Lonesome (1928)

Director: Paul Fejos

I was delighted to see this in the Criterion schedule when it was announced, cos I’d known about the film for years (thanks to Ivan Butler’s Silent Magic book) and so have always wanted to check it out. I was, however, a little concerned by the fact that Criterion would be using the sound version, cos anything I’d read about the latter indicated the dialogue scenes were, well, atrocities. Why weren’t Criterion using the silent print? Apparent answer, according to the DVD booklet: the sound print is the only one to have survived (though this Rosenbaum piece from 1982 suggests otherwise?), so we’re stuck with those dialogue bits. How bad could they be… Let’s consider the rest of the film around them first, though, and the man behind it. Paul Fejos was an evidently extraordinary character, and the evident loss of however many films he may have made before Lonesome may be considered quite a tragedy, cos we’ll never be able to know just how the fuck he evolved the astounding technique displayed in this film. By all accounts the independent film he made before this, The Last Moment, was a thing of wonder, and evidently enough to convince Universal to agree to his demands for complete artistic independence. However, Fejos hated all the scripts they gave him until he chanced upon a script for a short film that was only three pages long and insisted upon making it. Universal’s befuddlement at his choice presumably vanished when the resultant feature-length film was a hit. And, being released in 1928 when sound was the Next Big Thing, I suppose those dialogue bits, damned as they were by the critics (then as now), played a certain part in the film’s success.

And they’re not horrible, I suppose. They’re no good, either, they add nothing to the film, but there’s only three of them and they’re very short; in fairness, too, for all the accusations of sentimental banality the dialogue scenes justly attract, it’s not like the dialogue titles in the silent scenes are exactly Shakespeare either. And the film is good enough that they can’t kill it. Really, the story is as thin as the original story suggests: two lonely people in the big city meet at Coney Island, love, then get separated, later find they were neighbours all along without knowing it. Fejos’ characters are hugely appealing and he scored well in getting Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon to embody them; they bring resonance to the film’s basic theme of how you can be surrounded by millions of people and still be utterly alone; what matters is the one “right” person rather than the millions you don’t need. But the visual telling of their story is what the film is really about. There’s an incredible montage sequence paralleling their working day (him at a factory press, her at a telephone switchboard), and a general liveliness to the camerawork that almost makes Murnau look stiff and lifeless at times. The whole film displays an energy and charm that’s quite amazing; when people talk about the sort of perfection the late silent film could achieve, this is the sort of thing they mean. I obviously haven’t watched the two other Fejos films on the Criterion disc yet, and I know that the world of anthropology gained from his leaving filmmaking behind, but, just on the basis of this one film, I think it’s safe to say Paul Fejos could’ve been one of Hollywood’s most significant artists if only it had let him…

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