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Saturday, January 4, 2014

LONESOME (1928)

A little story nicely fills a big production in this late silent from Paul Fejos, his one Hollywood success. Strongly influenced by the second act of Murnau’s SUNRISE/’27, it alters the dynamic by having as its young lovers two lonely strangers who find each other amidst the impersonal bustle of a big city. (In the Murnau, it’s a troubled married couple.) Meeting at Coney Island after a half-day’s work on a Saturday -- HE’s a factory drudge; SHE’s a telephone operator -- they connect on the beach and hit the amusement park together until nightfall only to lose each other in the crowd without having even exchanged names before a twist romantic coda reunites them. The film is at its best in its early reels, charting their separate morning routines as they rise, shine, breakfast & head off to work. Here, Fejos brings a Euro/art-film sensibility to the screen with a dazzling array of optical tricks, camera placement & quick editing, showing their lives as part of a big impersonal mechanized ballet. The visual sophistication is remarkable simply as conception, but where did the technical chops to pull it off come from? Lenser Gilbert Warrenton was fresh off a couple of superbly imagined Paul Leni pics, but the combination of in-camera ‘wipe’ effects & dissolves, along with optical printer superimpositions remain something to wonder at. Even the three short Talkie scenes, tacked on after the main filming, are unusual in their naturalism. How Fejos brought this off, and why he then floundered so quickly, is something of a mystery. But how lucky to have the film in such good shape, thanks to a solitary nitrate print preserved at the Cinematheque Fran├žaise.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note that the BOY (Glenn Tryon) is stropping a safety razor during his morning ablutions, too strapped to buy a fresh pack of Gillette replacement blades. Nice touch.

DOUBLE-BILL: Also from 1928, and with many similar elements, King Vidor’s THE CROWD and Buster Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN. Two more great (indeed, greater) pics. Must have been something in the air; perhaps the specter of the end of silent moviemaking?

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