By Jon Warner
Is there a romance that is as cute as this one? I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I think this film is immensely delightful. It’s unabashedly sentimental and romantic, yet the earnestness of the filmmaking propels it onward and upward. It’s also one of cinema’s great romance films, and one of its most unsung. Romance films can be accused of being too manipulative, sentimental, and slight and when done poorly. True they can be. However when done right, there is an intelligence, a wit, and a keen perception of our humanity on display. I think of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, or even Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The two stars of Lonesome, Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon, don’t have nearly the same cachet as other classic on-screen pairings, but they sure give it the old college try in this lively and charming, late silent film masterpiece. Until Criterion’s release a few years ago, this film had little exposure. It sure deserves it’s high ranking on this countdown, and in my personal opinion, ranks right up there with the best of them.
Lonesome follows the separate lives of Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon), two lonely single people living in NYC. She is a telephone operator and he a factory worker. Early in the film we’re made painfully aware of just how dull their jobs are and how they wish they could break free. They both (separately) have the afternoon off in preparation for the 4th of July weekend. They each decide to head to the beach and Coney Island. They each board the same shuttle car which will take them to the beach. He sees her on the car and takes a liking to her. Once off the car he pursues her. She retreats and they play a game of flirting for awhile. Then they meet each other at the beach and sparks begin to fly, as the initial attraction begins to . They spend the entire day together: talking, laughing, and enjoying the amusements of Coney Island. That is until they are mistakenly separated late in the evening. Frantically, each searches for each other, both of them realizing that they don’t know each other’s full names or addresses and that they may have lost each other for ever! Lonesome holds out the suspense of the reunion between the two of them until it can’t possibly put any more strain on the viewer. And then what a splendid surprise at the end!
Paul Fejos is a largely forgotten director from the silent era. Although he was largely known as a director of documentaries and ethnographies, his work in Lonesome is fantastic in every way. Made in the same year as The Man With a Movie Camera (1928), the beginning of Lonesome parallels the great Vertov work, using a montage sequence of the city awakening at dawn. Fejos, as noted in an essay in the liner notes for the Criterion DVD, has clear influences from the Russian montage and German expressionist movement. Being Hungarian born, Fejos brings a European cinematic flair to this Hollywood film, breathing tons of life into what is largely an oft-told tale. He uses tracking shots and roving camera work, superimposed images, sequences of color and even a few talking scenes within this largely silent film. There’s even a great soundtrack incorporating lots of crowd noise and sound effects which blends nicely. This is a “kitchen-sink” kind of approach, but the film never devolves into distraction or abstract pretense. It remains grounded by its focus on the human element, always maintaining its high degree of joy and sincerity.
What struck me about the few talking scenes that occur between Mary and Jim (which were added to take advantage of the newfound appeal of sound) is something that I had never thought of before watching this film: the delineation between silent and sound cinema . When watching silent cinema, it’s very easy to allow oneself to view the proceedings and actors with a sort of cool, distance. Because we can’t hear them speak, they somehow seem less real; they seem otherworldly and to sometimes appear to reach a sort of inhuman, glossy perfection. As an example, don’t we approach the silent films of Garbo, Brooks, and Gish with a reverence not given to actors of a later generation? Can those actresses do any wrong in the silent medium? When I saw the first sequence in Lonesome where Mary and Jim talk with each other on the beach (with sound), they suddenly seemed very childlike and almost embarrassingly human compared to their “silent selves”. They even seemed a bit silly or sappy. They became flawed, ordinary people once I heard their voices. It was an interesting way for me to think about silence versus sound in cinema, as this film allows one to essentially see both characterizations in the same film. All of this is superfluous though to how wonderful this film is. There is boundless charm and energy here. It is funny and romantic. It is sincerely acted by the two leads and directed by Fejos with great bravado. What a lovely masterpiece is Lonesome.