#553) Lonesome (1928)

#553) Lonesome (1928)

OR “Hello, My Coney Island Baby”

Directed by Pál Fejös (aka Paul Fejos)

Written by Mann Page, Edward T. Lowe Jr., and Tom Reed

Class of 2010

The Plot: Jim (Glenn Tryon) and Mary (Barbara Kent) are both single and living solitary lives in New York City. The two meet by chance when both take an impulsive trip to Coney Island for the day. Things immediately click and the two fall in love. But will such outside forces as a faulty rollercoaster, sudden thunderstorm, and relentless crowds keep these two from being together? Come for the love story, stay for the revolutionary attempts at sound and color.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises director Fejos’ “eloquent and brilliantly photographed tale”, though admits the sound sequences are “better for their technological innovation than their wit”. There’s also an informative essay by fellow film blogger Raquel Stecher.

But Does It Really?: Ultimately I get why “Lonesome” is on this list: it is not only an early example of film experimenting with new sound technology, but is also a “lost and found” silent film (aka a “Belloq film“, for those who remember that). “Lonesome” is hardly an essential in the history of film, but its sound and color techniques make it enough of a curio to warrant a viewing.

Everybody Gets One: After working as an orderly in his native Hungary during the First World War, Pál Fejös became a set painter for an opera company, which led to him directing films and eventually heading off to Hollywood. His big breakthrough was 1928’s “The Last Moment”, in which a drowning man’s life flashes before his eyes. It was a technical marvel and a hit with audiences, but unfortunately “The Last Moment” is now a lost film. Fejös chose “Lonesome” as his next film because it was only a short synopsis, thereby allowing him more creative freedom with the storytelling.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the ’20s-era amusement park as a literal deathtrap where rides randomly catch on fire and/or give you whiplash. Also, one of the rides is led by mules. That could not have smelled great.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Lonesome” was released in June 1928, making it eligible for the very first Academy Awards. Its lack of nominations (with the Oscars or any critics group) makes it one of the earliest NFR entries to be “snubbed” by the newly formed Academy.

Other notes 

  • As we’ll cover later, “Lonesome” was initially filmed as a silent movie with a synchronized soundtrack comprised of a score and effects. Once the sound craze was in full swing, Universal added three new sound scenes with dialogue to cash in. The story goes that Universal recorded the sound for “Lonesome” while they had a Fox Movietone News truck on loan for “conducting sound tests”. In the brief time Universal had Fox’s truck they “tested” three other movies as well.
  • “Lonesome” would definitely work well as a double-feature with “Applause“, the other NFR movie that dabbled in sound and experimental camerawork.
  • Not a lot of info out there about either of our leads. Glenn Tryon got his start as a comedian with Hal Roach, eventually pivoting to leading man roles, and eventually as a writer/director at Universal. Barbara Kent was a beauty queen turned actor who appears in fellow NFR entry “Flesh and the Devil“. She lived to be 103 years old!
  • No Production Code yet, but the camera tastefully zooms in on Jim’s upper torso as he changes into his work clothes, for fear of showing us anything too scandalous. Also, Jim is not wearing an undershirt: another point removed from the Clark Gable undershirt legend.
  • In addition to the film’s soundtrack, Fejos et al are having fun with superimposing images over each other; the customers Mary talks to on the telephone, the clock ticking away the work hours, etc. This movie was definitely a playground for the technical staff.
  • The actor playing Jim’s friend in an early scene is future Western character actor Andy Devine. He’s hard to recognize when you don’t hear his voice.
  • Despite its prominent New York setting, “Lonesome” was filmed at Universal, with a Coney Island recreation on the back lot.
  • No surprises, the added-on dialogue scenes feel added-on. No new information or character development, Jim and Mary just hit the same beats as they do in the silent scenes. Clearly the novelty of hearing someone talk was enough at the time. Speaking of, both Glenn Tyron and Barbara Kent have strong enough voices here that they could have transitioned to talkies.
  • My biggest complaint about this movie: no conflict lasts longer than 2 or 3 minutes. Jim pretending to be rich fizzles out after a few moments with no real suspense, as does Mary losing her ring in the sand. I know it’s a romantic fantasy and I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief, but come on!
  • In addition to its advances in sound, “Lonesome” experiments with color. In addition to a few tinted shots, several of the Coney Island shots use a process called “stencil coloring”, in which individual elements of each frame are removed, tinted a specific color, and rejoined to the frame. The results are just gorgeous (and amazing considering how many individual lights are colored in these shots). Side note: The NFR write-up says the film uses two-strip Technicolor, but I could not find any evidence to support this claim.
  • Again, I know I’m reading too much into this movie, but do Jim and Mary have anything in common? Besides being lonely? At least Marty and his date spent most of the night talking and not riding on roller coasters.
  • The third dialogue scene involves Jim being arrested by the police, and immediately being let go with no repercussions whatsoever. What is the point of anything in this movie?
  • [Spoilers] In the film’s tradition of not maintaining any long-lasting drama, it turns out Jim and Mary were neighbors the whole time. This movie is so close to being “Ring Them Bells“.

Legacy 

  • “Lonesome” was released in June 1928 as a silent film with a synchronized soundtrack. Three months later, the film was re-released with three new sound scenes, and promoted as Universal’s first feature-length talkie. Although critics and audiences were indifferent to these changes, “Lonesome” was a small hit at the box office.
  • Pál Fejös’ Hollywood career didn’t last too much longer after “Lonesome”, and he quit Universal when he was passed over to direct “All Quiet on the Western Front“. Fejös returned to Europe and became known for making ethnographic films before leaving film entirely and becoming a respected anthropologist.
  • After Fejös’ exit from Hollywood, his films were forgotten and considered lost. An original print of “Lonesome” resurfaced in France in the 1950s, and since the screenplay was missing, the French intertitles had to be translated back into English. After being added to the NFR in 2010, “Lonesome” received a full restoration (including the color sequences) and was released on Blu-Ray in 2012.
  • “Lonesome” is one of many classic films whose events all take place over one 24-hour period. Among those that owe the largest debts of gratitude towards “Lonesome” are fellow romance movies “Before Sunset” and “One Fine Day”.

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