Often considered one of the last great silent films, Pal Fejos’s “Lonesome” came out just as the “talkies” were starting to grab the attention of audiences in a big way. The reason for the enduring popularity of “Lonesome” is that it is a simple tale told beautifully, as we are witness to a day in the life of two characters, one boy and one girl, as they meet for the first time and fall in love.
The film opens with morning scenes of the two characters waking up and readying themselves for work. The two couldn’t be more different as Mary sets her alarm and wakes up with enough time to ready herself for work, methodical in her actions. Jim, on the other hand, barely wakes up in time to get ready at all. He rushes washing, dressing and feeding himself all in an attempt to get to work on time. When the two get to work, it is immediately apparent from the type of work that they each do that they are simple common folk or working class. Jim works in a factory and Mary works as a telephone operator; both honest ways of earning a living. Each of them works hard until the siren signals the end of their working day. Separately they leave their place of employment in the company of their friends, happily chatting and laughing. However as each friend soon leaves one after the other with a loved one in tow, it soon becomes apparent that our main characters are both single and alone. As they both reach their respective homes, you can see and feel just how much the loneliness is affecting them. They both just want to be loved and to love someone else. While in the midst of feeling sorry for himself, an advertising vehicle passes Jim’s apartment reminding him of the fun and games that are scheduled to happen on the beach that day. He decides that this is just what he needs and heads out to have some fun. Soon enough the same vehicle passes by Mary’s place too who is also inspired to make the trip to the beach. Almost immediately after arriving, Jim and Mary meet and their love affair begins as they spend the day together at the beach and at a carnival later that night. There is an obvious attraction between the two and it finally appears that Jim and Mary have found what they have been searching for, but just as our couple is on cloud nine, as happy as can be, fate steps in and the two are separated. With only knowing each other’s first name and little else, is there any chance our couple will reunite or are they destined to have loved and lost?
As I mentioned before, it is the simplicity of the tale that makes “Lonesome” so good, but the energy that is generated by Pal Fejos’s direction also goes along way as well. With the exception of three scenes (which I will talk about later) there is always constant movement, be it either the characters, the camera or the background artists. The opening scenes are just brilliant and so effective in their economy showing us the daily rituals of both our main characters. Although we are witness to only one day in the lives of Jim and Mary, it is safe to assume that each morning would be similar in nature. Mary is meticulous in her planning and would never appear late for anything, while Jim seems to take things as they come; you could say that these two are opposites and as we know, opposites attract.
With the exception of the thrilling and emotionally charged finale, the standout sequence has to be the work montage near the start of the film where we watch Jim and Mary go about their working day. The editing of this scene is superb as images swipe across the screen as we change point of views of each character, creating perfectly the exhausting pace of a working day, and while all of this is going on, a large translucent clock is situated in the centre of the frame indicating how much time has passed (see photo below). Again what is great about this scene is the constant motion as it creates enormous energy and atmosphere to the point that you actually feel exhausted by the time their working day is done.
The energy and exuberance continues as the two meet and have fun on the beach. You can feel the level of excitement between our two characters which is so prevalent when you are getting to know someone and falling in love. However it is during this beach scene that we get our first of three moments that stop the film cold and almost destroy this classic film in the process.
Being made in 1928, “Lonesome” was part of an era that saw a bridge from silent to sound films and as such, films that were shot silent sometimes had small sound or dialogue scenes added to them so the distributors could advertise the film as a “talking picture” which was the latest fad back then. “Lonesome” has three such scenes and they are all terrible. Everything that is great about the film prior is lost in these scenes, particularly the energy that I keep harping on about. The worst example is the beach scene which during the silent scenes has background action constantly in motion. As soon as the dialogue begins, all movement stops from the main actors, the background extras and even the camera itself. As a result these scenes feel so out of place with the rest of the film. The silent scenes have a charm that just does not exist during these dialogue scenes and the actors themselves are not as effective and convincing either. They are awkwardly staged and performed but the worst thing is that the dialogue is so inane that it makes no sense for these scenes to be included in the first place. They add nothing to the film and in fact have the opposite effect entirely. Was this really what audiences were clamoring for in 1928? The strange thing about it all though is that “Lonesome” has the perfect opportunity to use sound (albeit in a different manner) as a key ingredient to the finale is a song our couple danced to earlier in the film, however this opportunity to use sound organically in a silent film is subsequently wasted.
Speaking of the finale, without giving anything away, I must say that it is simply beautiful; beautiful and romantic. What it also reveals is the use of some tricky editing from earlier in the film as we learn that two separate scenes actually occurred concurrently and not separately as we were led to believe. This is not a problem however as this deception makes the finale and its reveal what it is which is incredibly emotional.
Throughout the film Pal Fejos shows that he is an expert in a number of film techniques such as superimpositions, double exposure and dissolves and he isn’t afraid to move the camera which seems to be in constant motion. The whole film is really an extraordinary visual experience with something interesting always happening in frame. He also appears to have a thorough understanding of editing as indicated by the stunning work sequence near the beginning of the film. However what “Lonesome” is probably most remembered for is Fejos’s experiments in colour. While crude by today’s standards, the colour added to certain scenes (like when the couple are alone at the beach at night, or at the amusement park) would’ve been both bold and exciting in its time. I am not just talking about tints, but rather certain objects or moments had individual colour added to them. While not essential, they just add to the visual flourishes that make “Lonesome” so special.
Overall, I found the experience of watching “Lonesome” to be wonderfully emotional and very romantic. The main stars, Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon, are utterly charming in their roles (with the exception of the sound sequences where they look quite uncomfortable, particularly Kent) while portraying a couple’s first night in love. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the last great masterpiece of the silent era, it is still very good and so moving…….if not for those darn sound scenes.