As long as I’ve been reading about movies, I’ve read about the greatness of Paul Fejos’ Lonesome, a semi-silent picture made on the cusp of Hollywood’s transition to talkies, but I’ve never been able to see the darned thing and you probably haven’t either. Criterion rectifies the situation with a lovely digital restoration from a rare print.
As in King Vidor’s contemporary The Crowd, two ordinary New Yorkers have a date at Coney Island. Richard Koszarski points out in his commentary that Fejos’ film is less realistic, being shot in California with an extravagant sense of visual play. The vision of New York and Coney Island feels partly indebted to Dante. Dazzling visual devices include optically printed superimpositions and artificial colors.
There are three dialogue passages, added after initial shooting, where the camera is suddenly nailed down, yet even these have formal shock value that’s partly accidental. 1928 audiences were used to these semi-silents, but I gasped when the first word was spoken, and I can’t help feeling that Fejos meant this moment of awkward conversation to strike the audience as an irruption of the “real” into the fantastic hurly-burly of the film so far. The first reel’s contrasting expositions of the man and woman’s morning ablutions and workday is fascinating, as is the delirious near-nightmare of their rollercoaster trip and its aftermath. As an excellent bonus, the disc has a short film that combines photos with an audio interview of Fejos.
When it rains, it you know whats. A second disc throws in two, count ‘em, two bonus features from Fejos’ stint at Universal after their success with Lonesome. (Alas, Fejos’ indie calling card, the experimental hit The Last Moment, is lost.) The silent The Last Performance stars the great Conrad Veidt, the famous veins in his forehead throbbing, as an apparently bisexual magician who throws over his jealous male assistant to court a lovely young thing (Mary Philbin of The Phantom of the Opera), who’s got eyes for yet another bit of eye candy seduced into show biz by Veidt. Again, the camera performs its own magic.
The talkie Broadway (1929) is a stagey drama billed as a musical, but every time the nightclub performers go out singing, the camera shows off its new 50-foot crane by yanking up to the mezzanine so we only glimpse antlike activity, and then instantly cuts to the gangster drama backstage. The movie’s not interested in musical numbers, and from those glimpses it’s just as well, but there are dizzying moments with that crane and the mega-stage. Glenn Tryon, the young hero from Lonesome, is also dizzying in his overacting as the talently challenged hoofer/comic who utters such lines as “This is the cue—cut ‘em deep and let ‘em bleed!” and “Holy gee, the orchestra sure put that number on the fritz! A bunch of plumbers! They were off the beat like a night watchman!” An audio clip from photographer Hal Mohr recalls the innovations of that expensive crane and the stage they had to build for it.