy has become a reality. But reality has a way of biting back, first in the form of Lem’s Father (David Torrence), who strongly disapproves of the marriage and quickly finds a way to pit the newlyweds against each other.
It’s not long before Kate returns to her old role. As the farmhands arrive for the harvest, she must earn her keep by being their server. These men prove just as rude and degenerate as the men in the city, perhaps even more so. What days before seemed to promise blissful heaven turns swiftly into a hellish nightmare, devils on every side, tearing the married couple farther and farther apart.
This effect is achieved in a couple of ways. The first is F.W. Murnau’s visual style. As the film progresses, the visuals become darker and darker, further reinforcing the growing hopelessness of the couple’s situation. Unlike some of Murnau’s other films, it’s not as visually arresting, but this creates a visually subdued mood that creeps slowly into the piece instead of the more oppressive styles of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Nosferatu.
The performances also help elevate the dramatic elements to another level. Charles Farrell elicits great empathy in his torment gazes, glazed eyes and furrowed brow. He’s able to express both a naivety and determination through a subtle gaze. Likewise, Mary Duncan crafts a strong willed, determined female character through her performance, able to stand down and almost intimidate many of the men around her who attempt to dominate her.
Once again, F.W. Murnau crafts one of the finest silent melodramas to grace the screen. From the poetic beats, dark undercurrents and gut-wrenching emotional twists, it’s a tense, perilous film, as thrilling and moving as they come. And it does it without condescension and sentimentality, a bleak realism persists throughout and informs the rich world and characters of the film.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing