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Lonesome (Blu-ray Review)

17 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Glenn Tryon, Barbara Kent.

I think the first time I was ever really conscious of Paul Fejos’ 1928 Lonesome was when, for the 1976 American Bicentennial, the Royal Film Archive of Belgium polled critics, scholars and historians to choose the most important and most “misappreciated” (a lost-in-translation language glitch, I think) American films. It showed up on 21 lists, with its advocates tending to be from other countries or made up of hardcore scholars and archivists (though director Bernard Tavernier was among them) who had had the opportunity to see it. Another of the poll’s Lonesome advocates was film historian and former NYU classmate of mine Richard Kozarski, who provides the commentary on this extra-special Criterion release.

The film has circulated more in recent years, albeit in highly specialized venues, after substantial work was done (little by little) on a surviving nitrate print given to George Eastman House during the mid-1960s by the Cinematheque francaise. The fruits of these labors are what we’re get here in what will undoubtedly end up being regarded as one of the home entertainment events of the year — at least by those viewers who can hit (and have a taste for) major league pitching. Not that there’s anything esoteric or inaccessible with this a masterpiece or, at very least, a near-one. Much of it takes place at Coney Island, matter of fact.

Lonesome is for the people who love King Vidor’s The Crowd or the big-city scenes in Murnau’s Sunrise or maybe Berlin: Symphony of a City and The Man with a Movie Camera (which just made the recent Sight and Sound poll). Or maybe even parts of Metropolis, if you don’t want to stretch the comparison too far. It is, indeed, about loneliness — and how you can be surrounded by millions of people but still be yearning for that special person who can make walking down crowded sidewalks tolerable. In the 1920s, you still had a lot of Americans not far removed, or removed at all, from an agrarian culture. I’ve always wondered what it was like for them seeing movies about isolation in the supposedly exotic land of steel and concrete, not that there were really that many movies at the time that did when rollicking jazz-age cinema was more the order of the day. (For this, you can go to Fejos’ 1929 Broadway), which is included here as another of Criterion’s frequent stealth extras.

The protagonists here are a punch press operator (Glenn Tryon) and a switchboard operator played by Barbara Kent (very pretty actress even by contemporary standards and an actress one who died last in real life last October at age 103. The movie doesn’t try to romanticize or patronize “the little people” — and, in fact, everyone here would like to be as rich as their bosses or the romantic types they read about in magazine fiction. When the two arise in the morning to prep for work before they’ve even met, it is an unglamorous or even grim affair to modern eyes — though it isn’t treated as such by the movie. In fact, the movie is so generally chipper until one romantic roadblock late in the narrative that a reasonably thin Andy Devine (I just about fell over) is almost cast as date-bait, compared at least to Stagecoach, TV’s Wild Bill Hickok or 1932’s Law and Order, where he’s lynched.

The Coney Island scenes excite, and intermittent color sequences do the same (these always have an element of surprise whenever they appear). The only loss of rhythm comes — as it always does in these hybrid silent/talkies made at the dawn of sound — when the actors begin speaking in two or three scenes. Though, truth to tell (and this will likely be a minority opinion), I was not unhappy to have it happen in this case because I was curious about the leads’ speaking voices — which, as it turns out, pretty well match preconceived notions.

Fejos was a star director at Universal, but only briefly, because he was a doctor and anthropologist who quickly got disillusioned with Hollywood and wanted to venture out into his other life. So he did, even though he wanted to direct (but didn’t get to) All Quiet on the Western Front around the time he did work some on Universal’s high-profile King of Jazz (1930), whose direction is credited to John Murray Anderson. With typical Criterion care, this release touches upon the filmmaker’s second life with a 1963 visual essay that features an audio track with Fejos himself, recorded not long before his death. And just to show that with Criterion, you always have to read the jacket or menu fine print, two additional Fejos features are part of this package: Conrad Veidt in the 1929 silent The Last Performance, which I have not yet seen, and the mob-backdropped musical talkie Broadway, which features Lonesome lead Tryon plus Evelyn Brent from Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld.

Though billed as a “reconstructed” sound version, Broadway’s presentation seems compromised only at the very end. And beyond the characteristically clunky performances typical of early sound films, you can see that Fejos did not (after Lonesome) lose his very obvious love for moving the camera. Though Tryon plays a hood-employed hoofer hoping to make it in the show biz big-time, the camera snakes around a club (his boss’s) that looks huge enough to fill half-a-soundstage. If this is a speakeasy, it must be the biggest one in town, and I don’t think a “Joe Sent Me” type of introduction at the door would do all that much to provide a smokescreen.

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