Monday, July 1, 2024

NFR Project: 'Lonesome' (1928)


Dir: Paul Fejos

Scr: Tom Reed, Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Pho: Gilbert Warrenton

Ed: Frank Atkinson

Premiere: June 20, 1928/September 30, 1928

69 min./75 min.

Every once in a while, I connect back to why I started this series: to get to see and learn about movies I never would have heard of otherwise. Such is the case with Lonesome, a beautiful, sweet movie about two people falling in love.

Who knew this existed? The director is completely obscure – he went from being a physician to being a director, and wound up as an anthropologist – but his work, the few examples that have survived, is lyrical and assured.

The film is set in New York, with Venice and Long Beach standing in for Coney Island. A young man and a young woman, each alone, lonely, and bored, decide to go to the beach on Saturday. Their eyes meet on the subway ride there, and young Jim (Glenn Tryon) pursues Mary (Barbara Kent) once they reach the park. They connect, and fall for each other hard.

All is well until an accident at the park separates them, followed by a torrential rainstorm that prevents them from finding each other. They return to their lonely rooms, alone. Mary strikes the wall in frustration, keenly aware of her loss. But who should hear the knocking? It’s Jim, who unbeknownst to either of them lives next door. The two fall into each other’s arms.

Fejos’ camera is constantly on the move, picking the principals out of the crowd, carried along in wave after wave of humanity. At the same time, he gives the lead characters plenty of time for expositions of feeling that flow through their faces. The result is a charming romantic melodrama, with an ending that reads like a modern fable.

The reason for the film’s two premiere dates relates to the transition from silent to sound. The movie was first released with a synchronized soundtrack of music and effects; when sound came out, it was decided to throw in a few sound sequences to entice attendance, and so the film was premiered twice.

The result is three sound sequences that do little to advance to the plot. In contrast to the mobile, flowing and eleoquent camera work of the silent version (there is even some two-strip Technicolor in the amusement park sequences), the sound sequences are shot with a still camera, in front of still figures reciting their dialogue somewhat convincingly.

It’s indicative of a problem early sound posed to directors. The camera was no longer free to move and do all sorts of tricks; sound recording meant every speaker had to be nailed to the spot. For a time, a reversal of film technique took place, until the sound-era directors could figure out how to free their cameras once again.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Pass the Gravy.

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