US (1930) Dir. F.W Murnau
Nice boy farmer Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell) is sent to Chicago by his strict father (David Torrence) to sell the family wheat. Whilst stopping for lunch Lem meets waitress Kate (Mary Duncan) and a mutual attraction develops. Lem sells the wheat but at a lower price than his father demanded due to the fluctuating market and returns home nervous. Kate wants to escape the busy city life and the pair get married and return to the country. Upon arrival, kate is welcomed by Lem’s mother (Edith Yorke) and younger sister Marie (Anne Shirley) but Mr. Tustine is hostile, believing Kate is a gold digger out to ruin Lem, who weakly acquiesces to his father and not his wife. With tensions fraught between the newly weds, the arrival of a team of reapers to collect the wheat who all take a shine to Kate stirs up more trouble which threatens to put a quick end to this hasty marriage.
The penultimate film from legendary German director F.W Murnau was also his last film made during his troubled stint with Fox in Hollywood. Despite being made in 1930 this was a silent film as Murnau had no interest in talkies which were now in their second year of existence. Fox demanded this be re-shot with sound and Murnau walked leaving the assistant director to finish the film. Only this silent version exists today – unusual as one would expect the sound version to remain.
Murnau also wanted to the film to be called Our Daily Bread but Fox once again put their foot down. Despite all of these distracting elements Murnau still manages to deliver a wonderful film and frankly, the lack of sound does nothing to lessen its enjoyment, in fact, I can’t imagine it WITH sound.
Even though the story, based on a play called The Mud Turtle by Elliot Lester, it is pure Hollywood in its simplicity and happy ending, there are still elements of Murnau’s greatness present on the production front, from his peerless use of light and shadows to the well crafted characters.
The early stages of the film are playful and romantic without going over the top. For modern sensibilities, the idea of two strangers falling in love and marrying as quickly as Lem and Kate do is unrealistic but that was how it was back then and with the draconian Hays Office looming over Hollywood with their censorship hammer ready to strike, this was also all one could get away with.
Some might find the brash rudeness of the bullying Mr. Tustine and the way Lem capitulates to him a little hard to swallow but again, these were simple times. The lecherous and frankly appallingly sexist and presumptuous attitudes of the reapers are not to difficult to envisage since little has changed but again, Lem’s weakness when head reaper Mac (Richard Alexander) tries it on with Kate will infuriate the modern viewer. Interesting side note, one of the reapers looks just like George W. Bush (and is just as thick)!!
However well the storytelling will fare by today’s standards, this is still another classic slice of silent cinema which deserves to be savoured as such.