Paul Fejos’ Lonesome is both one of the great films of the late silent movie era and one of the oddities of the transition to the talkies. It was released as a hybrid silent film that (like The Jazz Singer) features a few sound sequences with synchronized dialogue scattered through the film. While they stick out as static and somewhat awkward diversion, they are also a unique gimmick of a turbulent era and a contrast to the graceful filmmaking of the silent era surrounding them.
“In the whirlpool of modern life, the most difficult thing is to live alone,” states the intertitles, as we ride a train into the empty dawn of New York City (an introduction right out of Berlin: Symphony of a City and Man With a Movie Camera) and watch it wake up for the day. In one sparse but pleasantly personalized rented room is Mary (Barbara Kent), a young switchboard operator whose leisurely morning routine stands in sharp contrast to Jim (Glenn Tryon), a witty young man who oversleeps and races through dressing, breakfast, and the subway station to get to work (he stamps out razor blades on an assembly line) on time. Both of them are driven by the punchclock of the workplace (Fejos even frames shots of their workaday monotony through the face of a clock) until the workday ends and the promise of a holiday weekend sends their friends off in pairs. It only reminds them that they have no one. Setting out singly for a day at the beach, they cross paths, he preens self-consciously (there’s something of the joker in him as he poses as a swell), she smiles and flirts coquettishly and runs off like a child tagging a new playmate. A lovely little romance blooms amidst the ever-present crowds.
Lonesome is right out of the late-silent film culture that gave us Sunrise, The Crowd, People on Sunday, and other films of youth and romance in the modern (circa late 1920s) urban world. Fejos’ gentle affection and empathy for these lonely kids, and his inventive direction, lift the film from an overwhelming, potentially smothering society of the modern metropolis. The urban bustle of the city and the crowded, equally bustling vacation playground of the Coney Island getaway are as much characters in their own right as Jim and Mary. Fejos brings that world to life with an affection for that big city ambience even as it picks out our heroes from the crowd, never losing them in the human sea.