How was your weekend? I spent most of it in a flurry of activity (guests over to the house on Thursday and Saturday nights! Flea market Saturday morning! Deep-cleanse of the green room's free-floating detritus on Sunday!), but that doesn't mean I didn't take any time to stop and smell the roses. In my case, that flora took the form of a stack of movies from the library on Friday afternoon and evening, which, as you can imagine, I was excited about getting a chance to seriously watch on my days off. I dug into my own little couch-based trench and started watching movies I'd checked out on my card the week before. I got through Before Midnight, The Gorgeous Hussy, and a two dvd set called Lonesome that I'd requested the library buy in 2012, but had yet to watch. Guys, I was only cheating myself. What a wham-bang of a motion picture experience in the latter case! I'll tell you about the rest of the weekend and the other two movies later; right now, fasten your 1920's straw boaters and cloches tight to your heads and let's talk turkey about year of our Lord 1928 experimental film making. Viva Lonesome!
Lonesome is an eccentric little movie gem from a transitional period in film, unlike anything else you'll see from 1920's Hollywood. Incorporating hand-tinted color scenes of the Coney Island boardwalk and startling "talkie" sequences in a predominantly black and white, silent film, director Paul Fejos seemingly wastes not one precious moment of downtime with a camera as peripatetic as its narrative. The movie was sixty-nine minutes of pure cinematic dynamite. Left slack-jawed at some of the set-ups, I watched as the camera went whirling around, unmoored from its stationery trappings into pans and zooms that no-o-o-obody else in the studio system was a) attempting or at least b) given enough leeway to attempt. The thing I like the least about Fejos is that he only made four narrative movies in Hollywood in the late twenties' before making some films in Europe and eventually becoming a world known anthropologist-- why did you leave us, Fejos! Everything else about his filmmaking technique is jake with me, I just wish there was more of it to see!
The plot of Lonesome concerns two working stiffs, Mary and Jim, who wake up in New York City on July 3rd, 1928 the same way they went to sleep-- alone. The narrative follows their parallel paths as they dress, breakfast, ride a trolley into the commercial district, and report to humdrum positions in the entry-level work force, all the while riding on the crest of the hundreds of people doing the same. Mary is a telephone operator, and as she settles into her place in front of the circuit board and plugs in her headset, visions of her short-tempered telephone clients dance across the screen in various states of agitation. Jim works at a machine press, punching holes in little bits of metal, the repetitive nature of the task emphasized by a meter ticking off the number of pieces he's finished. Each sighs a heavy sigh as their coworkers pair off with girlfriends and boyfriends for the holiday, but eventually make the decision to brave the Coney Island carnival on their own-- heck, it beats sitting around their rooms reading Saturday Evening Post! Their paths converge on the beach, they exchange pleasantries and eventually vows of fidelity, but an accident on one of the attractions separates them among the thronging holiday masses with only a photo-booth button to identify each other by. Will their "lonesome" condition be cured by this magic night on the boardwalk, or will they go on along their solitary paths, never to meet again? Watch and see, kids! Watch and see.
Universal Studios, under the general supervision of Carl Laemmle, was a second tier film production studio, outside the bounds of the "big five" (which ranked in the late twenties as follows: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and RKO; in that order). Maybe this explains the latitude Fejos was afforded in terms of special effects and inventive camerawork. The lens peers down at peoples' heads, follows Jim as he does a handstand, takes a turn on the tiltawhirl alongside our protagonists, and fades in and out of a double exposure in a kaleidoscopic overlay sequence in the dance hall that made my little heart sing. "Novelty" is definitely the keyword to describe a lot of these sleights o' camera, but they WORK. I almost jumped out of my chair when, thirty minutes into the movie, a medium closeup of Mary and Jim on the beach turned crystal clear (shot on different film in a studio rather than on location) and offered their speaking voices! While the dialogue is mannered and stilted á la twenties' vaudeville (come on, this is the BIRTH of sound pictures, you'll have to cut them a break), it is SO UNUSUAL to hear silent actors' speaking voices in an otherwise silent movie...many transitional films like this didn't survive into the latter half of the century (and/or were so bad people would like to forget about them), so it was a real (SURreal) treat to compare the patter of voices you'd heard in your imagination as Mary and Jim's to the actor's honest-to-goodness speaking voices. The whole movie reminded me of some of Kenneth Anger's short films in terms of the lush, unexpected, strange and beautiful tempo of the picture.
Not to mention, rubber-faced Glenn Tyron and beautiful Barbara Kent were being rooted for by me in a big way for the whole of the story. Two people looking for love! The loneliness of the crowd! Feeling disenfranchised from the masses! Sign me up, these are the kinds of things I like to see movies about. Tyron is featured again on the second disc of the Lonesome release as one of the stars of Fejos's Broadway, a talkie from 1929 with an unbearably slow pace but interestingly "documentarian" style musical numbers, but I haven't seen him in anything else to speak of (the internet says he's been in some Laurel and Hardy movies). On the other hand, Barbara Kent was a former beauty pageant winner who clocked screen time two years before Lonesome with John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (I can't remember anybody but Gilbert and Garbo in that movie; can you blame me?), and has one of the winningest little smiles of twenties' film actresses. She retired from movies in the early forties'. (PS: I almost forgot to mention The Last Performance, also on the second disc, with Conraid Veidt and Mary Philbin, altogether-- it's FANTASTIC. Will have to tell you about it another time. -L)
I tried to find more information on the movie in Photoplay, but all I trawled up was this little blurb among the "Brief Reviews of Current Pictures" column (right click and open in a new window to supersize, see the clipping underneath):
"Lots of trick camera work" is putting it mildly, don't you think! Barbara Kent also appeared in this 1928 article about actresses and their odd-ball cars-- hers includes a compact in the steering wheel! Or so they say. Also, note how adorable Norma Shearer looks in her roadster, curling her hair with an in-car curling iron (sounds so, so dangerous; appeals so, so much):
If you're looking for an off-the-beaten path film selection from the twenties', you really couldn't do any better than Lonesome. Go check it out; like I said, we have it in Nashville at the library! A feel good (and feel strange, and feel happy, and then feel worried about them but it's probably ok) seventy minutes if ever there was one.
How about you? What did you do with your weekend? See any good old movies lately? What's the last time something historical knocked YOUR socks off? Let's talk!
That's all for today, but I'll see you back here tomorrow with (hopefully!) some flea market finds! Talk then. Take care!