2. City Girl

I usually give an introduction at the beginning of our live shows where I (try to) explain how the JWO works (it’s not the easiest thing to put into words) and then talk about the movie that we’re performing to. The fact is however, that I don’t really like speeches in concerts, and I’m probably not very good at them anyway, so I thought I’d write a post about City Girl, because if you read it before you come to the show you’ll know a lot more about the movie than I can possibly tell you in my short intro and so you might get a lot more out of City Girl.

F.W.Murnau spent most of his short career in Europe before moving to the USA where he made only three films for Fox Studios in California before he decided he’d had quite enough of Hollywood interference and abruptly left for Bora Bora, (which if you didn’t know is an island somewhere in the Pacific ocean), to make a documentary called ‘Tabu’ about the native people. Just before the premiere of the heavily censored ‘Tabu’ back in the USA (under new rules all shots of bare breated natives had to be cut out), the director’s 14 year old Filpino servant (okay clearly times have changed…) drove Murnau, in a rented Rolls Royce, into an electricity pole and the greatest German film director of the C20th was killed at the age of 43. Curiously it turns out that during the first world war Murnau flew for the Imperial Flying Corps and survived 8 aircrashes. Which I suppose proves that statistically speaking flying is much safer than driving a car….

The first of the Fox Studio movies was the much celebrated ‘Sunrise’ which is often called the greatest silent movie ever made – I still can’t decide whether I agree, because there’s not much point comparing it to The General or City Lights because it’s just differnt. The second, ‘4 Devils’, also starring Janet Gaynor, has been lost so I guess we’ll never know if it was even better, although at the time it was not very successful. The third and final film was ‘City Girl’ about which not a great deal has been written. It was made just at the moment when talkies were taking over from silent movies. Three quarters of the way through production the new owners of Fox Studios informed Murnau that the film was going to be remade with sound sequences, and Murnau, whose opinions were rather strong on the subject of anyone interfering with his work, refused and walked out. The sound version of the film was – understandably – a total flop at the box office and has since been lost. Quite why the silent version managed to survive is a mystery but it was a lucky escape because City Girl is a fabulous movie. The very first time I saw it I was hooked.

The story is very simple. During the great depression Lem, the son of a rather irascible wheat farmer, is sent to the city to sell his fathers crop. He manages to sell the wheat for rather less than his father wanted and also gets married to a waitress called Kate (the City Girl of the title), whom to his fathers outrage he brings home to the farm. (The section of the movie where they arrive at the farm is one of the most talked about moments in silent movie history). The father is convinced that the girl is simply after Lem’s money and he proceeds to make Kate’s life a living hell, whilst Lem entirely fails to stand up in her defence. To make things even worse, one of the hired hands (Mac) drafted in for the harvest starts trying to prise the girl away from her new husband and this just confirms the old farmer’s suspicions that his son has married a ‘no good woman’. Eventually Lem overcomes his fear of his father and manages to win Kate back.

I’ve noticed that during shows people get really immersed in City Girl. I hope it’s down to the soundtrack that we’re playing, but I think it’s also down to the fact that Kate (Mary Duncan whose career stalled after City Girl and retired in 1933) is a character whose inner strength you can’t help admiring, and you spend most of the movie praying that Lem will also see it and get his act together. Murnau cranks up the tension by throwing in plenty of twists to make things worse between the lovers until slow Lem finally reaches his boiling point and snaps. After that there is a succession of big show downs – with Mac and with the father – followed by one of the most breathtakingly romantic and beautifully filmed 5 minutes in cinematic history in which the couple reconnects, complete with a hurricane in the distance and moonlight acorss the wheat fields. So far it’s consistently brought a tear to the eye of even the least sentimental viewer. I’ve seen the movie about 100 times and it still gets me….

When writing soundtracks I tend to watch a movie in bits many many times rather than all the way through.. In the show the audience gets to see the whole thing once in one stretch – which is good because for the music to work you need the longer passage of time, but it’s also a pity because I can assure you that City Girl is worth repeated viewings to catch all of the details. The way that the main characters slowly wake from their dreams of romance and happiness into the hard reality of married life is brilliantly conceived. The City Girl escapes from the cage of the city into a place which is no less a cage, and one where she has to struggle even harder to survive.

Lem and Kate

In the soundtrack I consciously tried to divide the film into two sections – first the city and then the countryside – but in the countryside section I used a lot of the material from the first section in different form. The movie works in a similiar way – with the second half peppered with references to the first half. For example I the way that Kate – a waitress in the city – is serving the hired harvest hands lunch and suffering exactly the same indignities as she did in the city café, or the way the old farmer watches her in the same way that the owner of the café did. Her room in the farm is even smaller and more oppressive than her room in the city, and there are two scenes of Kate walking alone with her suitcase – one amongst indifferent crowds in the city and the other in the wide open wheat fields – and in both she is at rock bottom. The movie is kaleidoscope of repeated scenes and situations, actions and reactions, and the characters are profoundly changed by their experience.

One aspect that a lot of people talk about after the shows is the lighting in the movie. Probably if Murnau had had the means and technology he would have made Nosferatu with the same attention to lighting. There are many scenes with lamps either casting large shadows or being switched on and off. The moment when the father receives the telegram from Lem saying that he has got married is a great example – he turns a gas lamp sideways and the whole scene changes shape. In Sunrise light was also one of the most memorable elements of the movie. It seems to be something that Murnau genuinely cared about because all of his movies make a great deal of use of it – think of Faust and He Who Laughs Last. In City Girl it is done with an effortless precision that really creates the atmosphere of the movie.

Finally I have to say that one of the challenges of writing music for the film was the space. At times – like in Kate’s city room, or the farm – it’s claustrophobic and caged, and at times – during the harvesting for example or in the final scenes – it’s vast and open. Getting the right feel for the difference without losing the sense of continuity was a puzzle at times, but I think it’s one of the reasons the soundtrack has been successful.

Anyhow, I hope that this blog has shed some light on the movie and encourages you to watch it. It’s one of the most visually impressive movies you’ll ever see and it’s a charming drama played out in hard times. It’s often said that Murnau was an admirer of Shakespeare, and I think this movie has a lot of Shakepseare in it – somewhere between King Lear and Midsummer Nights Dream.


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