It takes confidence, or hubris, to charge $8 to see an 85-year-old silent movie, when there's a selection of brand-new noisy sound movies with sexy pop stars half a block down the sidewalk on the same afternoon for just $7.50.
I suspect the Tennessee could bring in three times as many people to see Sunrise, showing this Sunday at 3:00--and make more money--if they halved the ticket price. The overwhelming majority of Americans don't choose to pay even a dollar to see a silent movie in any given year, or any given decade. Historians say Sunrise didn't do well at the box office in 1927 because audiences were distracted by the new soundies, like the Jazz Singer. Americans haven't gotten much less distracted since.
Eight bucks is outside of most comfort zones for a lark, especially if dates or families are involved. I bet casual browsers downtown on a Sunday afternoon might be willing to take chances on something they're unsure of if it's just three or four bucks.
You have to admit, though, there's a certain dignity that comes with an $8 price of admission, just a little more than the noisy, glitzy, computer-animated matinees down the sidewalk, a droll suggestion that you get what you pay for. Sunrise regularly makes lists of the 100 Best Movies of All Time. And, a little more urgently, the 100 Movies You Should See Before You Die. The groundbreaking movie earned some of the very first Oscars, and you can't say you're very handy with cinema history unless you've seen it. This may be your best chance to see it properly, on the big screen. And in a theater from, precisely, its era.
Sunrise has nothing much to do with Knoxville, except that its director, F.W. Murnau, is sometimes compared to the less-well-known Karl Brown, who recruited Knoxvillians for his dark Smoky Mountain melodrama Stark Love, which came out the same year. Murnau, the former German fighter pilot, became an influential director (Nosferatu, Tabu). Hollywood scenesters like to cite Murnau as one of the greatest directors of all time; serious scholars really believe he was. Sunrise highlights Murnau's camerawork, including some innovative use of special effects. Murnau died in a car wreck about four years after making this film, leaving many to wonder what he might have done in the era that belonged to Hitchcock and Hawks.
Sunrise, subtitled "A Song of Two Humans," stars former boxer George O'Brien, whose career lasted well into the sound era, albeit mainly in cowboy-hero roles. In Sunrise, he's a man torn between his fetching mistress and his loving wife, whom the former advises him to murder. Twenty-year-old Janet Gaynor, who plays the wife, had a career in sound, too, notably as the very first Esther Blodgett (before Garland and Streisand) in the 1937 version of A Star is Born. In Sunrise, her nemesis is femme fatale Margaret Livingston, who retired soon after his film to tend to her famous husband, portly, popular jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman. (Together they wrote a book about his obesity called Whiteman's Burden.)
This 35-mm print is said to be especially fine; the film was the first with its own pre-recorded soundtrack, but Ron Carter, the Georgia organist whose reputation as a silent-film accompanist is national, is traveling to Knoxville to take the helm of the Tennessee's Mighty Wurlitzer.
Bradley Reeves, the maverick co-founder of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, will introduce the film, which he calls one of his favorites. He knows a lot more about it than I do.