MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Lonesome, The Last Performance, Broadway



LONESOME (Four Stars)

U.S.: Paul Fejos, 1928 (Criterion Collection)

I. Lonely in a Crowd

This little essay is about Paul Fejos’ Lonesome, a beautiful but long-forgotten film made at Universal Studio in the 1920s, a movie that you’ve probably never heard of, or watched, unless you’re a true movie buff and movie lover, and know lots of film history. It’s a love story with the kind of plot most of you (even the non-buffs) have seen before, but not quite like this — not with this poetry, not with this charm, not with this emotion.

It’s about love and loneliness and life in the big city. Here it is…

Mary and Jim are a young woman and a young man who live, unattached and by themselves, in New York City in 1928, both lonely in a crowd. (And how can you be lonelier than to be all by yourself, in America’s most populous city, with its magical bridges and huge central park and skyscrapers dwarfing the throngs on the streets below — a towering forest of concrete, an island encompassing many worlds and many peoples, where from one morning to another, and from one midnight to another, you’re surrounded by the millions of the city, asleep or on the streets, from Manhattan to Coney Island and back again.

The boy and girl, Jim and Mary, wake up in the morning, as they do every morning, to wash, dress and go out into the bustling New York streets — on the sidewalks, the busses, with hundreds, thousands of others. She is a switchboard operator and he runs a punch press. Their jobs are mechanical, repetitive and they do them with almost thoughtless, automatic expertise —  like hundreds of other young workers in New York. In, out. Up, down. The phones ring, the machines whirr. The clocks tick, their  hands revolve. The young couple work , together but separate, unknowing. surrounded by noise and by other people. But…lonesome.

At one o’clock,  the workday ends, a half-day holiday starts, and Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon) are on their way off to Coney Island, part of a huge mass, heading, in the bright hot sunlight, to the place where revelers laugh and scream and the Ferris wheel turns and tinny music plays and the sideshow beckons (Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!) and the waves slap the beach, over and over.

They meet. He pretends to be a rich man with a yacht; she pretends to believe him. She suggests they must read the same Saturday Evening Post stories. They probably do. So probably did the writer of Lonesome’s original story.

Mary and Jim strike a spark. But they’re separated by happenstance on a roller coaster and parted by a thunderstorm. Rain pours down. The city darkens. And though they may have each other’s hearts, they don’t have each other’s names. Such a simple little thing to forget.

What happens next….

Ah wait, you say. You’ve seen and heard it, or something like it, before. Indeed. Your grandparents probably  saw and heard it before, and maybe theirs as well. In fact, as in countless other Hollywood movies, this is a classic example of the famous movie romance formula “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy…..”

Stop. You know the rest. Or do you?

II. Silence and Talkies

Lonesome, this wonderful little film, was released by Universal in 1928, at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties, and near the end of the silent film era. Because of its time, the movie contains a few, awkward, somewhat stiff talking dialogue scenes between Jim and Mary — scenes that were inserted, with nearly empty backgrounds, to put the film right smack in the new talkie age launched by Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. Lonesome is a hybrid,  and a consciously wrought art movie and it was made because the young Carl Laemmle, Jr. fell in love with another picture by Fejos: a low-budget independently produced little art film made for $5,000 (or peanuts).

Fejos himself was  a Hungarian immigrant (his real name was Pal Fejos) who’d studied medicine and gone into the theatre and films instead, and who had shot several films in Hungary in the early 20s, before emigrating to America, and living, like Jim and Mary, without much cash in New York. The film that caught Carl, Jr.‘s eye was called The Last Moment (now lost), and it told the story, something like “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” of a man in the last few seconds of his life  as he drowns and dies. It impressed nearly everybody who saw it, including one major critic who wrote that Fejos was “a  genius.” So Carl Laemmle Sr., on the advice of his son, saw the film and offered Fejos the chance to make another film at Universal, an “aviation melodrama.“ Fejos, stubborn, demanded total control and his own choice of subject, and Carl, Jr. got it for him. That was the film that would become Lonesome.

The result is similar in mood and effect and quality to two movies that later competed with each other for the “Best Artistic Production” Oscar in 1927-8: King Vidor‘s stunning, moving tale of a “failure” and his family, The Crowd, and F. W.  Murnau’s sublime picture of a country couple in the city, Sunrise (which won). Like Murnau and Vidor, Fejos was a cinematic poet, a humanist and a romantic. Unlike either of them, and unlike their great silent movie classics, Fejos and his beautiful little film were largely forgotten for decades, until a print of it was sent to America by Henri Langlois of the French Cinematheque, and it was restored by the Gorge Eastman House in black-and white, and then restored again, to the original tinting, in the ’90s. Criterion’s is the tinted version, and it probably looks as gorgeous now as it might have back in 1928.

Why is Lonesome so special? Because Fejos not only loved his characters, Jim and Mary (and understood them as well), but also loved and understood the third, great character and presence of his movie, New York City. And Fejos was also a superb technician who kept on top of everything. The exterior and crowd location scenes of Lonesome , bursting with life and light, remind you of the street scenes in the classic 20’s “city” documentaries The Man with a Movie Camera (Moscow) and Berlin: Symphony of  a Great City (Berlin) — and they point ahead to neo-realism. Like Scorsese, like Lumet and like Spike Lee, Fejos takes us there, to New York — but without speech, without slang, in black and white, silent, but so full of life and vibrant energy, you can practically hear and feel the people and places. The cinematography, by Gilbert Warrenton, is as pungent and lyrical as Boris Kaufman’s for Kazan and Lumet, or as Ernest Dickerson’s for Lee.

The two main actors, Barbara Kent (sweet and warm), and Glenn Tryon (a tough vaudevillian) did not become famous, but they’re perfectly matched for their roles and for each other. Fejos was a master at visuals, and at foreground and background movement, and the crowds behind Jim and Mary are like a scintillating, constantly active, constantly moving wave. Hundreds of people, almost all in motion, form the film’s human backdrop, and they make it come constantly alive. It’s a simple story, but many stories are simple. Not many of them live and breathe like Lonesome.

III. The Anthropologist

So Lonesome came out in 1928, mostly the way Fejos wanted it to, except for those talking scenes, which now seem charmingly antique. Fejos got other assignments, and two of the American feature films Fejos made later are in the new Criterion package, along with fine essays by Philip Lopate and Graham Petrie (which supplied a lot of the information here). Also: an interview with Fejos, conducted in 1962, the year before he died. And The Last Performance (1929), a horrific romance with Conrad Veidt as a madly jealous stage hypnotist-magician, and Broadway (1929) an early gangster musical with salty show biz and crime characters (one, an ambitious singer-hoofer, played by Tryon), an amazing night club set and spectacular crane shots. Both have their moments, but neither is as special as Lonesome.

There were fights on some of these later movies. So Fejos left Hollywood, calling it “phony.” He directed more films in France, in Hungary, in Austria, and in Denmark, where he finished his film career, making ethnographic documentaries in Madagascar and other primitive areas, some for the Swedish Film Institute. Then he switched careers and became an anthropologist. He moved back to New York and was ultimately better known and more revered in anthropology than he had been as a filmmaker.

I first heard about Lonesome back in 1967, when I read Andrew Sarris’ praise of the picture  and of Fejos in his essential guidebook “The American Cinema.” I’ve been trying to see it ever since, for a lifetime, and I finally caught up with it in Hollywood, the place Fejos had left and blasted as “phony.“ There, it was shown in a beautiful tinted print, with restored image and sound, at the upstairs multiplex at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, as part of that wonderful event, the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival.

The theater was packed. The projection was perfect. The little film by the stubborn Hungarian-American director whom Junior had championed, looked radiant, beautiful — like a long-lost Cinderella finally on stage for her brief, long-delayed night at the ball. We watched it, enraptured, transported. In that crowd, no one was lonely.


The Extras (an excellent group) include: The complete feature The Last Performance (U.S.: Paul Fejos, 1929) Two and a Half Stars. With Conrad Veidt. And with a new score by Donald Sosin. See above.

And Broadway (U.S.: Fejos, 1929) Two and a Half Stars. The talkie version, with a reconstructed last reel. With Glenn Tryon. See above.

Also: Commentary by film historian Richard Koszarski; Visual essay Fejos Memorial (Paul Falkenberg, 1963)  Tribute film, made with Fejos’ wife Lita Binns Fejos, and with Paul Fejos narrating his life story; Talk with Broadway cinematographer Hal Mohr; Comments on the film’s restoration by Dan Wagner; Booklet with essays by Lopate and Petrie, and an interview with Fejos by John T. Mason, Jr.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon