Criterion // 1928 // 69 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // August 31st, 2012
In the whirlpool of modern life, the most difficult thing is to live alone.
I'm not claiming to be some kind of expert in silent film; far from it, but I've seen most all of the biggies and many that aren't so great. So I'm shocked that I've never before even heard of director Paul Fejos (The Last Performance) or his first American movie, Lonesome. If this was 1982, before the film had been restored and, apparently, made consistent rounds at festivals, I'd understand. Finally seeing it, though, Lonesome is a classic film and I'm sorry it took me this long for it to finally be a part of my life. Here it is, for the first time on disc, in a loving Blu-ray edition from Criterion.
New York is a tough place to live, and that's no different today than it was a hundred years ago. Jim (Glen Tryon, Skinner Steps Out) and Mary (Barbara Kent, Flesh and the Devil) feel this every day as they wake up, go to their jobs, and go home all alone. One day, though, after the factory they both work for calls a holiday, things change. As everyone pairs off and heads to Coney Island, Jim heads out there by himself, where he happens to see Mary sitting on the beach all alone. They talk, and instantly fall in love, but circumstances force them apart and they must search frantically through the masses, each looking for the one person who can end their solitude.
A mix of technical wizardry and heartfelt emotion, Lonesome takes the innovations of foreign directors like Sergei Eisenstein and F.W. Murnau and mixes them with silent Hollywood sentiment for an absolute triumph of film. Synchronous sound was a novelty when it was released in 1928, which required three short sound sequences to be inserted. These are awkward moments, but still very well done, especially a brief musical sequence that is haunting and strange, though in a potentially unintended way. These moments are the only questionable parts of an otherwise phenomenal cinematic experience.
Opening with a montage of the New York streets, we can see immediately the maddening hustle of living in such a place and it brilliantly sets up the existential problem Fejos presents. From there, it moves into a great comic scene of Jim and Mary each getting ready for work. Mary, clean and organized, contrasts with the messy, Keaton-esque Jim, who is late for work and bumbles into his day. Then, at work, we see them as cogs in a terrible machine, her a switchboard operator, and him at a metal punching station. The alienation here is oppressive and, though Lonesome is decidedly a comedy, in many ways very traditionally so, that sense of alienation weighs heavy throughout the film.
In that way, Lonesome could almost be called a Socialist-leaning film, though I don't think Fejos particularly intended it to be so. It's simply in the idea that people are so deeply entrenched in the machine that they are completely removed from their own happiness. While the company calls a surprise holiday, which is nice on the surface, the only thing anybody can think to do is head out to the amusement park, which echoes something Socialist writer Maxim Gorky wrote about society deliberately keeping citizens sedated through amusement to make them forget about their status. Fejos doesn't seem to have quite the problem with Coney Island that Gorky would have, but when it is the one thing that everybody decides to do, Gorky's words ring true here. Though it's there that Jim and Mary fall in love, their separation and desperation to find one another within a horde of people shines a light on the lack of real happiness that exists in this place. The fact that the search is happening during a rainstorm is an even further display of the existential crisis at play here. This is only resolved by a typical Hollywood ending, the triteness of which can't hamper the power of the rest of the film.
From the opening shot, Fejos proves that he's a cinematic force, and the technical artistry is almost overwhelming. A director, doctor, and anthropologist whose exotic travelogues would go on to change the face of the study, Fejos has a clear vision that he easily realizes through his impressionistic shooting style and montages. It's helped by the performances of the leads. Tryon, a young comic actor, is hilarious, and Kent, Miss Hollywood 1925, is a vision of beauty. As a couple, they are as sympathetic as it gets; their cute and funny meeting turns sad as they're separated; it's hard to believe something this heavy could get over with audiences of that era, but it worked and I'm so glad that I've now seen it.
For its 623rd entry, the Criterion Collection has produced a stellar Blu-ray of Lonesome, with a beautiful restoration and a ton of extra features. The 1080p image, in its original, strange 1.19:1 aspect ratio, looks incredible. Certainly, it doesn't look perfect, but it fares much better than most silent films out there and is as good a restoration from this era that the company has done. There are some spots and scratches, but a real lack of nitrate degradation and a really gorgeous, documentary-style grain structure. The contrast is nearly perfect, with bright whites and deep blacks, and the color sequences look fantastic, especially the wide shot of the Coney Island facade, one of the best single moments of the film, which is made to look like some kind of crazy light show. Because of the dialog sequences, the musical score is from the original release, but you can hardly tell from how nice it sounds. There's a little bit of noise, but shockingly little, and the spoken scenes, while a little jarring, are also quite clear.
The extras, though, are where the disc really shines. For starters, we get two complete additional movies that Fejos directed. First, we have The Last Performance from 1929, starring Mary Philbin (The Man Who Laughs) and the great Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). A Svengali-like story of a magician who falls in love with his assistant, while she desires his age-appropriate protege, is also quite good and much closer to the exploitative silent filmmaking that made me fall in love with them. The other, also from 1929, is Broadway, an adaptation of what, at the time, was a hit musical about bootlegging and it, too, is quite good. It was released in both silent and sound versions; the disc features the talkie. Together, these films make up almost the entirety of Fejos's Hollywood output and, film after film, the director shows himself an absolute master of the art.
But that's not all. In addition, we get a newly-recorded audio commentary by professor of English and film studies at Rutgers, Richard Koszarski, that is typically academic for Criterion, but Koszarski is more animated and relatable than most of their commentators. Moreover, we get a twenty minute excerpt of Fejos narrating his autobiography over some really amazing photographs, and the customary booklet with a series of very interesting essays on the director and the film. This is a stupendous disc that meets and exceeds all expectations. Great stuff.
Lonesome has never, technically, been a lost film, so the fact that it is so obscure, and that Paul Fejos is more well-known in Anthropology circles than for his cinema, is a tragedy that, hopefully, Criterion's Blu-ray will help to rectify. Everybody with even a passing interest in silent film owes it to themselves to see Lonesome, which has instantly appeared in my life as one of my absolute favorites of the era.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.19:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (Intertitles)
Running Time: 69 Minutes
Release Year: 1928
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Films
* Audio Interview