Article first published as DVD Review: Lonesome (Criterion Collection) on Blogcritics.
When Hungarian born director Paul Fejos came to Hollywood, he told producers he wanted to make a movie about the shortest time period possible: half a second. Universal executives thought he was crazy, but stars like Charlie Chaplin were impressed by Fejos’ 1928 film, The Last Moment, an impressionistic look at what goes through the mind of a man in his dying breath. Sadly, that film, as well as the pictures Fejos made in his native land, is lost to the ravages of time and nitrate stock. But his next film project, Lonesome, survived, and a carefully restored print is now available in the full Criterion treatment.
The plot is a simple love story. A young man (Glen Tyron) and woman (Barbara Kent) working at menial jobs in Manhattan take an Independence Day trip to Coney Island where they fall in love, become briefly and harrowingly separated, and reunite in a happy ending. What Fejos brings to the film is a unique visual flair, informed by German expressionism but also tempered by a documentary sensibility that would lead him to quit commercial filmmaking entirely for a career as an explorer and anthropologist.
As film historian Richard Koszarski notes in his commentary track, Lonesome was not made in New York. Stock footage is combined with impressionistic backdrops and studio sets, including that of a subway station, that convey the excitement and alienation of the big metropolis. The marvels of the industrial age overwhelm and alienate the couple, from the alarm clocks that start their day to the crowded underground trains all the way through the couples’ work, he monotonously counting punches, she working at a busy switchboard, connecting people while she remains unconnected herself.
The film appeared during the film industry’s transition from silents to talkies, and a few scenes with awkward dialogue break the spell, especially when their voices take on the echo of the soundstage. It is in the predominantly silent passages that the film soars, from workplace scenes framed by the Roman numerals of a clock, a circle which enfolds and traps the people enslaved by it; to romantic tinted vistas of Coney Island’s long vanished Luna Park; to the frenetic, nightmarish montages of the faceless crowd.
Extras include a documentary featurette made from an oral history that Fejos recorded a year before his death in 1962. This surveys his life from his homeland, through forays into the film industry in Europe and the United States, to his long career in anthropology, a field in which he is probably better known than in cinematic circles.
A bonus disc includes two unrestored titles from his stint in Hollywood, both varieties of backstage melodrama that are not as consistently dazzling as Lonesome, but which contain impressive impressionistic flourishes. The 1927 film, The Last Performance (re-titled, The 12 Swords) stars Conrad Viedt, with Bela Lugosi in an uncredited bit part. Broadway (1929) was Universal’s most expensive picture at the time. For this big budget story of hoofers and gangsters, Fejos designed a crane which enabled massive cameras to make delicate overhead motions unheard of at the time. The film’s big finish was shot in an early Technicolor process.
Hal Mohr, the cinematographer on Broadway, is interviewed in a brief feature in which he describes the innovative crane, and how heartbroken he was to return to the studio years later to find the magnificent machinery rotting away. Much of early cinematic history has met the neglected fate of that machine, but thanks to the Criterion Collection for bringing this lesser known title out of the pages of the film history books into your living room.