Lonesome: Criterion Collection
August 27, 2012
Due to the passage of time that resulted in several of his films disappearing forever, Paul Fejos is a long-forgotten filmmaker from the silent era of cinema. Before picking up a movie camera, he had already studied medicine and served as an orderly in World War I. Afterwards, it was his job as a set painter that led him to moviemaking as an occupation. After making the experimental film The Last Moment (1927), he was signed by Universal Pictures and decided that his follow-up would be Lonesome (1928), a look at single life in New York City with the focus on a woman named Mary (Kent) and a man named Jim (Tryon).
She is very neat and orderly – the alarm clock wakes her up and she gets ready to go to work. In contrast, his alarm was set to silent, forcing him to rush through getting ready in a messy apartment. They meet at the same diner where she enjoys a leisurely breakfast while he wolfs down a chocolate doughnut. Fejos juxtaposes the contrasting ways of life for Jim and Mary while also presenting a fascinating snapshot of life in the big city during the late 1920s.
Both Jim and Mary lead busy lives but the way they live them couldn’t be more different. Fejos approaches them like sociological documentaries as we see them at home, at work and interacting with others, the latter of which they both appear to be unlucky, at least when it comes to romantic relationships. Mary is married to her work while Jim is the perennial third wheel. However, they find themselves drawn to Coney Island during the Fourth of July weekend in the hopes of enriching their routine lives. With this sequence, Fejos really cuts loose stylistically, showing off the place’s colorful inhabitants and the joyous activities that Jim and Mary find themselves immersed in. Fejos even employs color tinting (fairly rare at the time) to reinforce just how vibrant the carnival is.
Lonesome is a significant film for how it straddles the silent and sound eras of cinema. Most of the dialogue is shown via title cards but there are three scenes where we actually get to hear our two leads speak. Fejos spent three years in Hollywood before moving on to become a documentary filmmaker and finally settling in as an anthropologist. Despite being heralded as a fresh new voice in cinema, he was quickly relegated to obscurity until recently with the rediscovery and restoration of Lonesome, which has been touted as a masterpiece on par with the likes of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928).
The first disc features an audio commentary by professor Richard Koszarski who points out that Lonesome was not actually shot in New York City despite being set there because Fejos was more interested in depicting the pressures of city life. Koszarski provides brief biographical sketches of the two lead actors. He talks about the portrayal of working class life in silent cinema and expertly analyzes the film’s themes on this informative track.
Also included is the “Fejos Memorial,” a visual essay with Fejos narrating the story of his life. These excerpts were taken from an oral autobiography he recorded a year before he died. Fejos paints an intriguing portrait of his life and career.
The second disc features two other films he made after Lonesome. The Last Performance is a film he made in 1929 and starred Conrad Veidt as a magician infatuated with his stage assistant, played by Mary Philbin. Fejos employs dramatic lighting to emphasize the malevolent nature of Veidt’s character in this fascinating drama.
Broadway is a 1929 film about gangsters mingling with dancers in a New York nightclub. The film was originally released in silent and sound versions while also featuring an exciting finale in Technicolor. Lonesome’s Glenn Tryon returns as Fejos captures the excitement of the jazz age. Also included are excerpts from a 1973 interview with the film’s cinematographer Hal Mohr who talks about how he pulled off some of the elaborate camera moves.