It was one of Universal's most profitable films in its year of release, but Paul Fejos's Lonesome is now largely forgotten, partly because of its idiosyncratic, experimental style, borrowing heavily on the Soviet and French trailblazers of the era, but also because the already diluted history of early cinema can't seem to accommodate the unknown territory between The General and The Jazz Singer, a no-cell-reception crevasse inhabited by anomalies, hybrids, and freaks like Fejos's 1928 semi-silent, semi-talkie. A closer look at the dark territory of late-'20s American cinema reveals not a void, but a kingdom, where Fejos's film is a precious object.
The film builds its business on two key points: one, New York City is a huge, bustling place of dazzling, often dehumanizing proportions, and two, Jim and Mary want to get together, in spite of a universe that threatens to keep them apart. If the dual premise seems a little unsophisticated, it's Fejos's direction that sustains the viewer's interest, and substantiates what might otherwise seem a fragile wafer of a story. If nothing else, Lonesome belongs in the top rank of silent films that used montage, process shots, and crowd scenes to build a city symphony that pays simultaneous tribute to the urban landscape's crushing dehumanization and its magnificent, awe-inspiring scale. If anything, it's a giddy dehumanization, where packed commuters exchange wry, knowing cracks about being treated like cattle. Technology and fashion may change, but that's New York for you.
The city, like many others, paradoxically attracts legions of men and women who prefer to be alone, but who, like anyone, occasionally suffer from loneliness. Critics have often pointed out that Lonesome rests in the ironic gulf between its title and the teeming masses depicted within: How can anybody be lonely in the city of eight million? The greater truth is that there's no irony at all, that lots of people just want to shut the door and close the window and gain a little respite from the nonstop barrage of pushing, panicking hordes at the diner, in the streets, in the train compartments, even at the seaside.
But these are also shy people, introverted people. Shown in dueling montages getting ready for work, Jim and Mary are introduced as a couple of regular schmoes, distinguished only by their nondescript blandness: She's a switchboard operator, and he punches holes in sheet metal. As their work day ends and their holiday begins, they each find subtle but decisive reasons why they can't join their coworkers, and despondently exile themselves to their respective apartments. Driven out again by the stifling heat and the lure of a brass band advertising a one-day getaway to Coney Island, Jim and Mary (still on separate tracks) heed the siren call of something, anything that will extricate them from their doldrums.
Coney Island, as much as it would be in Little Fugitive and the opening of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, is even more of a jungle of limbs, faces, and attractions than the city Jim and Mary escaped from to begin with, but they're too delighted to care, and it's here that they finally make contact. It isn't long before the forces of the universe—misunderstandings, the tidal surge of crowds, a near-catastrophe on a roller coaster—threaten to divide them a million times over. But it's also during this part of the film that Fejos treats the button-cute couple to a dream fulfillment of their wishes, by clearing the set and putting out the lights. They sit alone on a blackened soundstage, like Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Léaud in Le Gai Savoir.
If you know anything about introverted personalities, it will be clear that there's no discrepancy between Jim's often outsized displays of jovial garrulousness and his unspoken wish for just-so solitude, since such personalities habitually effect the outer characteristics of outgoing, happy-go-lucky people, but the proportions are sometimes wrong, and the result is exhaustion and melancholy. There's something undeniably affecting (not to mention sweet) about the way the film argues that Jim and Mary deserve to be together not just because of movie-romance convention, but because they work hard to overcome that kind of social anxiety, and, in the end, have earned the appropriate prize. Lonesome, in the end, looks to its protagonists to sort out a net of conflicting impulses, and the effort helps to power Lonesome's Borzage-by-way-of-Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind resolution (under a layer of phantasmal nitrate erosion), when a final, O. Henry-ish reveal takes on an almost cosmic, Dreyer-esque transcendence.
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Given Criterion's nearly flawless track record, you wouldn't be doing yourself a great disservice if you had no choice but to pick up their DVD of Lonesome, as there's a ceiling to how gorgeous 1920s film grain is going to get, even if you're the industry leader in giving catalog titles the 1080p spa treatment. Where the Blu-ray really shows its muscle is in the film's dreamy back half, with surprise appearances by intricate color-tinting effects. All of a sudden, blacks are deeper, while select sequences dazzle with neon blues and reds. I would only withhold a perfect score for the degraded quality of the other two features, Broadway and The Last Performance; however, I would indulge the duplicitous argument that the Decasia-like erosion that scours Lonesome's climax enhances the surreal, Borzagean reverie.
If supplemental features are to be graded on the criterion of adding substance to the main feature, there can be no better supplement than more films, and Criterion has included two additional Paul Fejos-directed film from around the same timeframe as Lonesome: 1927's The Last Performance, starring Conrad Veidt, and the 1929 musical Broadway. Presumably, Criterion didn't call this release "Three Films by Paul Fejos" for two reasons: First, with its status as a best-kept-secret on the repertory circuit, and its inclusion on Jonathan Rosenbaum's "100 Best American Films," Lonesome carries the Masterpiece herald, and second, likely going by the same rationale, the other two features didn't seem to rate the hero's welcome in terms of clean-up and restoration. They're still worthwhile, to put it mildly.
I'd still give the extras a perfect score if that was all Criterion had thought to include, but Fejos's life and career is that kind of extraordinary, Joris Ivens-esque, went-everywhere, did-everything saga that you'd be remiss not to address it somehow. To that end, the disc includes an audio commentary by historian Richard Koszarski, a visual essay narrated by Fejos himself, one year before his death, and two essays.
You (probably) don't know Paul Fejos, but Criterion will repair that oversight—and how!—with this superb Blu-ray release of the director's nearly forgotten gem, two additional, standalone features, and a windfall of illuminating supplements.