My goodness, New York used to be so crowded!
Released in 1928, Paul Fejos’ “Lonesome” begins with the big city waking up as “the machinery of life begins to hum.” In a dizzying montage, cars choke the streets with traffic cops blowing their whistles in a futile attempt to control the chaos. Later, throngs of workers squeeze into subway cars cattle-chute style and even at Coney Island there’s no rest for the weary: keep up the pace or you will get trampled by a crowd desperate for hot dogs and Kewpie dolls. There may be more New Yorkers today, but the Big Apple has never looked so oversaturated with carbon based life forms as here. Fejos may have meant his movie to be, at least in part, a symphony for America’s greatest city, but the sheer mass of masses is enough to make this demophobe shudder.
Which makes the film’s titular theme that much keener. Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon) both live alone, and neither the bustling morning commute nor the hectic day at work do anything to cure their sense of isolation. Each of them is prepared to settle in for another weekend home alone, but each of them is abruptly inspired to take a little stab at happiness and trundle off to a carnival at Coney Island. This, kids, is what they call “fate.” And so that old classic tale unfolds: boy meets girl, girl faints when her roller coaster’s wheel catches on fire, boy gets arrested, lightning strikes. We’ve all been there.
Paul Fejos’ story is actually a far more interesting one. Born in Hungary, the restless, ambitious young man shocked his well-heeled family by announcing that he wanted to work in theater. After having him vetted for mental health, they gave their grudging approval, but he dashed off to get a medical degree just to keep them mollified. He emigrated to New York in 1923, moved to Hollywood a few years later, made several films with Universal before giving up on both Tinseltown and the U.S., traveled abroad where he discovered about a dozen Incan cities, explored the Amazon, and eventually settled down as a self-taught dean of modern anthropology. We’ve all been there.
As you might guess from this brief history, Fejos was a fiercely independent thinker who didn’t fit well into any hierarchical system. He wouldn’t have lasted even as long as he did at Universal if he didn’t have the ardent support of teenager Carl Laemmle Jr. who was trying to impress his dad, and had himself been truly impressed by Fejos’ independent debut feature, “The Last Moment” (1927), now lost to history. The experimental film told the story of a drowning man reliving his life in flashbacks and plenty of visual fireworks, and Fejos had no intention of going conventional in his first official Universal production.
Fejos was required to add three dialogue scenes to satisfy the new talkie craze, but “Lonesome” is a mostly-silent film that showcases all the vitality of the late silent era. Influenced both by expressionism and formalism, Fejos pulled out on the stops, using elliptical cutting and superimposed imagery to transform even mundane events like getting dressed in the morning into dynamic sequences. After shepherding both of his protagonists to work through the crowded streets, Fejos follows them through their parallel days with a roving lateral camera and an image framed by a clock with large Roman numerals. The sweeping minute hand shuttles them through their respective tasks (Mary is a phone operator, Jim operates a press in a factory) in an immersive, breath-taking sequence.
The scenes set at Coney Island are every bit as spectacular with many harrowing shots of Mary and Jim swept along by the crowds either together or desperately searching for each other. And sometimes the crowds magically disappear altogether so the two budding lovers can share a quiet moment together, each initially lying to impress the other, then coming clean about being mere working stiffs rather than wealthy socialites. Fejos takes the spirit of carnival to heart throughout and I suspect I am not one of the first hundred critics to apply the adjective “vertiginous” to his athletic film.
A credulity-busting Hollywood ending might irritate some viewers, but I suspect most will not only forgive it but embrace it, because, after all, Fejos announces from the very opening scenes that he was going for broke, and there’s no reason to expect him to stop until the end titles force him to. The movie is so glorious that if you’re worrying about plausibility then it’s your own darn fault.
“Lonesome” was the height of Fejos’ Hollywood career. Two more of his Universal movies have been included on this set and are briefly discussed in the Extras section below, but the bulk of his films have not been preserved or at least are not publicly available, including the several anthropological documentaries he shot during his later globe-trotting years. But “Lonesome” has been enough to support his reputation among cinephiles for years, and with this Blu-ray release, we can all see why.
The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the ratio often used during the transitional sound era when the sound track took part of the visual field on the print. “Lonesome” has an extensive restoration history that I will not recount here except to say that this transfer used the 2008 restored print (by the George Eastman House) which was apparently much needed. All restored prints owe their existence to the single nitrate print that was conserved by the great Henri Langlois.
There is damage evident in most scenes though not so much that it should interfere with anyone’s experience of the film, and some sequences look quite luminous. Image resolution varies throughout as well with some scenes looking a bit faded. There’s a thick grain throughout and sometimes it can swallow up details; you can also see the difference in the “smoothness” of the dialogue scenes that were added later and either shot on separate stock or taken from a different source print (the former is more likely). Considering the limitations of the source material for this 80+ year old film, the result is pretty impressive.
The mostly-silent film had a score that included sound effects (traffic, etc.) so there’s more than just the three dialogue scenes. According to a note by Dan Wagner, Head of Preservation at the George Eastman House, the original soundtrack was in such terrible shape it provided challenges when projected, so the 2008 restoration included substantial reconstruction of the audio. There are still pops, hisses, and other distortions audible throughout, but again considering the limitations of this old material, what we get with this LPCM Mono track sounds pretty darn good. The dialogue is very tinny but that’s no doubt the way it was recorded. Optional English subtitles support the audio, but only come into play in a few scenes. There are English intertitles and a few inserts (close-ups of items that are read).
You can’t ask for much more than what Criterion has provided.
On the off-chance you feel slighted by the main feature’s slim 69 minute running time, Criterion has given you your money’s worth with two other full features directed by Fejos.
“The Last Performance” (1929, 59 min.) stars Conrad Veidt as a bitter magician seeking the affections of his stage assistant (Mary Philbin). The story is pretty tedious, but Fejos’ moxie is still on display in the dazzling visuals. Unfortunately, they’re not deployed to nearly the same effect as in “Lonesome” but this short film is still interesting, if not particularly involving. This is from a Danish print of the silent version of the film (another version had some dialogue scenes) and includes a new score by silent film composer Donald Sosin.
I have only watched the first ten minutes of “Broadway” (1929, 104 min.) since I’m trying to make an actual date-of-release deadline here. Fejos was entrusted with a big budget adaptation of a successful stage production about “gangsters and hoofers in a New York nightclub.” It was billed by Universal as the “first million dollar talkie” and Fejos and his team invented a new crane to satisfy his need to keep the camera mobile in a new era of cumbersome sound equipment. I won’t attempt to pass judgment based on ten minutes, of course, but the pre-credit sequence sure is one surreal trip. According to the notes on the disc, “Broadway” was released as both a silent and a sound film. This is the sound version, but the final reel of sound had to be reconstructed from audio elements in a private collection. It has no subtitles and I found the volume on the dialogue to be very low in the excerpt I watched. Criterion has also included an excerpt from a 1973 interview (7 min.) with Hal Mohr, cinematographer on “Broadway.” Mohr talks mostly about the crane they built for the shoot.
The main feature is accompanied by a full-length commentary track by film historian and Rutgers professor Richard Koszarski and the bits I listened to were very informative.
The disc also includes a “Fejos Memorial.” In 1962, a year before his death, Paul Fejos recorded his audio autobiography for the Columbia University Oral History Research Program. This feature, produced by Paul Falkenberg in collaboration with Fejos’ widow Lita Binns Fejos, matches excerpts from that audio with still images for a short visual essay (19 min.) Fejos was obviously quite a storyteller and though he doesn’t talk much at all about “Lonesome” you won’t want to skip this. He had one hell of an interesting life, even the parts he might have made up.
“Lonesome” has been a festival staple for a long time, but I had never had a chance to see it before. It more than lives up to its reputation, and Criterion has certainly done the film and the filmmaker justice with the collection of extras. Two full features as extras? That’ll do. This is one of the most exciting Blu-ray releases of the year.