I have had the very great fortune of being able to begin volunteering at the Moving Images Research Center at the University of South Carolina. While it is still only basic work I am doing, I have instantly come to realize how necessary preservation is to assuring the place in films lasting for generations to come, furthermore, I understand the true benefit of restoration. While the items housed at this archive are mainly news reels, many have considerable historical value and have been saved from destruction. Archives like the MIRC are saving cinematic treasures, as well as rediscovering works long forgotten. Recently, Criterion released a relatively unknown silent/talkie hybrid called Lonesome and proved just how great archives can prove in the restoration and returning of classics to public access. Lonesome, a largely experimental work, is a magnificent combination of soundtrack work, colorization and surprisingly well-tuned acting all resulting in an endearing little romance film that clocks in just over an hour. While it does not fit into the definition of timeless, Lonesome is clearly a film that transcends its era and reaches out to touch even contemporary audiences as myself and my girlfriend can attest. We both thoroughly enjoyed the film, for its cinematic expression and earnest simplicity. The narrative is broken up occasionally by moments of sound dialogue, but given the build before each scene the moments seem like almost oneiric treats that pass through almost poetically through the work. In a very brief amount of time Pal Fejos manages to undermine everything thought traditional about silent era filmmaking and his success is unprecedented.
Lonesome, follows a day of experiences for one lonesome guy named Jim (Glenn Tryon) and a lonesome girl named Mary (Barbara Kent) who live in the bustling city of New York and seem lost and hopeless of ever finding a partner to grow old with. The two by pure chance end up going to Coney Island for a daycation (as my girlfriend aptly calls them), only to run into each other. Jim, in one of the most swag monologues in film history, compares himself to a sheep who is adored with Mary and would follow her anywhere to be with her and he seems to succeed at doing so, up until they are separated after entering changing stations. Fortunately, the two reconnect at a carnival later that night, in which they share in a variety of fun and games that range from spinning rooms, to photo booth opportunities, and even throwing balls at mechanical cats, to win Mary a doll. Things between the sweet couple are going stellar and they both admit to their working class identities, only to love each other more for it, and we can assume all will be perfect for the duo. Tragically, during a roller coaster ride the couple is split up and due to a fire scare Mary faints and Jim is attained by police while attempting to come to her aid. Jim is able to get released after explaining his situation to an understanding lieutenant, only to return to the carnival a bit too late and get caught in a storm that continually severs the two. Jim returns home distraught and puts a record on of a song that the two danced to while at the fair. We are then shown Mary returning home to hear the record playing in the background. It is at this moment that we realize Jim and Mary are actually neighbors, as do they, the two are united once again in a loving embrace, prepared to live in a joyous future together.
I will sound a bit pretentious when I say this, considering I was not alive then, but they simply do not make romance films like this anymore. Placed aside Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, this is a classic love story, shot unconventionally and with many twists, yet incredibly accessible. Yet where Vigo creates a need to form love, Fejos suggests a bit of magic to falling in love, particularly with the dreamlike and seemingly otherworldy nature of cinematic effects and the addition of talking scenes. I could not help but recall La Jatee, particularly when the movie briefly cuts to a scene of moving imagery, in between still frames. The talking scenes function as a means to make fate, chance and perseverance combine together to a moment of sheer perfection. It is perhaps this moment of inexplainable success at attaining a desire moment that makes this film so good. Jim and Mary clearly want to be together, but the exacting of fate upon them makes the two engage in a variety of obstacles to prove their desire. It is an earnest love film because it is not at any point taken for granted and as viewers one finds themselves rooting for their success, even if the storyline is a bit predictable, I would imagine in 1928 it was a bit of a revelation.
Key Scene: Pretty much anything that happens at the carnival is brilliant.
Lonesome is one of those films that came out of nowhere and that I knew nothing about before purchasing. With that being said it is easily one of my new favorite silent films and well worth getting for your personal collection. The CC bluray is stunning and includes Fejos other films to boot!