‘Lonesome’ Is a Nearly Lost Classic of Urban Alienation and Fairytale Romance

The term “lost classic” gets thrown around a fair amount today, but director Paul Fejös’ rarely-seen1928 film Lonesome, an audacious and visually spectacular urban love story from dawn of the talkie era, comes as close to the real deal as you’re likely to find these days. Rarely seen over the last eight decades except by academics and festival audiences, Lonesome has finally been released by the Criterion Collection in a lavish 2-disc set, the first time it has ever been available on any home media format, thanks in no small part to painstaking restoration efforts by the George Eastman House.

In many ways Lonesome can be seen as a mainstream Hollywood version of the so-called “city symphony” movies like Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. There were a number of filmmakers in the ’20s who realized that recent innovations in motion picture technology and techniques made it a medium uniquely suited to capturing the thrumming, kinetic feeling of life of the modern city, and Fejös’ Lonesome features every one of the imaginative techniques used in those widely-hailed films.

But where they remained largely abstract in an attempt to encapsulate an allegorical portrait of The City as a single sprawling organism, Fejös also zooms in to the micro level by presenting the story of two individuals, a typical proletarian everyman and everywoman, as they deal with the alienation and longing brought on by life inside the heaving concrete-and-steel beast that is New York City. By mixing inventive European montage techniques with a clear-eyed social realism, Fejös creates a hybrid of style and substance that is markedly unique for its time and richly satisfying in any era. Fejös discovers the relatable human and emotional elements missing from Ruttman and Vertov’s avant garde masterpieces.

The film’s story is deceptively simple (in fact, it was originally intended by the studio to be a short — Fejös adapted it to feature length from a mere three-page outline.) It tells the story of one day in the life of two working-class New Yorkers, Mary and Jim, who each work mind-numbing jobs and live lives of quiet desperation as singles in the big city, lonely amongst the millions. When work lets out early for a holiday, they each find their way to Coney Island where they meet and, over the course of a whirlwind day along the midway, fall in love. After night falls they become separated in a climactic rainstorm and are faced with the task of finding each other amidst the throngs once again, without either even knowing so much as the other’s last name.

If it all sounds like it could be a little corny, well, it may be at times, but while Fejös may have a romantic side, he’s also got a lot to say about the plight of the proletarian worker and the psychological toll of modern urban living, and a keen eye for observation. Fejös himself freely admitted about his film’s dual sensibilities, “it sounds corny, but let say that it was high corn.”

Mary and Jim each have dehumanizing mechanical jobs, she as a switchboard operator and he as a drill-press operator, and each are ruled by the clock. A striking and memorable sequence early on features the two of them mindlessly grinding away at their workstations while surrounded by a superimposed clock face.

Later, a poignant and telling exchange occurs when they first meet on the beach: each spins a lies to the other about being fabulously wealthy and well-off, before coming clean and admitting to be the working-class stiffs that they are. It’s a great comic moment — Jim brags about getting an invite to lunch at the Ritz, “but I hate crowds” he deadpans while squeezed in like a sardine on the Coney Island beach. But it also carries a note of melancholy to see the insecurity and social angst that they each experience laid bare. Even as they’re enjoying the increasing social and sexual freedoms of their time as two single people of the opposite sex frolicking together in skimpy bathing suits, they both feel compelled to act out the upwardly-mobile fantasies presented to them by popular culture. (It might be no surprise that after his career in film Paul Fejos went on to a long and successful career as a distinguished anthropologist.)

Although to a large extent the two characters are basic archetypes, as a writer and director Fejös has a poet’s touch when it comes to the details of phrase and gesture. Minutes into the film, after an introduction to the hustle and bustle of New York waking up, a title card reads “In the whirlpool of modern life, the most difficult thing is to live alone,” a sentiment sure to resonate with anyone who’s ever gamely soldiered through a solo existence in an intimidating city. Or see the pitch-perfect way Glenn Tyron as Jim aimlessly moons about his empty apartment after returning home from another aimless day of work. Later in the film he confesses “I’m so tired of being alone that I can’t even stand my own company.” What urban dweller hasn’t been there at some point?

Visually, the Coney Island scenes at the center of the film are its tour de force, and Fejös uses every camera trick and visual technique in the book in order to convey the explosive, overwhelming sense of movement and action that was Coney Island on a holiday in the ’20s. Superimpositions, fast motion, split screens, model work, matte paintings, and whatever other tricks Fejos and gifted cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton could pull out of their hats are deployed to full effect. The ever-mobile camera weaves through crowds, sails along on rides, and tilts and pans with abandon to capture every inch of the wild panorama.

Most impressive, though, are the breathtaking bursts of hand-painted, honest-to-goodness color that appear in a number of scenes, illuminating the fantastic rainbow of lights that the midway becomes at night, and again during a shower of streamers and balloons at a dance. It’s one of the few effects that honestly remains just as enchanting and awe-inspiring today as it must have been for audiences in 1928.

Although not altogether lost, the few deteriorating and incomplete prints of Lonesome that did exist over the years were rarely-seen until the venerable George Eastman House undertook a full restoration project that has returned it to its former glory, making Lonesome‘s first-ever release on home-media possible. The print is beautifully restored, the colors are gorgeous, and the entire package exemplifies Criterion’s well-deserved reputation for providing a bounty of fascinating extras for the scholar and casual fan alike.

Included in the set is a short documentary of Paul Fejös narrating his amazingly varied and rich life story, including his time as a doctor, Hollywood filmmaker, explorer, ethnographer, and esteemed anthropologist. Also included is a second disc with restored and reconstructed versions of Fejös’ two films that followed Lonesome, the $1-million musical spectacular Broadway and the crime drama The Last Performance starring the great Conrad Veidt of Cabinet of Dr Caligari fame. All in all, it’s a stunning presentation of a stunning film, well worth a look and hopefully soon to take its place in the canon of early American classics.

RATING 9 / 10