Sunday, 24 November 2013

Coney Island baby… Lonesome (1928)

“Gee it’s funny how lonesome a fella can be, especially with a million people around him…”

This magical tale straddles the divide between silent and sound and, for me, makes good use of the limitations of the latter without compromising the stunning visual fluidity on show.

Director Paul Fejös had a febrile imagination to accompany his ability to absorb and command technique. Lonesome is brimming with invention as he shows ordinary lives in extraordinary ways… clever motifs, over-layed in montage as he establishes character and situation with barely an inter-title.

His first Hollywood film, The Last Moment (1928), had been about the final seconds of a dying man and here he picks a few pivotal hours in the weekend of a young couple, both of whom are lonely in the big city.

Barbara Kent plays switchboard gal Mary, whilst Glenn Tryon is Jim a factory worker. Both live in small, single room apartments and head off for work each day with no one to say farewell or welcome home. Yet the streets, subways and workplaces are teeming with people and all their friends have romantic partners… it just hasn’t happened for them.

Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon
The camera follows them around their cramped apartments as they start their working day pulling us into their solitude. They travel to work on crowded subways and the camera switches from one to the other as a double-exposed clock-face ticks down the seconds of their working hours.

The weekend arrives – halfway through Saturday – and the two are persuaded to travel to the beach by the sound of 4th of July bandwagons. They board the same double-decker bus and Jim's eye is caught by the radiance of Mary's smile...

The tone is pushed just beyond normality and whilst the street scenes are recognisably real the beach is more crowded, more frenetic and more submerged in confetti than you’d expect: it’s expressionistic and the influence of Murnau is plain with "European trick shots" aplenty. Fejös later became a documentary film maker and anthropologist of note and here his eye for human behaviour is acute as he shows the crowds milling around enjoying their Coney Island daydreams.

There is a confusion about all the best seaside adventures as anyone who’s walked the Golden Mile on a sunny day will know and Fejös is following his characters’ hearts through an impossible landscape of compacted humanity: their connection hangs by a thread.

Jim pursues Mary through this throng and she responds;allowing him to chase her, teasingly throwing him off the scent as he tries to impress her with his strength. Jim gets told that he will meet his heart’s desire by a fairground machine and the relationship seems to be sure thing.

On the beach... in grainy silence
They go swimming and she loses her ring beginning another surely hopeless search and yet they find it: everything is against the odds and incredible. For a second Jim is confused thinking the wedding ring means Mary is already married but it turns out to be her grandmother’s: could be his day after all.

They get their photographs taken, Mary unguarded, joyful, beauty "passing the test" and Jim insecure, awkward, masculinity... then get closer as they sample the rides and amusement of the Playground of the World.

...and in spotless sound.
There are a three talking sections which Universal insisted on post-production. I think Fejös makes the most of these by using the first two, between Mary and Jim, as fantasy inserts, the actors rigidly posed in sand and studio, explaining each other in awkward formalities forced by the recording situation but also not unlike our first tentative conversations with girlfriends and boyfriends.

Similarly the colourised sections of the film, when Coney Island really lights up, are expressionist inserts showing the colour of love and the hope for happiness...

But, just as we think this story is heading only one way, there’s a fire on the roller-coaster after which the couple get separated. Mary feints and as Jim tries to get to her, he bumps over an officer of the law and is carted off to the fairground police station...

A third talkie tableau sees Jim arguing his innocence with the cruel coppers who almost lock him up for "picking up girls" but who finally let him free...but can he find Mary?

Now the film throws us into despair as Jim and Mary desperately search the amusement park for each other. They’re pushed and jostled, rebuffed by the fairground manager and blasted by wind and rain in the most pathetic of pathetic fallacies… and it works, as you shift anxiously hoping they’ll find each other…

Will the couple find themselves again or are they doomed to return empty handed to their lonely lives amongst the millions? You really need to see for yourself...

Lonesome deserves its reputation as a classic of sweet expressionism and shows that Fejös had a visual style all of his own aided ably by the superbly mobile camera work of Gilbert Warrenton.

Barbara Kent’s unrestrained smile illuminates the screen and enables her to project an honest vulnerability whilst Glenn Tryon is the more deliberately comic – an ordinary Joe (or Jim in this case…) who doesn’t want to blow his big shot at happiness.

I watched the Criterion version which comes with a nifty booklet containing essays about the film and Director. There’s also a fascinating visual essay featuring Fejös reading from his autobiography in the early 60’s: from a medical studies in Hungary to films in Hollywood, Denmark, Madagascar and some of the most remote populations on Earth… he had an amazing career.

There is also a second disc which contains two more Fejös’s films, his 1929 silent, The Last Performance with Conrad Veidt and, most intriguingly, a restored Broadway, his 1929 musical featuring Mr Tryon again alongside the greatly under-rated Evelyn Brent. More on both later…

You’ve all probably got the set already but if not, ‘tis available from Criterion direct and all decent ecommerce practitioners.

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