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With: Barbara Kent, Glenn Tryon, Fay Holderness, Gustav Partos, Eddie Phillips
Written by: Mann Page, Edward T. Lowe Jr., Tom Reed
Directed by: Paul Fejos
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 69
Date: 06/20/1928

Lonesome (1928)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Little Carnival

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Paul Fejos' Lonesome comes from that awkward time in film history when silent cinema was transitioning into sound. Of course, everyone wanted the newest technology, and the appeal of talking movies could not be stopped. And, as Andrew Sarris pointed out, "a tender love story in its silent passages, Lonesome becomes crude, clumsy, and tediously tongue-tied in its 'talkie' passages added to the finished film to make it that hybrid monstrosity of the period, a part-talkie."

But Jonathan Rosenbaum hailed it as an "exquisite, poetic masterpiece" and that the film "deserves to be ranked with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and King Vidor's The Crowd from the same period."

They're both right. Lonesome only contains three "talkie" passages, none of which last more than a minute or two. They were clearly added on later, as shown by the displacement of time. In the second one, our two lovers Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon) sit and talk at the beach until it gets dark. The movie dissolves to a "talking" sequence with some hackneyed dialogue, which then ends with the lovers noticing that it has grown dark. Dissolving back to the silent footage, the lovers once again look around and notice the darkness.

In the third sequence, Mary and Jim become separated after an incident on a roller coaster. Jim tries to push his way through the crowd to get to Mary, but is waylaid by a cop. Cut to a "talkie" sequence in which Jim has been arrested and speaks to a judge (some prison bars are in the foreground, suggesting that he's in trouble). Suddenly the judge decides to let Jim go and he returns to the carnival, seemingly just seconds after he left it.

Not only are these talkie sequences awkward, but also they're totally unnecessary and clearly not a part of the original plan. Nowadays the film might have the opposite of its intended effect. In 1928, audiences would have paid to see the talking sequences, but today's audiences -- in the age of the successful San Francisco Silent Film Festival as well as The Artist -- would no doubt laugh at the talkie sequences and appreciate the silent sections.

The silent stuff is lovely and does indeed recall Sunrise and even Man with the Movie Camera (which came later) in its depiction of a mechanized city. The very simple plot has Jim as a machine operator in a factory, and Mary as a phone operator. We see them waking and commuting to work, cross-cut as Jim rushes and Mary takes her time. After work, it's the Fourth of July holiday and all the couples meet up and head out for some excitement. Separately, Mary and Jim go home, but when a marching band appears beneath their respective windows, they decide to go to Coney Island. They meet on the beach and spend the day together, falling in love. Then they are separated, and desperately try to find one another again.

Director Paul Fejos, who came from Hungary, had a brief career in Hollywood and eventually quit filmmaking to become an anthropologist, clearly enjoyed finding the rhythms of the city, and depicting them in a visual way, such as a man eating something that looks like fish on the subway, and Jim trying to determine where the smell is coming from. The movie uses lovely mirror-like balance to show the opposite, yet similar lives of Mary and Jim, and their little routines. At home and bored, they both pick up the same magazine. Giving up, Jim throws his over his shoulder while Mary gently places hers on the table.

In the end, I'd call Lonesome a truncated masterpiece, with footage rudely added rather than stripped away. It seems easy enough to simply take out the three sound sequences and let the beauty remain, but it's also important to leave them in for historical purposes, and certainly Fejos himself never seemed interested in a "director's cut." So, appreciate Lonesome for its timeless love story, and at the same time for its very specific 1928 issues of marketing and commerce.

(Aside from the talkie sequences, the credits are also amusing: they include Fay Holderness as "Overdressed Woman," Gustav Partos as "Romantic Gentleman," and Eddie Phillips as "The Sport." I was unable to identify these three characters over the course of the film. Can anyone else?)

The Criterion Collection has resurrected this little-known film for a new DVD and Blu-ray. If it's not as impressive as other Blu-ray presentations of films from the same period (such as Criterion's People on Sunday), it's probably because of the rarity of the source material. But it's as good as we're likely to get. Extras include an enthusiastic audio commentary by film historian Richard Koszarski, a 1963 visual essay on Fejos, and a liner notes booklet with essays by Phillip Lopate and Graham Petrie, and an interview with Fejos.

The biggest bonuses are two other, full-length Fejos features, produced at Universal at around the same time. The Last Performance (1929) is a silent feature, starring Conrad Veidt and running about an hour. And Broadway (1929) is a sound feature, running an hour and 45 minutes. Neither of these has been restored with the luster that Lonesome has, so they will be reserved for die-hards.
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