Wow is this film ever cute. I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s unabashedly sentimental and romantic, yet the earnestness of the filmmaking propels it onward and upward. It’s also one of cinema’s great romance films, a genre that appeals to me and one I’ve written about on several occasions thus far. Romance films can be accused of being too manipulative, sentimental, and slight. True they can be. However when done right, there is usually an intelligence and a keen perception of our humanity on display. I think of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, or even Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The two stars of Lonesome, Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon, don’t have nearly the same cachet as other classic on-screen pairings, but they sure give it the old college try in this lively and charming, late silent film masterpiece.
Paul Fejos is a largely forgotten director that got his start in the silent era. Although he was largely known as a director of documentaries and ethnographies, his work in Lonesome is fantastic in every way. Made in the same year as The Man With a Movie Camera (1928), the beginning of Lonesome parallels the great Vertov work, using a montage sequence of the city awakening at dawn. Fejos, as noted in an essay in the liner notes for the new Criterion DVD, has clear influences from the Russian montage and German expressionist movement. Being Hungarian born, Fejos brings a European cinematic flair to this Hollywood film, breathing tons of life into what is largely an oft-told tale. He uses tracking shots and roving camera work, superimposed images, sequences of color and even a few talking scenes within this largely silent film. There's even a great soundtrack incorporating lots of crowd noise and sound effects which blends nicely. This is a "kitchen-sink" kind of approach, but the film never devolves into distraction or abstract grandiosity. It remains grounded by its focus on the human element, always maintaining its sincerity.
What struck me about the few talking scenes that occur between Mary and Jim (which were added to take advantage of the new found appeal of sound) is something that I had never thought of before: the delineation between silent and sound cinema. When watching silent cinema, it’s very easy to allow oneself to view the proceedings and actors with a sort of distance. Because we can’t hear them speak, they somehow seem less real; they seem otherworldly and to sometimes appear to reach a sort of inhuman perfection. As an example, don't we approach the silent films of Garbo, Brooks, and Gish with a reverence? Can those actresses do any wrong in the silent medium? When I saw the first sequence in Lonesome where Mary and Jim talk with each other on the beach (with sound), they suddenly seemed very childlike and embarrassing compared to their "silent selves", perhaps even silly and sappy. They seemed flawed and human once I heard their voices. It was an interesting way for me to think about silence versus sound in cinema, as this film allows one to essentially see both types in the same film. All of this is superfluous though to how wonderful this film is. There is boundless charm and energy here. It is funny and romantic. It is sincerely acted by the two leads and directed by Fejos with great bravado. What a lovely discovery is Lonesome.