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American Cinematographer Magazine

Sunrise (1927) Limited Edition
Movietone Track (Mono)/
Orchestral Score (Stereo)
20th Century Fox, Price N/A

As part of its Studio Classics line of DVDs, 20th Century Fox Home Video has sneaked something into the market that no cinematography enthusiast should do without: a newly restored Sunrise, with an audio commentary by John Bailey, ASC that illustrates just how good such an analysis can be. The word "sneaked" applies because Sunrise isn't actually for sale - as incredible as it might seem, Fox is making the DVD available for free to those who buy three other Studio Classics titles and mail in their proofs of purchase. A great digital transfer of Sunrise would be a find at any price, but given all this disc has to offer, its freebie status is nothing short of miraculous.

At heart a simple melodrama about a philandering husband (George O'Brien) who rediscovers his love for his wife (Janet Gaynor), Sunrise is a film whose visual complexity was unmatched upon its release in 1927. It was the first American film made by German Expressionist director F.W. Murnau, and at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Sunrise earned the only such award ever bestowed for "Most Unique and Artistic Production." It also earned the first Academy Award for cinematography, an honor shared by Charles Rosher, ASC and Karl Struss (whom Rosher successfully nominated for ASC membership following Sunrise's release). Cinematographers of all ages continue to cite the film as a favorite. (One of its most ardent fans was the late Nestor Almendros, ASC; see historical on page 94.)
In realizing Sunrise's visual design - which Struss later said was meticulously detailed by art director Rochus Gliese - Murnau could hardly have hoped for more able collaborators than Rosher and Struss. Both men were accomplished still photographers who had followed very different paths to Hollywood; Rosher was an Englishman whose portrait photography had brought him considerable acclaim, and Struss was a New Yorker whose studies with the Photo-Secessionists had led to a successful career in commercial photography. The two men met on a beach in Bermuda in 1914, when Rosher was working on a film and Struss was shooting material for a tourist brochure. Struss moved to Hollywood in 1919 and began working as a cinematographer almost immediately, and a few years later Rosher brought him aboard Sparrows to do additional photography. During that shoot, Rosher began prepping Sunrise with Murnau, and he soon brought Struss aboard that film as well.

For Sunrise, Struss operated a motorized Bell & Howell and Rosher operated a hand-cranked Mitchell camera, and Struss later said that who shot what was usually determined by which camera was best suited to the action. One of the film's most prominent features is its fluid, mobile camerawork - a hallmark of Murnau's style - but the array of in-camera effects achieved by the cinematographers offers one grace note after another. (As is true of the best photographers, Struss and Rosher were also innovators - Struss had patented the Struss Pictorial Lens, and Rosher was among the first to achieve multiple exposures on the PathŽ camera.) In fact, watching Sunrise, it's hard to disagree with Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC's controversial observation that the coming of sound stopped cinema's progress in its tracks.

Sunrise was actually in production when sound came to Hollywood, and it was subsequently released in two versions: a silent version that was widely exhibited, and a Fox Movietone version that was screened in handful of Fox theaters in major metropolitan areas. This disc allows you to enjoy the film either way - one audio option features a full orchestral score, and another features the beautifully restored Movietone track. (For more about the restoration, see story on page 98.)
But it's the third audio option, Bailey's commentary, which makes this disc a prize, for it takes the notion of "expert commentary" into a new and very worthy dimension. Although any number of Murnau scholars might have shared details about Sunrise's production, Bailey does that and more - his commentary offers us a window onto how a cinematographer watches a movie, what impresses him about another cinematographer's work and why. In short, it's a 95-minute master class delivered in an engaging, conversational style. If you've never seen Sunrise before, Bailey's commentary will open your eyes. If you're already a fan, he's your dream date.

Also included on the disc are some outtakes, the screenplay (by Carl Mayer) with Murnau's notes, and a short featurette about Four Devils, Murnau's "lost" film.

- Rachael K. Bosley

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.