Paul Fejos’s 1928 film Lonesome is now rightly regarded as one of the peaks of American, and indeed international, late silent cinema, comparable to such masterpieces as F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), yet it is only relatively recently that it has come to acquire similar status to those films. Fejos himself, despite being heralded by the magazine Close-Up in 1928 as a newcomer on par with the established Ernst Lubitsch, Murnau, Paul Leni, and Henry King, was virtually forgotten after he left America in 1931, having survived barely three years there as a director. Lonesome initially received favorable reviews but got caught up in the chaotic switchover from silent to sound films in the closing years of the 1920s and was little seen or mentioned for almost the next half century, until rediscovery and restorations, beginning in the 1980s, returned it to its original splendors for audiences to marvel at anew.
Lonesome was the Hungarian-born Fejos’s second American feature, following the independently produced The Last Moment (1927)—now, unfortunately, a “lost” film—and it is generally regarded as his finest achievement (though rediscovery of the earlier film would certainly be a major contribution to film history), a technical and imaginative wonder displaying innovative and virtuosic camera work and revealing an unusual sympathy for, and understanding of, the ordinary working-class characters at its center: two city dwellers (played by Glenn Tryon and Barbara Kent) who meet, begin to fall in love, and are then separated by the crowds that swarm throughout the film. It launched Fejos’s short stint at Universal, which resulted in two further films of considerable interest and technical innovation and experimentation, The Last Performance and Broadway (both 1929). But subsequent projects led to disappointment and disillusionment with the system, and his Hollywood years soon came to an end.
His American films, however, are only part of an astonishingly varied career that also included features in his native Hungary, as well as Austria, France, and Denmark, and anthropological documentaries in Thailand, Madagascar, South America, and on various South Pacific islands. The standard biography to date, by his friend John W. Dodds, rightly credits him with “several lives,” all of them important and highly successful, and all marked by deeply humanitarian instincts. He is known to have retained a fierce independence throughout his many pursuits, an attitude that often brought him into conflict with producers and resulted in battles that he sometimes won and, particularly in Hollywood, sometimes lost. Certain aspects of his life remain a mystery, though, and the French critic Philippe Haudiquet has referred to him as a charming “mythomane” who told different versions of his biography to different people at different times—perhaps for his own and their amusement rather than in any deliberate attempt to deceive. But enough is known about this remarkable and multitalented man to follow the various paths of his life with some accuracy.
Born Fejös Pál (in Hungarian order of surname first) in Budapest in 1897, to parents who were members of the Austro-Hungarian landed gentry, he developed an early interest in medicine and obtained a medical degree, either in Hungary or later in the United States (sources vary on this). But he was also fascinated by theater and cinema, and directed six or seven films between 1920 and 1923 (all now considered lost), as well as plays and operas. He had always been fascinated by America too, however, and left for the United States in 1923, arriving in October. With no real contacts and only a minimal knowledge of English, he lived in New York in acute poverty for some time, until his medical background brought him work at the Rockefeller Institute (reviewers of his American films often referred to him as Dr. Fejos). But he was determined to break into film, and so set off for Los Angeles in 1926. There, after obtaining sporadic work as a scriptwriter and theater producer, he somehow met up with a wealthy young man named Edward M. Spitz, who had five thousand dollars that he desperately wanted to invest in a film and was looking for a script and director. (Unlikely as this story sounds, it does seem to be accurate and was fully accepted by initial reviewers of the film.)
Exercising his considerable charm, Fejos managed to persuade Georgia Hale, fresh from her standout performance in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, to work for him for nothing, and then rented studio space on an hourly basis, undertaking to use whatever sets happened to be prepared for other films being shot; obtained raw film stock on credit; and hired a young cameraman, Leon Shamroy (who would go on to win four Oscars for his cinematography in later years). He wrote a script that allowed him to juggle these various ingredients successfully and made The Last Moment (1927), after which he invited two prominent reviewers, Welford Beaton of the Film Spectator and Tamar Lane of the Film Mercury, to a private preview. Both of them immediately went out and wrote glowing reviews, Beaton headlining his “Introducing to You Mr. Paul Fejos, Genius.” Beaton then arranged for Chaplin to have a private viewing of the film, and Fejos, unable, by his own account, to afford a taxi, ended up lugging six heavy cans of 35 mm film on foot to Chaplin’s home in Beverly Hills, leaving them in the care of a bewildered butler. Once he had seen the film, Chaplin agreed with Beaton, and United Artists decided to release it.
Judging from the descriptions of the film that survive, it was many years in advance of its time and close structurally to Alain Resnais’ 1968 Je t’aime, je t’aime, projecting the last few seconds of a drowning man’s life, as fragmentary scenes from his past flash before him in nonchronological order. It was favorably reviewed by the New York Times and others (Variety called it an “interesting, freaky, and slightly morbid arty picture,” but with commercial possibilities), and appeared on many critics’ list of the ten best films of the year. The glowing notices brought Fejos offers from most of the major studios, but they were subsequently deterred by his insistence on retaining full artistic control. Carl Laemmle Jr., however, son of the head of Universal Studios, who had been bowled over by the film, persuaded his father to let Fejos make a picture on his own terms. Rejecting all the scripts offered to him, Fejos chose instead a three-page outline that the studio had bought for twenty-five dollars and announced that he wanted to film that. The result was Lonesome, originally fully silent but shortly afterward released as a part-talkie, as also happened with several other films of this transitional period.
Though Fejos remained technically innovative and imaginative in the films that followed, Lonesome marked the high point of his creative freedom in Hollywood. It was followed by the silent The Last Performance (a.k.a. Erik the Great), an assignment that he later said he accepted only because it gave him the opportunity to work with actor Conrad Veidt, as a magician and hypnotist who employs his skills in an attempt to win the affections of his young assistant. Lighting, shadows, close-ups, superimpositions, flashbacks, elaborate camera movements, and minimal titles are used to guide the viewer through an intricate narrative, though the film is perhaps more interesting as an example of how efficiently silent film techniques could be employed to depict complex emotions and relationships than for its somewhat melodramatic plot. Still under the patronage of his friend Laemmle Jr., he was next assigned to the hugely expensive superproduction of the musical Broadway, which was shot both as a silent and a full sound film. Much of the budget for this went to the construction of a spectacularly elaborate nightclub set and, with the full collaboration of his cameraman, Hal Mohr, the invention and equally spectacular use of a huge camera crane that prowled through and swooped over the set to astonishing creative effect. At a time when nascent sound-recording technology was inhibiting the expansive camera movement that had marked the finest late silent movies, Fejos deserves as much credit as Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian for helping to set the camera free.
The film was a commercial and critical success, but Fejos was unhappy with the restrictions imposed on him for such a large-scale production and found the premise, about a supposedly small-time hoofer (Glenn Tryon) who dreams of making it to the big time (but is already working in this huge nightclub), absurd. His dissatisfaction carried over to his next assignment, a historical drama, Captain of the Guard (1930), on which he injured himself (possibly deliberately) at an early stage of shooting and had to be replaced. He had great hopes of being allowed to direct All Quiet on the Western Front, but this was assigned to Lewis Milestone, and Fejos was given King of Jazz (1930), a tribute to Paul Whiteman, instead. Though he appears to have worked on the film, it is officially credited to John Murray Anderson. Finally, he broke his contract with Universal and was blacklisted for a time. He was then hired by MGM to direct one of the short-lived attempts to produce “international” prints of sound films by making French, German, and other versions, using the same sets, camera movements, and action for each and simply replacing the American actors with others of the appropriate nationality. Fejos directed the French and German versions of The Big House, with some critics preferring those to the American original, directed by George Hill.
But Fejos had had enough of Hollywood and abruptly decided to return to Europe in 1931. “I found Hollywood phony,” he told John W. Dodds later. “I found everything artificial. I found the people impossible . . . writers—so-called writers—utterly unintelligent, utterly uneducated, stupid hacks.” He went first to France, where he directed a feature-length version of the silent serial Fantômas in 1932, and then back to Hungary, taking with him the beautiful and highly popular French star Annabella. There, with recovered artistic freedom, he made two impressive films: Marie, a Hungarian Legend (a.k.a. Spring Shower, 1932), with Annabella as a naïve village girl who is seduced and abandoned by the son of her employer and then, pregnant, cast out by her self-righteous fellow villagers; and the recently rediscovered Sentence of the Lake (1933), centering on lovers separated by the woman’s forced marriage, imposed on her by her rich father. Both films’ sympathetic, humane, and nonjudgmental treatment of “immoral” behavior, and their attack on small-minded and reactionary village life and values, aroused great indignation in Hungary, and Fejos set off on his travels again, this time to Austria, where he made two films, one of which, Sonnenstrahl (a.k.a. Ray of Sunshine, 1933), again starring Annabella, has strong affinities with Lonesome in its depiction of a young couple struggling to survive in a Vienna rife with unemployment and exploitation.
Fejos was then approached by Nordisk Film in Denmark, which was eager to raise the prestige of Danish films abroad and thought that a director with Hollywood experience might help. He moved to Denmark in 1934 and made three films for the company, the best of them, and his favorite, being The Golden Smile (1935), in which a great actress discovers that she has carried her acting so fully into her life that she is no longer capable of being sincere. None of them were great critical or popular successes, however, and by now Fejos was beginning to tire of trying to please producers who rarely understood or accepted his vision. But Nordisk refused to release him from his contract. So, in what set off yet another abrupt change of career, he announced that he would make another film for them only if he could shoot it in Madagascar (which he had apparently selected at random on a wall map and thought might be interesting to visit). To his amazement, the studio agreed, and he produced there the first of several ethnographic studies that occupied him exclusively until 1941 and were eventually financed by the Swedish Film Institute. They were shot variously in Asia, Africa, and South America, and in them he shows the greatest respect and sympathy for the native peoples he is photographing and their ways of life, refusing to exploit or manipulate them in any way. The sole exception to his process of simply recording aspects of their daily life, ceremonies, and rituals was A Handful of Rice (1940), filmed in Thailand, which combined documentary and narrative elements, following a young couple through their first year of marriage and the difficulties, and even disasters, they encounter in trying to make a living, surviving through a precarious mixture of luck and often thankless endeavor (a theme familiar from Lonesome and Sonnenstrahl). The film was later released by RKO, under the title The Jungle of Chang, but, significantly, minus the prologue that shows a well-off couple in Sweden throwing away as waste the “handful of rice” that represents the hard year’s struggle of the couple to raise their crop—and, by omitting this, ignoring the central theme of Fejos’s best work: that everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed in life and be happy, and that it is an offense against human dignity to deny or thwart this.
In 1941, Fejos’s anthropological work earned him an invitation to become director of research at the newly created Viking Fund in New York—later called the Wenner-Gren Foundation—where he eventually became president and is credited with having a huge influence on the development and direction of anthropological research in America and elsewhere. He died in 1963, bringing to an end the last of his several lives—all marked by greatness and compassion, including a small but rich legacy of important films that are at last winning the recognition they deserve.