Thursday, September 6, 2012


By the end of the silent era Hollywood seemed to see no difference between artistic innovation and technical innovation. Everyone was flush with the idea that their business was a new art form. Experimentation was encouraged for the sake of prestige, on the whim of a mogul, or in the sincere hope that it might make money. An auteur like Erich von Stroheim could still get in trouble for spending too much money and using too much film, but the studios kept giving him chances based on past hits. On the same principle, King Vidor's blockbuster war picture The Big Parade earned him an opportunity to make a comparably ambitious (yet certainly cheaper) portrait of working class life, The Crowd. Fox imported F. W. Murnau from Germany on the strength of The Last Laugh and threw a ton of money into his Sunrise. Meanwhile, Josef von Sternberg impressed Charles Chaplin with his low-budget indie film Salvation Hunters and got his backing for a United Artists film. That turned out disastrously -- Chaplin burned the film -- but Sternberg soon landed at Paramount and scored a hit with Underworld. Paul Fejos got encouragement from Chaplin as well, the comedian arranging for UA to distribute the Hungarian director's Last Moment, but managed to avoid the curse of Chaplin as a producer. Instead, Fejos found a patron in "Junior" Laemmle, the son of the head of Universal. Junior was taking an active role in production at an early age and would get the studio to make All Quiet on the Western Front and its signature horror cycle after sound came in. Sound was already on its way in when Junior overrode his dad's skepticism and gave Fejos something like carte blanche to film what he liked. Like Vidor, Fejos chose a vision of everyday life as his subject. Like the others, he was out to make his as distinctive and innovative a vision as possible. The result was Lonesome.

While his subjects are ordinary people, two lonely working stiffs who encounter each other accidentally at Coney Island, fall in love, are separated by a crisis, but rediscover each other in an O. Henry finish, Fejos has no thought of approaching the material with the austerity that might have been thought appropriate later. Instead, he tackles the subject as if he were making Napoleon, and the result is the nearest thing you'll see to an Abel Gance movie made in Hollywood. Lonesome is a work of expressionistic experimentation; the idea is to try anything and see if it connects. If that means substituting cutouts for the New York City skyline, go for it. If it means attaching your camera to the front of a roller-coaster and filming the actors as they ride, go for it. If it means hand-coloring scenes for the right look of romantic fantasy, ditto. This is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink picture -- and it's less than 70 minutes long -- and the only reason the sink isn't in there is because neither of the protagonists has one in their humble flats. Experimentation converges with technological exploitation in the incorporation of three spoken dialogue scenes; Lonesome is of that bastard species, the "part-talkie," from the brief period when Hollywood was desperate to show off its new sound technology before having more than a clue of how to use it in a narrative. 1928 and 1929 were full of films with the full fluidity of late silent film, except when the camera stopped dead to record actors slowly enunciating dreadful dialogue. Instantly obsolete, many are lost today. Of the survivors, Lonesome is probably the one where the transitions seem the least awkward. Since Fejos is trying everything else, why not stick some talking sequences in? I'm not going to say they're good, but at least they don't seem wrong, as is usually the case.

Fejos may represent the ultimate synthesis of late-silent cinema, finding ways to merge montage principles and the mobile camera favored by Murnau and his imitators. The ultimate merger of the two ideals comes when he shows us his protagonists at their jobs. Instead of cutting back and forth, Fejos employs a kind of sliding dissolve, more seamless than a conventional wipe, like an old typewriter cartridge sliding back into position after you hit the Return key. It's artistic and mechanical at once, with a constant frame of a clock reinforcing the monotony of each person's work routine. Within each shot, the camera is often moving, following the characters from locker room to work station, or from machine to machine. Here Lonseome is most like its slick contemporaries I've mentioned along the way.

But once the story gets to Coney Island Fejos runs riot, chasing his actress through a crowd with a handheld camera amid a general blur of mindless activity culminating in the roller coaster ride -- with a melodramatic fire angle thrown in. Most of what he tries works. You get a sense of industrious bustle that almost belies the pleasure object of going to the park but also underscores the film's main point about loneliness amid the multitudes. The stars may as well be playing in traffic sometimes, and it makes sense that when the boy and girl finally connect, the crowd vanishes and we're briefly in hand-colored fantasyland.

 The film is a fantasy, ultimately, down to its supremely implausible twist ending. And at heart it's as corny as anything else Hollywood was cranking out, playing for pathos in the most blatant way by giving the girl a doll, won for her on the midway by the boy, to cherish, to hug tearfully when they're separated; that weeps symbolically when rain smears the cheap paint on its face, and symbolizes the girl's heartbreak by falling off her dresser back home -- the girl bumped into it accidentally -- and smashing its poor ceramic legs. All of this comes with the territory of silent Hollywood, and you either can stand it or it can't. I think Lonesome has accomplished enough in its breakneck sensory ambition that it can be forgiven the corn.

Lonesome is so far from us, and yet so near. The star is Barbara Kent, who at the time of her death last year at the immense age of 103 was probably the last surviving person who had become a Hollywood star as an adult in the silent era. She first won notice in a supporting role in Flesh and the Devil, Garbo's breakthrough picture, and she went on to be Harold Lloyd's leading lady in his first two talkies. She soon repudiated the business completely; last witness that she may have been, she reportedly refused to give interviews about her career. I'm not sure how successful she thought she had been; some of the contemporary reviews of Lonesome are scathing toward her. But Lonesome is the sort of picture that should make actors critic-proof. By framing her character as an utterly ordinary, non-glamorous person, any perceived awkwardness or lack of brilliance on her part only authenticates her more. I think she's a little better than that, though, and when it counts she puts over the corn and the pathos probably as well as anyone could. I don't know what her last decades were like, but the thought of the centenarian being coaxed into recording her memories of the picture for a new century on the just-released Criterion DVD is too tantalizing not to regret the lost possibility.

Barbara Kent (1907-2011)

The DVD also contains two films Fejos made for Universal in 1929: the silent thriller The Last Performance with Conrad Veidt and the musical Broadway, for which the polymath director helped design an innovative and gigantic camera crane to make immensely swooping camera movements possible. Reviews of those films are coming soon to this blog.


Jon said...

Just watched this for the first time yesterday. I'm in love with it. It's just so cute and I don't care that the story is kind of corny. It's a love story and I give it the freedom to be a bit corny. There's so much earnest energy here, though, as you allude to in the way that Fejos throws everything at us. I think the acting isn't really the point of course. I found it interesting that in the talking scenes the characters suddenly seem more real and awkward and goofy. I appreciated that aspect. Nice analysis.

Samuel Wilson said...

Jon, I don't mind the corn either since the object here isn't any kind of mimesis but to make a pictorial tone poem. And you're right about the talking bits. Again, this is the only part-talkie I've seen where that feeling of the world coming to a halt actually seems right.

Victor Murillo said...

Your perception is wrong; for me is one of the masterpieces of silent cinema (comedy/drama) and the ending is satisfactory and poignant; an profound reflection about loneliness in the big city inside of capitalism system of life for us.