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Murnau, Movietone and Mussolini
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Murnau, Movietone and Mussolini

Times Square [theatre] - Sunrise and Movietone (Fox) (11th week). Way down in four figures; giving tickets away by the handfuls; one picture trade unanimously deemed great, but public won't buy it with Mussolini attached.

Variety, 'Weekly Grosses', 7 December 1927

The success or failure of Sunrise, measured in financial terms, continues to be of interest.1 Money aside, the unique characteristics of Murnau's film have been intensely felt ever since it was released in 1927. To this day, Sunrise remains a source of inspiration and a point of reference for the most divergent of filmmakers, writers about film and film viewers internationally. New impetus was provided by the 2002 joint restoration of Sunrise by 20th Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive and the British Film Institute, which launched a beautiful new 35mm print into international exhibition circuits, often in the context of Murnau retrospectives with other fine, restored 35mm prints, making it possible for large audiences to experience Sunrise at its most powerfully evocative, on the big screen.2

But when Sunrise was released, it was part of 'an evening's entertainment', as Richard Koszarski aptly titled his book on American film during this period.3 Doesn't it make sense to ask what shared the program with Sunrise when it played in New York during its crucial opening run? That was when it was most heavily covered by the press, setting the tone for its exhibition in the U.S.

This essay investigates several questions about the final stages of the production of Sunrise and the first year of its release, mainly in New York and Los Angeles.

Was Sunrise upstaged by Benito Mussolini?

On 6 September 1927, Winfield Sheehan, vice president and general manager of Fox Film Corporation, returned to New York from a European trip and talked to the press about the business deals he had put through for the upcoming season, including: 'Fox's Movietone will present Italian Premier, Mussolini, in a talking picture address to the people of this country'.4 On 18 September, the Sunday New York Times reported William Fox's announcement that Sunrise was opening that Friday. 'Another feature...will be the first showing of the Mussolini Movietone, in which the Italian Premier will be seen and heard in a speech, the text of which has been copyrighted by the Fox Film Corporation'.5 The next day, Fox began running large advance display ads billing three attractions of equal size: '3 Tremendous Features Combined in a Monumental Programme! Sunrise, 'with Symphonic Movietone Accompaniment', The Vatican Choir, 'seventy voices of sublime power and beauty on the Movietone!', and 'See and Hear 'The Man of the Hour' His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Premier of Italy. He speaks to you and lives before your eyes on the Movietone! Text copyrighted by Fox Film Corp.' On Wednesday, Variety ran a banner headline across its front page: MUSSOLINI'S HOPE IN SCREEN, following a wildly successful preview screening of the 'Mussolini Movietone' hosted by Winfield Sheehan. Variety reported Mussolini's on-screen statement as a news story of world importance. Today it would be called a 'media event' staged to advance Mussolini's own political goals - and Sheehan's. [End Page 187]

'[Movietone] can bring the world together; it can settle all differences; it can become the international medium, educator and adjuster; it can prevent war', said Mussolini, Italy's dictator, when seeing himself pictured as he delivered through Movietone his message to the United States, taken in Rome. The Italian Premier gave concrete evidence of faith in his statements when requesting the Fox people to retake him, and for the second time spoke before the camera in English. The second record not pleasing him, Mussolini suggested that he repeat, and again called at the studio in Rome, making his third talk, once more in English. It will be the Movietone reproduction shown at the opening Friday night ... at the Times Square theatre, New York, along with Fox's special picture Sunrise ...6

Figure 1. On Wednesday 21 September, Variety blazoned Mussolini's name across its front page in a banner headline, following a preview of the 'Mussolini Movietone' that would open the program for Sunrise, set to premiere two days later.
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Figure 1.

On Wednesday 21 September, Variety blazoned Mussolini's name across its front page in a banner headline...