#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”.

April 2021 Poll: The ’90s!

Thanks to everyone who participated in our March poll, the results are in and…

IT’S A TIE! I’ll be pulling double duty and revising my posts about “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off“. Look for those at the end of April.

But now on to this month’s poll: Which of these classic ’90s movies would you like to see me revisit and give a more thorough post to?

Groundhog Day (1993)

A League of Their Own (1992)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Rushmore (1998)

Voting ends April 30th, and the winning post will be written in May.

Listen to This: The Class of 2020

“It’s ‘The Muppet Show’ with our very special guest stars, Ira Glass and Janet Jackson! Yaaaaaay!”

It’s that time of year again when the National Recording Registry announces its 25 newest inductees. This year’s recordings range the gamut from “Oh yeah, that song” to “I’ll take your word for it” to “Another fucking Edison recording?” Here is the complete list, with links embedded whenever possible.

The NRR has also included this playlist so you can listen to this year’s inductees wherever you stream your music. Personally, I’m thrilled that the NRR now includes a talent whose singing skills have been long missing from this list: former NFL defensive tackle Rosey Grier.

#552) A Study in Reds (1932)

#552) A Study in Reds (1932)

OR “The Marx Sisters”

Directed by Miriam Bennett

Class of 2009

The Plot: While attending a lecture about “reddest Russia”, several ladies fall asleep and dream what their lives would be like under Communist rule. In this extended nightmare, life is under the constant watch of Russia’s secret police, mothers are sent to jail for being “too affectionate” to their children, and any attempt to take more than your share is punishable by death. It’s a brief political satire courtesy of an amateur filmmaker in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief overview of the film, while an essay by amateur film expert Patricia R. Zimmermann makes a somewhat far-reaching case for NFR inclusion.

But Does It Really?: I’ll be honest, I couldn’t get into this one. Part of that is having just covered an amateur film with a more resonant subject matter for me, and part of that is the lack of a solid argument for NFR inclusion, apart from “it’s an amateur film!” That being said, I always appreciate the NFR for including these bits of amateur filmmaking, and I applaud this movie’s director for filming something other than a showcase of her home and family. A teeny-tiny slimmest of slim passes for “A Study in Reds”, for those of you who care about rankings.

Everybody Gets One: Like many an amateur filmmaker, most of my information regarding Miriam Bennett comes from an essay on the Center for Home Movies website. Born in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin (now known as Wisconsin Dells), Miriam Bennett was the daughter of photographer H.H. Bennett, and it is speculated that Bennett’s polished filmmaking style stems from her observing her father. Miriam was also a member of the Tuesday Club, a ladies club that covered current affairs over tea (recreated for “Reds”). In addition, Bennett was a member of the Amateur Cinema League, which held an annual amateur film competition, which possibly prompted Bennett to make this film.

Wow, That’s Dated: With the Great Depression in full swing in the early 1930s, more Americans became disillusioned with capitalism (can’t imagine why) and started supporting the American Communist Party, with membership increasing significantly throughout the decade. While not necessarily a “red scare” of the same level as the one in the late ’40s/early ’50s, Communism was still strongly identified with Russia, as this film exemplifies.

Other notes 

  • It’s plain to see that despite her amateur status, Miriam Bennett possessed some natural skills as a filmmaker. For starters. she was already experimenting with time lapse photography and animation. In “Reds”, footage of real clock hands rapidly moving around the face help convey the passage of time. Simple, sure, but by 1932 amateur standards she might as well be Stanley Kubrick.
  • With the exception of a few boys, this movie sports an all-female cast. Even the authority figures in this imagined Russia are women. They may be Communists, but at least they’re equal opportunity Communists.
  • One reference I had to look up: a shoutout to the GPU, Russia’s secret police, which had dissolved a full decade before “A Study in Reds” was made. Among their successors was the KGB and other ominous letters.
  • What does it say about Wisconsin when their snowy woods effectively double as the barren nature of Russia?
  • Are the pigs on the farm supposed to be a metaphor?
  • I’m also enjoying that one of the older performers (playing a Soviet official) is quietly corpsing during one of her big scenes. I guess there was no time for retakes.
  • Oh god, an egg pun. The farmer who is caught stealing an egg is sentenced to “eggsecution”, the kind of wordplay that “Batman” would perfect 35 years later.
  • The version I watched (found on the Library of Congress’ YouTube page, embedded above) includes a series of outtakes. Not a gag reel, just a collection of shots that Bennett apparently trimmed from the final version.

Legacy 

  • “A Study in Reds” was completed in 1932, but did not crack the ACL’s annual top ten list of amateur films. Miriam Bennett would continue to screen “Reds” for ACL club members over the years before her death in 1971. It is unknown if Miriam Bennett made any other films.
  • While the Amateur Cinema League disbanded in 1954, the Tuesday Club is still going strong in Wisconsin Dells.
  • And Communism was never a problem in America ever again. Moving on…

#551) The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

#551) The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

OR “Wonders of the Claymated World”

Directed by Nathan H. Juran

Written by Kenneth Kolb. Based on the Sinbad stories in “One Thousand and One Nights”.

Class of 2008

The Plot: While on the island of Colossa, Sinbad the Sailor (Kerwin Mathews) battles a giant cyclops, saving Sokurah the Magician (Torin Tatcher) in the process. Sokurah’s request to return to the island and retrieve a magic lamp is denied by Sinbad, who wishes to return to Bagdad and marry the Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant). Sokurah uses his evil magic to shrink the Princess and create a war between Chandra and Bagdad, forcing Sinbad to acquiese and take the sorcerer back to Colossa. Their journey is fraught with such perils as the giant Roc bird, a fire-breathing dragon, and a skeleton warrior, all brought to life through Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation!

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the finest fantasy films of all time”, praising Ray Harryhausen’s “stunning” animation and Bernard Herrmann’s “thrilling” score. An essay by Harryhausen expert Tony Dalton provides many production details.

But Does It Really?: Like “Lost World” and “King Kong” before it, “Sinbad” is on this list by virtue of its kick-ass stop-motion technology, from no less than animation legend Ray Harryhausen. The rest of the movie is fine: ultimately harmless and kind of forgettable. The real star is the effects animation, which is strong enough to warrant NFR recognition. Some scholars will argue that “Jason and the Argonauts” should be the Harryhausen representation on this list, but “Sinbad” is an acceptable alternative.

Everybody Gets One: Like many of his generation, Ray Harryhausen was inspired to become an animator after seeing the original “King Kong”. Following the advice of “Kong” animator Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen studied sculpture and graphic art to hone his craft. After a brief stint with George Pal’s “Puppetoons”, Harryhausen got his big break as an assistant animator on “Mighty Joe Young”. From there he worked on stop-motion effects for such sci-fi films as “It Came from Beneath the Sea” and “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers”. “Sinbad” was Harryhausen’s first venture into the fantasy genre, and his first animation in color.

Wow, That’s Dated: I’m gonna go ahead and assume all of this is cultural appropriation of Arabic culture. There’s no brownface or god-awful accents, but it’s still a bunch of White people walking around in turbans and pantaloons. This whole thing is about as Middle Eastern as Carnac the Magnificent.

Title Track: Despite the title, “7th Voyage” takes more of its story elements from the 3rd and 5th voyages of Sinbad in the Arabian Nights tales. And like “Plan 9”, this title leads me to believe there are six movies I should have watched beforehand.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Sinbad”. For the curious, 1958’s Best Special Effects winner was another fantasy movie: “tom thumb”.

Other notes 

  • A lot of the marketing for “Sinbad” gave praise to the film process of “Dynamation”, Ray Harryhausen’s process of combining stop-motion and live-action. A portmanteu of “dynamic animation”, the term was coined by Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer as a way to make stop-motion animation sound sophisticated. The name was partially inspired by Schneer’s Buick, which had a Dynaflow transmission.
  • I was ready to call out the hills of southern California in the background of a few shots, but it turns out “Sinbad” was filmed on location in Spain, primarily in Granada and Costa Brava.
  • I don’t know a lot about Ray Harryhausen, and it did not occur to me that he did not direct or write the movies we associate as his. In the case of “Sinbad”, Harryhausen was the special visual effects creator, and an uncredited associate producer. Despite being the creative muscle behind these movies, Harryhausen always shared credit with his colleagues in interviews, particularly his directors and writers, as well as Charles Schneer.
  • I was not expecting Bernard Herrmann to be the composer of a claymation movie. Apparently he scored a lot of Harryhausen’s movies. And he was already working with Hitchcock at this point, the man must have loved to work.
  • There’s nothing too exciting about how Kerwin Mathews or Kathryn Grant got cast as the leads: they were both under contract with Columbia at the time. Side note: “Sinbad” was released a year after leading lady Kathryn Grant married legendary crooner Bing Crosby. She would eventually start using his last name professionally.
  • I do not feel comfortable having the genie being played by a child. I don’t care if he’s immortal, this is child labor.
  • Sokurah is giving me some Albert Finney in “Annie” vibes. I hope they don’t make him sing.
  • Speaking of cultural appropriations, you can’t show me a shrunken Kathryn Grant in Arabian garb and a tiny living space and not make me think of “I Dream of Jeannie”. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sidney Sheldon caught a matinee of “Sinbad” and started taking notes.
  • There are a few instances where the claymation figures double for the live actors, and it somehow looks more convincing than when they try to do that with computers today.
  • Yes, the Princess is sidelined for most of the movie, but at least she actually contributes to one of the plot points, and improves upon the ideas of the male hero.
  • The highlight of this movie is definitely Sinbad fighting a skeleton soldier. No wonder Harryhausen recreated it for “Argonauts”. Watching a bit of claymation fight a flesh-and-blood actor – and give him a legitimate run for his money – is still a sight to behold 60 years later.
  • More movies should end with a dragon fighting a cyclops. Just saying. Imagine “Kramer vs. Kramer” if it was a custody battle between a dragon and a cyclops.
  • I’m confused: when does Sinbad fight Popeye?

Legacy 

  • “Sinbad” was a surprise hit in the theaters, and the sequels started rolling out…fifteen years later. Harryhausen and his team returned to the Sinbad tales with 1973’s “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” and 1977’s “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger”. I believe Survivor did the score for the latter.
  • Ray Harryhausen would follow-up “Sinbad” with such fantasy movies as “Mysterious Island”, “One Million Years B.C.”, and the aforementioned “Jason and the Argonauts”. Harryhausen’s last stop-motion animation can be seen in 1981’s “Clash of the Titans”.
  • Proof of this film’s popularity: The 1953 Soviet film “Sadko” has nothing to do with the Sinbad legend (it’s based on a Russian folk tale), but when the film was re-released in America in the early ’60s, it was re-titled “The Magic Voyage of Sinbad” and completely re-dubbed as an attempt to cash-in on this movie. This dubbed version is the one shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000”.
  • Like Willis O’Brien before him, Ray Harryhausen influenced a generation of filmmakers who would use visual effects to tell their stories. Among them, George Lucas, John Landis, Peter Jackson, and Rick Baker. As Harryhausen said later in life, “there is no greater accolade than that.”
  • And finally, comedian David Adkins goes by the professional name Sinbad as an homage to the sailor. And no, he never played a genie in a movie. Stop asking!