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Paul Fejos’s Lonesome is one of those no-longer-forgotten treasures that cinephiles in the know cherish. A frequent retrospective highlight at film festivals, lovingly restored, it has a fresh, dashing charm and brio that repay numerous visits. The visual virtuosity of this film alone might argue for Fejos’s placement in the auteurist firmament. Much of the rest of his oeuvre has unfortunately not survived, although the few features and fragments that remain all attest to his consistently inventive cinematic flair. Still, it is this one picture, Lonesome, that has secured his reputation in the annals of film culture.
The Hungarian-born Fejos (1897–1963) studied medicine and served as a medical orderly in World War I, then made his living as a set painter before embarking on a peripatetic moviemaking career that, over about fifteen years, took him from Hungary to Hollywood, France, Austria, and Denmark. In the mid-1930s, however, his frustrations with the commercial constraints of studio systems led him to venture on a series of ethnographic documentaries in Madagascar, Indonesia, New Guinea, and Thailand, and he ultimately settled down for his last, quite successful career as an anthropologist and the head of a foundation for anthropological research. Indeed, he is probably more widely known today in anthropological circles than in cinematic ones. This ethnographic curiosity should be borne in mind while watching the stunning, evocative, documentary-like passages of Lonesome, which capture New York in all its feverish vitality. What also needs to be stressed is that Fejos, from the beginning, saw film as primarily a medium of moving images, of visual poetry concerned with light and shadow, of stunning effects for the eye’s delight—in short, more allied with painting than literature. His style combined the flowing camera work of F. W. Murnau and the German school with the rapid-cutting montage sequences of the Russians.
Fejos’s first feature in the United States, a silent, unfortunately now lost, called The Last Moment (1927), was a reportedly astonishing, highly experimental story of a drowning man reliving his past in flashbacks—one that relied on pure visual storytelling. Impressed with the success of this low-budget film, Universal signed up the director for a studio feature. Its plan was to have him make something action-oriented and sexy, but Fejos, already showing his prickly independence and determined to do something new and artistically worthy, insisted on adapting an outline for a short subject he found about life in the big city, New York—seeing that its very sketchiness would give him the freedom to build a more personal narrative feature.
The film was shot and premiered in 1928. Sound had already arrived by then but was used sparingly, and Lonesome constitutes one of those peculiar hybrids made on the cusp between silent and sound cinema. Some few (rather awkward) dialogues are spoken, while others are mimed, with intertitles carrying the words. Clearly, the film’s heart and technique are still rooted in silent cinema, and Lonesome can be considered a late blossoming and recapitulation of that medium’s potential to dazzle.
Fejos had lived a hand-to-mouth existence earlier in New York, taking jobs in a funeral parlor and a piano factory and as a laboratory technician. He was determined to draw on his mixed feelings for that city. He loved the extroverted humanity of New York, while aware that it came at a cost. As he later explained: “I wanted to put in a picture New York with its terrible pulse beat—that everybody rushes, that even when you have time, you run down to the subway . . . ; this terrific pressure which is on people; the multitude in which you are always moving but in which you are still alone.”
The film begins in the manner of European city symphonies of the twenties, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man with a Movie Camera, with a montage of the metropolis waking up. We see the sun peeping through the clouds, ships crossing the harbor through the Brooklyn Bridge’s harp strings, legs stampeding the pavement, elevated trains careening aboveground and cars careering below, as policemen haplessly blow their whistles, trying to control the traffic’s pace. A title tells us, “New York wakes up—the machinery of life begins to move.” The key word here is machinery: not only is the city to be interpreted as a vast machine, à la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), but the people in it will be seen as robotic cogs rushing to their workstations. The editing of these street scenes is both exuberant and ominous. How is a lone individual to hold on to any unique sense of purpose, dream, or desire in the face of this million-headed crowd? The ordinary joe, the “common man,” crushed by the anonymity of the great city, was much on the mind of social critics of that period. It could be seen in other Hollywood films of the day as well, such as King Vidor’s classic The Crowd, also made in 1928, or in the opening of Allan Dwan’s 1924 Manhandled, with its rushing feet. From those heedless masses, one or two individuals, a Boy, a Girl, will be picked out and introduced to the audience. So it is with Lonesome, only this time the specific emotional problem of loneliness is emphasized. “In the whirlpool of modern life—the most difficult thing is to live alone,” a second title announces.
In the following sequence, we meet Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon), each bestirring in a modest hotel room, performing their toilettes, getting dressed, and going off to work. The tone in these sequences is wryly amusing, and Tryon, with his rubber face and limber body, seems cast from the mold of silent comics, a cross between Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. He stuffs a doughnut in his mouth and squeezes into a subway car, beneath a sea of panama hats; we get some comic vignettes of the other passengers, beleaguered, squashed, or indifferent. Then the principals settle into their workstations: she as a smiling switchboard operator, he grim-faced at a punch press—both highly repetitive, mechanical jobs. In this remarkable sequence, the camera keeps panning laterally from her workplace to his, as though they were coterminous in space as well as time. Meanwhile, both are framed in the Roman numerals of a clockface, for it is the clock and the calendar alone that control this otherwise chaotic urban universe.
A factory whistle blows at one, fortunately; a holiday has been declared, and all are free to amuse themselves for the rest of the day. The women workers dash off to the locker room to adjust themselves in the mirror, while the men splash water on their faces in their washroom. This sexual segregation loosens a bit outside the workplace, where each of the protagonists witnesses coworkers pairing off. Now they are faced head-on with their loneliness, as they retreat to their separate hotel rooms. But even here, their efforts to distract themselves come off with sprightly charm.
The film has a good deal to say about mass culture. Our protagonists’ inner lives seem to have been formed largely by the popular magazines they read and the phonograph records they play, and these media have taught them to aspire to the lives of millionaires and princesses. They are working-class—it was still possible in the 1920s and 1930s for Everyman to be represented by a proletarian—but they have virtually no working-class pride; when they finally meet, each tries to attract the other by pretending to have a yacht and membership in the social set. (The movies themselves, as Fejos well knew, were one of the chief purveyors of such upwardly mobile dreams, and without ever mentioning the medium, he seems to be staking out a subversively progressive, or at least humanistic, position regarding the value of the worker.) At last, the young man confesses, apologetically, “I’m only an ordinary working stiff. And I’m so tired of being alone that I can’t even stand my own company.” Mary, flashing her dimpled smile, says with relief that she’s glad he’s a worker like her: “I bet we’ve both been reading the same serial in the Saturday Evening Post.” But it turns out that that serial is about a guy who ends up a millionaire.
It is only by going to the beach and enjoying the amusements at Coney Island that they are able to shed their social insecurities. Coney Island is the People’s Riviera. There they ride the roller coaster, laugh at themselves in the fun-house mirror, toss balls for a prize, watch her dress get blown up by a wind tunnel, and spin around vertiginously. These scenes are packed with giddy spectacle; Fejos may well have been influenced by the great city sequence in Murnau’s Sunrise (made the year before), but he ramps up the carnivalesque visuals of the images. The density of confetti, streamers, and balloons surrounding our two lovers is really quite mad. When their romance starts to take hold, at nightfall, the director pulls out all the stops, superimposing hand-painted colored lights in the background sky, as though their love were manifesting in an explosion of neon. Fejos, the humanist, seems to be celebrating the innate value and potential of these seemingly plain, ordinary lives with every sort of visual dazzlement.
In fact, for a film that is sometimes spoken of as a forerunner of neorealism, there is considerable stylization employed throughout. We see it from the very beginning, with the art deco, Sheeler-like drawing of skyscrapers behind the title card. Then there are the multiple superimpositions and the aforementioned camera pans between workplaces with the clockface framing. The Coney Island sequences approach surreality as they toggle between subjective shots portraying the lovers alone on a stage set swirling with dry ice and others of crowds rudely jostling them. The two are never able to be free from the mass—and ultimately, they lose each other in this very crowd. A storm arrives, the heavens open up, and the atmospheric camera work goes to town, as each lover plunges around in the soaking rain, looking in vain for the other.
Maxim Gorky, the Russian socialist writer, penned a description of Coney Island pointedly titled “Boredom,” in which he excoriated the amusement park as a cynical way to distract the working classes from their lives of drudgery: “From the very moment of arrival at this city of fire, the eye is blinded. It is assailed by thousands of cold, white sparks, and for a long time can distinguish nothing in the scintillating dust round about . . . The visitor is stunned; his consciousness is withered by the intense gleam . . . A man must make a great effort not to lose himself in the crowd, not to be overwhelmed by his amazement—an amazement in which there is neither transport nor joy.”
Fejos might have agreed in part with Gorky, but his own attitude toward Coney Island is a good deal more lighthearted: his bizarre steeplechase world may be just a diversion, but it does offer pleasure and joy, if two strangers can just stay focused on each other. It also, however, poses the continuous threat of separation by the crowd—and with it, a return to loneliness. In the end, in classic Hollywood fashion, the script pulls happiness out of a hat, when the two bereft souls discover they live next door to each other. But this reconciliation is barely sweet enough to counter the bitter foretaste of romantic loss that preceded it. We can almost see the streamer-filled, panicky search in Lonesome as a precursor to the finale of Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise, when the lovers are separated by a parade of merrymakers and never do manage to reconnect.
Phillip Lopate’s most recent books are Two Marriages (fiction), Notes on Sontag (nonfiction), and At the End of the Day (poems). He directs the MFA Nonfiction Program at Columbia University.