Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Lonesome (1928)

February, 2021

Universal, 1928. Director: Paul Fejos. Scenario: Edward T. Lowe Jr. and Tom Reed, based on a story by Mann Page. Camera: Gilbert Warrenton. Film editor: Frank Atkinson. Cast: Glenn Tryon, Barbara Kent, Fay Holderness, Gustav Partos, Eddie Phillips.
            February, the month of Valentine’s Day, seems an appropriate time to revisit a romantic movie, and the movies have certainly given us no shortage of romance. But that overabundance of choices is all the more reason to seek out an outstanding romantic movie. In honor of the occasion—and to mark my one-hundredth “Movie of the Month” column—I’ve selected a film that is indeed outstanding, from every angle: Paul Fejos’ Lonesome. Not only does this little gem depict a charming and rather touching romance, it’s also a striking showcase of the filmmaker’s craft. Moreover, it was produced at a key moment in film history and serves to illustrate a technological oddity peculiar to that specific moment. Finally, Lonesome stands as a sobering reminder of the importance of film preservation, for it was very nearly a lost film. During the early years of sound it was a victim of Universal’s notorious disregard for its own silent-era legacy, and has survived thanks to the brilliant work of an international network of archives.
            In recent decades Lonesome has acquired something of a cult following, and so perhaps does not meet the “obscurity” standard that I usually observe for this column—but it still deserves to be better known than it is. Its story is simple: in the bustling heart of New York City live two ordinary people, both surrounded by teeming masses of people but both very much alone, and lonely. It’s a holiday weekend, the 4th of July, and both boy and girl watch disconsolately as their friends pair off and embark on holiday celebrations. To assuage their loneliness, each decides to spend the day at Coney Island. While there, they strike up a casual flirtation which develops, as the day continues, into something deeper. Late in the day they become separated in the crush of the crowd. Will they find each other again?
            That’s essentially all there is to the story: boy meets girl. But, as so often in the movies, the telling of the story is more important than the story itself. Paul Fejos was one of the wave of European directors imported to Hollywood during the 1920s, an expatriate community that collectively launched an explosion of cinematic technique in American films of the late silent period. Fejos was particularly fond of the moving camera, and Lonesome makes heavy use of a mobile-camera system developed by cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton. The camera is rarely still in this film; it roams restlessly about the small apartments of the two principals as they start their respective workdays, travels with them as they fight their way through the subway crowds, hovers over them as they labor at their jobs (she as a telephone switchboard operator, he operating a punch press in a factory). Later, at Coney Island, the camera is swept along with the young lovers in the press of the crowd, and indulges in exciting POV shots from the front of a speeding roller coaster.
            The atmosphere of hectic excitement is heightened by multiple images, superimposed upon each other and crowding into the frame. And all of this is further embellished with special photographic effects provided by an optical printer, a relatively new development in the late 1920s. Overall, Fejos’ impressionist portrait of a city is so persuasive that it comes as a shock to find that this New York story was actually produced in California. Apart from a few stock shots to establish the locale, Lonesome was produced in its entirety at Universal’s Hollywood studio (the “Coney Island” scenes at Venice and Long Beach).
            The effectiveness of a love story like this depends to a great extent on the casting of the leads, and Lonesome delivered two players who were fresh, appealing, and convincing—neither of them unknown, but neither qualifying as larger-than-life superstars either. Glenn Tryon was familiar primarily in comedy, including two-reelers for Hal Roach, and brought an engaging average-guy quality to his performance here. Barbara Kent projected the image of a wholesome girl next door, a quality that worked against her in some films. In Flesh and the Devil, for example, she was (purposely) overshadowed by the exotic glamour of Greta Garbo. In this film she’s in her own element, and in some scenes she seems positively luminous.
            Lonesome was produced in 1928, the pivotal year of the talkie revolution, when the motion picture industry made the collective decision to abandon silent film production and pursue an exclusive program of sound. Months after its completion as a silent, this film was, like others, recalled so that the studio could add talking scenes to it and advertise it as a part-talkie. The new scenes, filmed by a camera anchored in a soundproof booth, displayed none of the pictorial pyrotechnics of the rest of the film, and seemed to be taking place on a different planet. Three times, this lovely visual poem stops dead in its tracks so that we can hear the players speaking lines of inane, leaden dialogue. It’s embarrassing, but from an historical viewpoint it’s fascinating. To see Lonesome with its sound sequences intact is to wonder why talking pictures ever caught on.
            They did, of course, and Hollywood moved on, and in time Lonesome—and so many other treasures of the late silent period—were largely forgotten. Thankfully, a number of them did survive in archives around the world. Lonesome turned up in the 1960s at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, in the form of a somewhat worn release print with French titles. This exciting discovery prompted the first of a series of restorations.
            The reader who has never seen the film is referred to the Criterion Blu-Ray, which features a high-definition scan of the most recent restoration, performed by the wizards at George Eastman Museum. In addition to lovingly restored picture quality (and reconstructed English titles), this version includes the original hand-coloring effects that enhanced the Coney Island scenes. The Eastman restoration also pairs the film with its original 1928 optical soundtrack—not only the awkward talking sequences, but also the music and sound-effects track that accompanied the silent scenes. The musical score interpolates some popular songs of the day, one of which, Irving Berlin’s “Always,” actually figures in the plot. (The Criterion disc also offers a wealth of bonus materials, including an excellent commentary track by Richard Koszarski, and two complete additional Fejos features, The Last Performance and the sound version of Broadway!) Inevitably, even this restoration betrays some evidence of wear in the release print, and in the closing reel we can see the telltale beginnings of nitrate decomposition. But none of this detracts from the beauty of the whole. If anything, it underscores the sweetness of the closing scenes with a subliminal reminder of the fragility of romance—and of our precious cinematic heritage—and of the importance of preserving both with the greatest of care.

J.B. Kaufman