F. W. Murnau — Murnau or never (1928) 🇺🇸

F. W. Murnau — Murnau or never (1928) | www.vintoz.com

April 04, 2023

"And don't forget the motto of the corps," concluded Larry Reid, leader of our brave little band. "Now go — and get your man!"

by Herbert Cruikshank

The colors of dear old Czecho-Slovakia were unfurled. A band of boy scouts, led by one who resembled Conrad Nagel, played that stirring anthem. "When the Red. Red Robins Come Bobbin' Out of Sid Grauman's Hair," with a patter chorus, "I Wanta Be There — I Wanta Be There," by Roxy's ushers, dressed as brigands from Fifth Avenue "Childs'." It was all very inspiring.

I kissed the little women good-bye (all except the blonde, who will eat Italian forget-me-nots) and, guided by the trusty "Rum-Tum-Tum," took the trail toward Hollywood.

My quarry, as we say in the R. N. W. M. P., was F. W. Murnau, German genius of the cinema, director of the immortal Sunrise, and the toughest egg on the Fox lot when it comes to interviews.

On the evening of the fourth day, just as the Movie Mecca was settling down to serious nocturnal drinking, I arrived at the iron portals.

A Hard-to-Get Gateman

Always the most supercilious snob on the set is the gateman. The guardian of this den of Fox's was no exception. My inquiries for Herr Murnau brought that semi-lucid expression indicating, "Ah, yes, of course, the name sounds familiar." And who or whom, as the case may be. might I be, a presumptuous stranger at the gates?

Did Mr. Crankshaft have an appointment? No? The momentary smile vanished. Perhaps Mr. Cockshine would visit the office, or would Mr. Crinkshaw call another time. Really, Mr. Crushang. Murnau was not available. Here was a dilemma. Wot-to-do! Wot-to-do!

But as I, pondered, came the sound of horses' hooves. And a moment later Lois Moran threw herself from a foam-flecked Ford with a breathless "Whoa, Emma," and passed through the barrier. Naturally a quick thinker, I followed swiftly behind her while the Cerberus of the studio was bent double in obeisance.

(To be Continued)

Part Two

Synopsis: Alleged scribe has been told to write impressions of Murnau and hasn't yet done so. Now read on.

Stumbling through a night dark as Dolores del Río's eyes, the Hollywood heat suddenly departed and I found myself ankle-deep in snow. But this was neither one kind of "snow" nor the other. A single sniff convinced me it was really salt. Imagine my embarrassment! Rubbing my eyes to penetrate the half light, I saw Paris on a winter's night. To be exact, I was standing before a theater upon which a huge electric sign advertised "The Four Devils."

I'm not so dumb. And when I saw that illuminated billboard, I remembered that this was the title of the picture upon which Murnau was pouring the oil of his genius to prepare a sure-fire film. Thus I figured, as it were, "If 'The Four Devils' are here, can the fifth be far away?"

So This Is Paris

Leaving Paris by the back door, I came into a part of the studio apparently deserted save for an assistant director and somebody's chauffeur. They were whiling life away by pelting one another with fragmentary ice-cream cones. I was about to seek my man elsewhere, when I noticed a small screened-in area off in one corner. I tiptoed to it, and the first peek rewarded me with a glimpse of Janet Gaynor and Charles Morton going through a bit of routine on a shadowed staircase. The kleigs were burning, the camera grinding. But where was the director? There wasn't even a chair with "F. W. Murnau — Keep Off" stenciled on it. Not a megaphone in sight.

Part Three

Synopsis: Alleged scribe has been told to write impressions of Murnau and hasn't yet done so. Now read on.

I was roused from my reveries by some big donkey in a suit of brown dungarees. He insisted on pottering about the set, and the breadth of his shoulders cut off my view. Beneath the overalls I caught a glimpse of a workman's colored shirt from which emerged a ruddy column of neck which was topped by a head thatched with red hair. This in turn crowned by a Basque hat.

No wooden-headed carpenter can come between me and duty, and I was about to give the fellow one of those looks that De Mille bestows on negligent property men, when the towering form turned — and I stood in the presence.

Yes, it was Murnau. Spare of frame, well over six feet, clad like any navvy. With a voice such as Shakespeare wished for women, with the utmost gentleness, he almost whispered his instructions to the youthful players. Yet despite his unobtrusiveness he dominated the set. He was the mentality. All the others the mere mechanics of picture-making.

Benefits of Education

I tried to think what I knew in German besides "Ich will ein Seidel Bier haben," or some irrelevant remark about "Schnapps" — anything to put him at his ease before the press. But the thought was interrupted when he waved his hand and called: "Be with you in a minute," in accentless English.

While we talked, I thought he was smiling. But now I am not sure but that impression came from the myriad little lines around his keen brown eyes. There are lacings of crow's-feet which give him a mischievous, elfish expression, intensified by the sharpness of his glance and the laugh that always seems to linger beneath his lashes.

His features are angular as his body. He might be Scotch. But of course he's German. His is the drawn- faced type of powerful physique that one might expect in the Emperor's bodyguard. The old Emperor — not the last one. His initials are F. W. I had speculated as to what they stood for. I thought of the fat sounding little names that seem made to order for the chubby type of Teuton. But as I looked him over, and my glance at last rested on that sun-reddened, freckled face, with its red crop of hair, and its virility of feature, I knew that the F. W. could mean only Friederich Wilhelm. I had found my man.

(To be Continued)

Part Four

Synopsis: At last this guy Cruikshank is getting down to business. Maybe we'll hear something about Murnau yet. Now read on.

I wondered how the canny-minded business men would ride this spirited horse. Whether he would be given his head. Whether he would be hampered by rein and bit. But when I saw the sets and the machinery and pondered the expense they entailed, I scarcely needed to ask my question. They are letting Murnau go his gait. He will have no excuse to offer if he fails. But I don't think he'll fail. I scarcely believe he knows the meaning of the word. Competence, after all, breeds confidence. Murnau exudes that quality.

He doesn't blame producers for uplifting the cinema with such gems as "Maggie Murphy's Matzoth." Their business is to make money. For even art must eat. But he fights staunchly for a division in theaters so that those who frown on "Maggie" may see a Sunrise. He believes that the motion picture public may be increased by catering to caviar tastes as well as to the preference for Red Mike and violets.

Admires Americans

Of the American directors he most admires King Vidor and Henry King. But he also betrays a fancy for what he describes as the "earth-nearness" of Raoul Walsh. As to stars of the feline sex, Murnau prefers Janet Gaynor and Dolores del Río. Marveling a bit at the selection, I asked reconsideration. He tip-tilted his red head at a perilous angle and regarded the ropes of an aerial set with thoughtful gravity. Then the reply. "I have not seen Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson — but with her excepted, who else is there?" I thought of a name or two. But why argue? Murnau has a probing mentality. The happy faculty of piercing exteriors, of passing through things as they seem, to face things as they are. He is a realist. The usual film flummery is hateful to him. He must always portray life as it exists. He faces its complicated mysteries and simplifies their terms until it stands stark in primal form. With his story and his characters stripped of camouflage, he re-drapes them nearer to his heart's desire — and the exigencies of his picture.

"The Four Devils," completed, he will work on a combination of two stories. Our Daily Bread, his own selection, and "The Mud Turtle," a Fox property. It has something to do with a girl, a waitress, who has served wheat in its usual forms for years, but who has never seen a wheat field. You see, he must get at the source of things. When he permits himself some brief respite from his present task, it is to glory in the work to come. Like all men who stay young, he has an ambition not yet attained. It is a picture. He wouldn't tell me what. But when he finally makes it — there will be a new ambition — something more for which to live.

Motion Picture Classic MagazineJuly 1928