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Lonesome
Director: Paul Fejos
Screenplay: Edward T. Lowe Jr. and Tom Reed (story by Mann Page; adaptation by Edward T. Lowe Jr. ; titles by Tom Reed)
Stars: Barbara Kent (Mary), Glenn Tryon (Jim), Fay Holderness (Overdressed woman), Gusztav Partos (Romantic gentleman), Eddie Phillips (Sportive gentleman), Andy Devine (Jim’s friend), Edgar Dearing (Cop)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1928
Country: U.S.
Lonesome Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Lonesome One of the first title cards in Paul Fejos’s Lonesome tells us “In the whirlpool of modern life—the most difficult thing is to live alone,” which neatly encapsulates the film’s focus on the inherent conflict between the anonymous, repetitive, mechanical nature of big-city life in the Roaring ’20s and the universal human need for connection. Fejos, who was born in Hungary, earned a medical degree, and swerved into theater and then movies before settling down as a documentarian and anthropologist, was both fascinated and troubled by the intensity and speed of life in New York City. Not surprisingly, then, some of Lonesome’s best moments capture what Fejos called the city’s “terrible pulse beat” with a fascinatingly conflicted sense of elation and claustrophobia.

The film’s purposefully simplistic set-up, written by veteran studio scribes Edward T. Lowe Jr. and Tom Reed from a brief story outline by Mann Page, takes place over a 24-hour period. Early on we are introduced to the protagonists, Mary (Barbara Kent, a winner of the Miss Hollywood beauty pageant) and Jim (Glenn Tryon, best known for his comedic roles), both of whom are leading quiet, desperate lives in the big city. Fejos and editor Frank Atkinson draw immediate parallels between them in depicting their morning rituals of waking up in similar-looking one-room apartments and getting ready for the daily grind, which for her is working as a telephone operator and for him involves working a punch press in a large factory. In one of the film’s most memorable setpieces, Fejos constructs an impressive montage of their work lives that utilizes an expressive rhythm of horizontal wipes between the switchboard and the factory, which are visually bound together by the superimposition of a giant, always ticking clock around them. The overall effect is one of harried, thankless demand, with both Mary and Jim laboring away as trapped representatives of the working class.

Their day is broken at one o’clock to celebrate the Fourth of July weekend, and while both Mary and Jim initially decline invitations from others to join them for various festivities (Jim’s declining to accompany a friend and his girlfriend on a river cruise is poignantly motivated by his noticing a pin that reads “Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd”), they are eventually drawn to the jubilant hustle and bustle of Coney Island. Fejos depicts the famous amusement park and boardwalk in expressively exaggerated terms as a place of constant, almost overwhelming movement showered in a perpetual rain of confetti and streamers. Jim notices Mary and immediately pursues her, finally mustering the courage to speak to her on the beach, where they both pretend to be powerful and wealthy before eventually revealing their working-class stations in life. The rest of the day is spent growing closer as the play in the surf, ride the roller coasters, and drop pennies at almost every carnie game on the boardwalk, where he wins her a doll and they snap pictures in a photo booth. Near-tragedy separates them, and the last quarter of the film hinges on the question of whether or not they will be able to find each other again, as the Coney Island crowds, previously the embodiment of mass culture fun, are now stifling, obstructive, even threatening.

Although Lonesome was Fejos’s first studio film, produced at Universal under the ambitious reign of Carl Laemmle, Jr., it was hardly his first cinematic effort. In fact, he had directed half a dozen films in his native Hungary between 1920 and 1923, and after emigrating to the U.S. he made The Last Moment (1927), an experimental independent feature that was released by United Artists and caught the attention of all the major studios. Unfortunately, all of his early films are now considered lost, which makes Lonesome Fejos’s oldest surviving film (he went on to complete two more features for Universal, the melodramatic The Last Performance and the musical Broadway, both from 1929, before leaving the U.S. in 1931). In Lonesome we can clearly see Fejos’s willingness to challenge the conventional norms of Hollywood cinema, albeit not to the extent that it would exceed the grasp of mainstream audiences (and how could it, given the film’s sympathies with the working class and their love of and need for mass culture?) Like many of the greatest late-silent-era films, particularly F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), two films to which it is frequently compared, Lonesome finds an impressive middle ground between the easier pleasures of Hollywood and the more demanding tenets of European art cinema.

However, as with a number of films produced in the late 1920s, Lonesome also exists in an uneasy space between the silent cinema and the newly emerging cinema of synchronized sound. Although originally conceived and shot as a silent film, which is more in line with Fejos’s ideal of cinema as pure image, it was changed late in production into a “part-talkie” by including several synchronized dialogue scenes (shot months after initial photography was complete), which co-exist awkwardly with the rest of the film. While the silent portions are replete with the visual fluidity and emotionality of German expressionism and the rapid-fire editing of Soviet montage, the dialogue sequences are static and almost embarrassingly rote, offering nothing to the film narratively or thematically. Rather, they are pure spectacle for late ’20s moviegoers for whom watching actors speak on screen was still a novel thrill. Thankfully, these sequences are few and far between and do little to detract from the film’s overall impact, which asserts quite movingly not only the necessity of human connection, but its resilience in even the most harried of modern conditions.

Lonesome Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Lonesome is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.19:1
Audio English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by film historian Richard Koszarski 
  • The Last Performance, Fejos’s 1929 silent starring Conrad Veidt, with a new score by composer Donald Sosin 
  • Reconstructed sound version of Broadway, Fejos’s 1929 musical 
  • “Fejos Memorial,” a 1963 visual essay on Fejos’s life and career
  • Excerpt an audio interview with cinematographer Hal Mohr 
  • Insert booklet featuring essays by critic Phillip Lopate and film historian Graham Petrie and an excerpt from a 1962 interview with Fejos
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateAugust 28, 2012

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Lonesome, which would be lost if not for a single nitrate print initially conserved by the Cinémathèque Française in Paris before being donated to the George Eastman House, has been through a number of restorations over the years. Part of the restoration involved creating new intertitles, since the intertitles on the French print were in French and had to be re-translated back into English with an ear for 1920s dialogue. Criterion’s new high-definition transfer, which is properly framed in the film’s original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, was made from 35mm restoration black-and-white and color duplicate negatives, which were assembled digitally. Multiple forms of additional restoration were then used to clean up remaining dirt, debris, and scratches, resulting in an image that is quite clean for a film of its age and long history. It certainly looks a bit rough in places and there are spots where frames are clearly missing, but overall Criterion had produced an impressive presentation of this important film, with fantastic contrast and detail. The soundtrack, which has also been extensively restored, was transferred at 24-bit from an optical track print. Most aural artifacts have been eliminated, leaving us with a soundtrack that is surprisingly good for its age.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    It is almost a disservice to call the supplements on Criterion’s edition of Lonesome “supplements” considering that two of them are complete feature films! In addition to Lonesome, the Blu-Ray also includes first-rate presentations of Paul Fejos’s subsequent studio films, The Last Performance (1929), a silent melodrama starring Conrad Veidt, which is presented with a new score by composer Donald Sosin, and Broadway (1929), a synchronized sound musical that makes use of an elaborate nightclub set and some of the most impressive crane shots I have seen in early cinema outside of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Included along with Broadway is an excerpt from an audio interview with cinematographer Hal Mohr about the construction of the special crane used in the film. Also on the disc is a first-rate audio commentary by film historian Richard Koszarski (author of An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928, among other books), who goes into great depth about the background of both Paul Fejos and Lonesome while also pointing out some fascinating tidbits I might have otherwise missed, such as the possibility of a missing intertitle that was probably cut from the French print due to translation difficulties. More about Fejos can be found in Fejos Memorial, a 1963 visual essay produced by Paul Falkenberg in collaboration with Fejos’s wife, Lita Binns Fejos, that features excerpts from the filmmaker’s autobiographical oral history. The thick insert booklet contains essays by critic Phillip Lopate and film historian Graham Petrie and an excerpt from a 1962 interview with Fejos.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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