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Silent movie art turns lyrical in Paul Fejos' Lonesome, a featherweight story made into a impressive film-poem about romantic longing in the big city. Half 'city symphony' documentary and half expressionist-experimental cinema, Lonesome came to represent the beauty of silent cinema that was last when the talkies came in. Lyrical storytelling was for a time replaced by the crudities of early sound technology, with its camera-in-a-booth rigidity and emphasis on recording clear dialogue.
This particular Universal movie belongs in the company of Murnau's Sunrise and Von Sternberg's The Docks of New York, pictures that rely on stylized visuals instead of stage-bound dialogue. Paul Fejos made only a few Hollywood movies. His reputation was really kept alive in France, through this movie and the French version he directed of MGM's The Big House. Almost like Von Sternberg, Fejos attracted the attention of Universal's young Carl Laemmle Jr. by self-producing an 'artistic' feature, now lost, called The Last Moment.
Lonesome was generated from a scant three-page idea that Paul Fejos found in the Universal story department. Two young people live and work with millions in the middle of the giant metropolis, yet they are lonely. Switchboard operator Mary (Barbara Kent) and machinist Jim (Glenn Tryon) feel left out when other workers pair off on the holiday night before the 4th of July. But when they meet amid more throngs at Coney Island they have a terrific time. They barely know each other's names when an accident on a rollercoaster suddenly separates them - leaving them unable to locate each other. A rainstorm closes the park, and they must go home alone.
Paul Fejos (originally Pál Fejös) and his cameraman Gilbert Warrenton put together some amazing images in Lonesome, bringing a European flavor to an all-American story. Fejos opined that Americans didn't seem to know how to relax -- that their idea of a vacation was to push themselves even harder. The camerawork in this show never quits either. After an interesting pair of scenes contrasting the way Mary and Jim prepare for the day in their similar rented rooms, we're given a terrific set of montages expressing the hustle and bustle of the city, with the 3rd Avenue El rushing above while thousands of feet pound the sidewalks. Either optical printing art in the late '20s was more advanced than we know, or Fejos and Warrenton were technical wizards. Parts of the montage comparing Mary and Jim's work days constantly pan back and forth between their work stations, with complex mattes and superimpositions, all crowned by the overlay of a ticking clock, just as in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (image above). Visuals interrupt to take the place of sound (although the print restored here is a part-talkie). The frantic pace of the day is communicated in purely visual terms.
The director fully expresses the idea that New Yorkers play even harder than they work. The boys and girls pair off, among them a fellow played by an impossibly thin Andy Devine. By day the seaside funfair Coney Island is a blizzard of confetti and pushing mobs -- when Jim makes eye contact with Mary he can barely keep up. The romance is all play on the boardwalk, riding the big rides and touring through those long-gone funhouses with rolling corridors and spinning floors. A couple laughs together and maybe dances together. If they happen to click, not much else is needed to make a lifelong commitment. Paul Fejos arranges for some supremely romantic images to emerge through the crushing crowds. Thirty years before West Side Story the hundreds of other dancing couples fade away, leaving the new lovers literally waltzing on a cloud under a painted moon, with a golden castle for a background. The common man experiences joy in dreams.
The stylization reaches its apex with some dazzling, sophisticated color work. Lonesome has the expected overall tints on some scenes, but when night comes a system of matted masks applies dyes to selected parts of the frame, making possible impressively colored night views of the Coney Island midway's neon (image below). The process is also applied to other situations, sometimes bathing the screen in moving color, or accenting one part of the frame over another. Fejos uses complex visual schemes -- the colors, European flash cutting -- to heighten the excitement of the fun fair. When the wheel of Mary's roller coaster car catches fire, the rapid cutaways to the brightly colored flaming wheel look genuinely hot. To Fejos' credit the technical effects never dominate, and the growing relationship between the sweethearts remains front and center. Jim wins a silly stuffed doll for Mary, which becomes ruined in the rainstorm after they are separated. With its face half washed away in "tears", the doll becomes a physical 'locator' for Mary's heartbreak. It's a purely expressionist touch, stressed just enough to make an emotional impression.
Lonesome was released silent in June of 1928 and then reissued in a part-sound version a few months later. Sound effects and music were added, including various recordings of Irving Berlin's 1925 hit song Always, which plays a key role in the film's surprise ending. Universal also filmed and inserted two or three sync dialogue scenes, each of which is a held shot in which the actors talk while rooted in one place. "Part talkies" were a transitional phase while the studios factories geared up for all-talking production. We immediately see why film critics bemoaned the coming of the talkies, as the added scenes are a major interruption. The static shots record dialogue without cuts, neutralizing the contribution of a silent film artist like Fejos.
But we can also see the future. Sitting on the beach, Barbara Kent responds to Glenn Tryon's measured line deliveries with an ease that matches her winning smile. She even ad-libs. This new aspect of her character seems more 'real' even as it clashes with her carefully controlled performance in the silent footage. A different kind of connection is made with the audience.
Silent film fans are going to immediately compare Lonesome to Sunrise. Two people attend a fun fair, take in nighttime entertainments and are separated during a powerful rainstorm. But the themes are entirely separate. Fejos' movie conjures a powerful image of the solitude and desperation of singles in the big city, hoping that the right person will come along. His little tale of a working class romance is never condescending, and never pretentious. Despite the fact that much of the New York action was filmed at the old Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, Lonesome has the feeling of a documentary portrait of the times. It's a sure bet that it inspired the young German wanna-be's Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann when they made the Berlin-set People on Sunday about a year later.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Lonesome is a sterling transfer of one of the more celebrated restorations of the 1990s. Since so much of Paul Fejos' film work is unavailable, the revival of Lonesome became big news at film festivals. The one surviving French print has already seen two restoration passes, the second of which accomplished a major improvement to the soundtrack. The print is sometimes grainy but otherwise in very good shape. Since no record remains of the actual wording of the original American inter-titles, the experts were forced to rewrite them using the French versions as a guide. One frame of an English title card had been erroneously left in the French print, providing the key to the original style.
Perhaps there are other examples I haven't seen, but the selectively color-matted scenes are another reminder that it is foolish to think of silent film technique as in any way primitive. The frequent multi-level montages, with their soft blend lines, look more organic and elegant than much modern work. We get the feeling that the experts that created them leaped at the chance to show what they could do.
Criterion's excellent extras for the Lonesome introduce us to the remarkable Paul Fejos and give us an entire extra feature to examine. An autobiographical speech by Fejos from 1963 is illustrated with photos. Fejos trained as a doctor, made films in Hungary and then came to New York, where he found work at the Rockefeller Foundation. He then broke into Hollywood with his The Last Moment, but only made a few films for Universal and MGM before giving it up and returning to Europe. By the late 1930s he was an accomplished ethnographic filmmaker. He settled into a final career phase in anthropology, eventually heading up a foundation for anthropological studies in New York.
Also included is a full-length copy of The Last Performance (1927), a heavily stylized Universal melodrama about a domineering magician and starring the great Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin. The scenes on stage make excellent use of graphic space; Fejos adds telling camera motion to many shots, frequently dollying in or out to keep the frame alive. The print on view is Danish, so English subs are added to the inter-titles. And a reconstructed copy of Fejos' 1929 talkie musical-gangster film Broadway is here as well. Glenn Tryon is a nightclub entertainer and Evelyn Brent a dancer, but the real star is the enormous nightclub set, for which Fejos had Universal build an entire new stage. The last reel, rescued from the silent version, is in very contrasty 2-Strip Technicolor. Fejos improvises with complicated crane shots, but the talking sequences pretty much nail his camera in one spot.
A third item is an audio essay with cameraman Hal Mohr about Fejos' gigantic camera crane built for Broadway. The insert booklet has essays by Philip Lopate and Graham Petrie, and an interview excerpt from director Fejos. Jason Altman is Criterion's disc producer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lonesome Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.