Lonesome (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): ****

Paul Fejos’ Lonesome is a kaleidoscopic document of the cadences of modern (circa 1928, anyway) living and loving. It’s a simple tale –an ordinary working stiff falls for a woman he meets at the beach – told via a series of florid, propulsive camera tricks and highly advanced montage.

The beginning of Lonesome has the familiar feeling of a city symphony – think People on Sunday or Man With A Movie Camera. Manhattan wakes up; boats shuttle through the harbor, crowds pound the pavement, and a title card offers the philosophical thesis of the film: “In the whirlpool of modern life, the most difficult thing is to live alone.” Two Everypersons – Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon) – are roused by their alarm clocks. Both Mary and Jim live in barebones, single-room flats, their drab walls decorated with gender-appropriate touches (she: fashion magazine miscellanea, he: baseball pendants and girlie pictures).

We follow Mary and Jim through their frenzied routines as they hurriedly dress, exercise, shovel in breakfast, and navigate the congested streets and subways of Manhattan. Both work menial jobs; he’s a punch press machinist, she’s a telephone operator. Cutaway after cutaway shows the stoic face of the clock, reminding us that the crazy rhythms of the characters’ lives are dictated by its firm hands. This temporal oppression builds to a climax as both Mary and Jim are framed within the clock face while they wrap up their mechanistic workday.

Lonesome Criterion 1928

Work ends early (“A holiday!” proclaims the intertitle); the two workers – still completely unaware of each other’s existence -- watch as their coworkers pair off into festive couplings of eyelash-fluttering damsels and their boater hat-clad beaus. Before they give up and retreat back to their lonely urban nests, the two are whisked away (and brought together at last) via a tourist bus bound for Coney Island.

Once the vacation begins, Fejos and his editor Frank Atkinson subtly tilt the energy of the film from stressful to ecstatic. The manual monotony of the claustrophobic work sequences gives way to the open air of the beach and “the hurly burly of a carnival,” an atmosphere electric with possibility and surging with adventure. Here, the film dips into the first of three odd “talkie” moments. Lonesome was made just as the silent era was bowing to the new technology and the limitations of the giant, immovable audio components of the cameras meant that dialogue scenes needed to stay locked down. For the first time, Fejos and Atkinson bring their groundbreaking montage to a standstill.

lonesome criterion 1928

Although the spoken scenes in Lonesome are often described as awkward, they serve as interesting markers in the relationship between Jim and Mary, allowing the rest of the world to pause while the characters fully engage. Initially, Jim makes false claims, putting on airs of wealth and popularity (sparking Mary to deliver my favorite line in the film, when she sincerely asks “Oh? Have you a yacht?”). Jim quickly realizes the futility of his ruse, becoming a big shot for a day simply by virtue of being carefree and in love.

During the first talking moment, they officially meet cute. During the next, Jim gets to the bottom of why Mary is wearing a wedding ring. A third pause, much later, involves the police charging Jim with “picking up girls,” but elaborating on that any further will spoil some of the surprises that pop up along the way.

lonesome 1928 criterion

The bulk of the rest of the film follows the new couple as they frolic through the storm of confetti, streamers, and balloons. The Coney Island nightlife more closely resembles a child’s birthday party than anything in our present bump-n-grind, cocktails-n-casual-sex era. Fejos and company make ingenious use of film tinting, tracking shots, and optical printing, rendering a rather innocent cavalcade into a sensory orgy. The film builds to a dramatic climax involving a storm, an arrest, and an uncertain future for the lonely lovers. Though much of the film might be considered hokey by today’s standards, it has an emotional honesty that rings true eight decades later (there’s a particular scene near the end, involving a doll, that is actually quite devastating).

lonesome-coney-island

Lonesome has been painstakingly reproduced from a rescued print and – occasional frame jumps and sound pops aside – the transfer beautifully recaptures its details, down to Jim’s undershirt tan lines. Fejos made a number of remarkable films, most of which have been lost or neglected. Criterion’s edition of Lonesome aims for Fejos immersion and includes two of his other films as extras – The Last Performance and Broadway, both made after Lonesome in 1929. Both employ the same frenzied visuals and lightning fast montage as Lonesome but neither is quite as concise (perhaps owing to missing or compromised elements).

Still, this is as generous an exploration of a filmmaker as last year’s Jean Vigo set or the Eclipse packages and makes one hope that further prints of Fejos’ work will be discovered in the years to come.

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