Silent film fans, this one included, have a great affection for Lonesome. It’s as sweet a movie as they come. I remember the first time I saw it, three years ago, in Syracuse, New York. I left the theatre feeling startled by how genuine ...
Silent film fans, this one included, have a great affection for Lonesome. It’s as sweet a movie as they come. I remember the first time I saw it, three years ago, in Syracuse, New York. I left the theatre feeling startled by how genuine and fresh it was. I was confident I could show to anyone.Of course, that would have been hard to do at the time. Until recently, Lonesome was festival film, difficult to see. And when you did see it, what you got was a rather rough-looking print. That has now changed, thanks to the gods at Criterion, who’ve seen fit to bless us with a Blu-ray release of the film. Now, finally, I’ve been able to give Lonesome a second look. But that second look is causing me to question its appeal. The story couldn’t be simpler. Lonesome concerns a pair of young, single New Yorkers, Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon) who have never met. Both work hard—he runs a punch-press in a factory; she’s a telephone operator. With the work-week done, and a long-weekend ahead of them, both decide to visit Coney Island. There they meet and fall in love. And then, through a mishap, they are separated. Will these two decent, desperate, lonely people find one another again? That is their concern, and ours, in Lonesome.I know why the film works. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s consider what doesn’t work very well—what this story must overcome to win our hearts.Lonesome drags. Though it runs only 70 minutes, the first fifty are an extended first act; in which the director, Paul Fejos, indulges his desire to film a pretty couple in a remarkable carnival environment, dancing from one happy moment to the next. A good deal of this is necessary—enough that we can view their (possibly) permanent separation as something catastrophic. But we didn’t need as much as we got. Particularly when we’re told so little else about them.The performances of the leads, though endearing, aren’t exactly good. We know when they’re happy, sad and afraid, but the myriad, subtle in-betweens of emotion—the ones that distinguish us, in the moment, as individuals—are missing. Who are Mary and Jim, besides two people feeling typical feelings?Lonesome is also a bit of a dog’s breakfast, aesthetically. Made close to the end of the Silent Era in the West, it contains elements intended to appeal to an audience with changing tastes, and they don’t always work. The tinting, for example, can be gaudy—and there is too little of it for it to feel integrated into the film. The soundtrack (mostly music, with the occasional sound effect) is tinny and shrill, as you’d expect it to be. Fejos’ liberal use of double-exposure makes for some impressive scenes, but it’s nothing Murnau and Lang hadn’t already explored and made commonplace in their own films about urban life. While I believe Lonesome belongs in the company of Sunrise, City Girl, The Crowd, and Man With A Movie Camera, I can’t say it’s better than any of them.The famed talking sequences are also problematic. Lonesome “breaks” its silence three times, the first two being drippy pre-pillow talk moments between Mary and Jim. Scenes like these, occurring in films that are otherwise traditionally silent, are always a little weird—they can feel forced, and they take you out of the moment. Kent and Tryon’s mannered delivery doesn’t help.But I said I liked Lonesome, didn’t I? And I do, for the same reasons you probably will.Lonesome taps into the fears we all have about being lost and abandoned. For lonely urban dwellers, this feeling is acute. We are surrounded by people; we assume, understandably, that a relationship, or at least a hookup, is always likely, even imminent. How can we not meet people in a space filled with them? Yet many of us remain single. So what’s wrong with us?Fejos understood how nice, young, attractive people like Mary and Jim could find themselves in a position like this. Both work long hours at solitary, mechanical jobs that provide them few opportunities for social interactio
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