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Release Date(s)1928 (August 28, 2012)
Studio(s)Universal (Criterion - Spine #623)
Lonesome is a part silent, part sound film from 1928. Released by Universal Pictures and directed by Hungarian-turned-American director Paul Fejos, the film was very successful, returning its budget and helping to close out the silent era with another classic film. Mostly unknown to audiences today, the film has now been restored for all to see.
The film is about a lonely young man and a lonely young woman who are both working stiffs in a big city, but have no love in their lives. They meet one night at a 4th of July celebration and instantly fall in love, and we see their plight over the course of the evening. So the story for the film wasn’t the most original, but the approach certainly was. Paul Fejos’ style for the film was to use the camera as much as possible to make an audience feel a certain way, a style which was in the minority at the time. There are so many sequences in Lonesome that are remarkable when you consider the technology of the time. There’s very experimental editing, certain areas of the frame painted with color, optically-printed shots and free-flowing camera movement. All of these things were unheard of for a basic story like this, and were mainly techniques that were used on bigger and more epic motion pictures.
So Lonesome’s greatest strength, almost 100 years later, is its technical achievements. In the early days of special photographic effects, the film is at the top with some of the greats being made at the time. The film also helped bring Universal Pictures into the fold as a major Hollywood player, which is also very important. But the most damning thing about the film today is the fact that, while it was successful, very few prints, either original or for release, have survived. As most people know, most silent films have either been lost or destroyed. Some are found almost every single day in private collections and museums across the globe, but not all. The condition of these prints make or break whether or not they will ever be seen again by the public. In the case of Lonesome, it was held in private collections on 16mm, but very few original prints were available. And it’s a shame that too few of today’s film enthusiasts haven’t seen it. To be honest, I had never even heard of it, but I was immediately intrigued by it when I read about it. Hopefully for someone reading this, it will do the same. Despite its deficiencies, it’s certainly a great film that deserves a wider audience.
The transfer found on this new Criterion Blu-ray was sourced from a French nitrate print of the film, and using 35mm restoration black and white and color duplicate negatives, made it possible to make it available at all. The age and damage to the actual film is both substantial and irreversible and, unfortunately, all of it couldn’t be corrected. Even the English intertitles had to be recreated and much of the film had to be carefully reconstructed, including the three dialogue scenes in the film, but I’ll get into that in minute. You have to go into this new release of Lonesome knowing that you’re not getting the best quality, but it’s the best available at this time. In fact, this may be the most damage-laden film in the Criterion Blu-ray catalogue. That being said, there is still a remarkable picture on display here, which I’m sure is why they chose to release it. Because of it being shot in a couple of different ways with different camera systems, it retains some softness but still a heavy layer of grain. Contrast seems a bit too high, but the overall brightness is ok, and black levels are still very good. Then there’s the damage to the print, which seems to have been cleaned up a little bit, but a lot of it just couldn’t be fully repaired. There are lots of specks, vertical lines and damage caused by mold and chemical staining, the former of which seemed to be eating away at the emulsion of the negative. The last scene of the film carries the most of this kind of damage. Despite these flaws, it’s still a strong image with great clarity, and the damage isn’t so obtrusive that its unwatchable. This print was chosen for a reason, after all.
For the film’s soundtrack, there’s an uncompressed English mono track. Like the video, it shows its age and has apparent damage. There are a couple of drop-outs here and there, especially in the film’s final moments when the final music cue just suddenly cuts out. This is because this is all that survives of the film’s soundtrack. As far the quality goes, it doesn’t have much dynamic range to it, but it was a soundtrack that was well-mixed for its time. Sound effects, while used sparingly, are quite good, and the music is dated but also sounds great. The only thing that really sticks out are the dialogue sequences, which were shot after the film had wrapped. There are three of them in all, and they don’t really serve any purpose in the storytelling other than to have some dialogue as to compete with films that had sound. Universal felt that the film would go over better with it, as did Paul Frejos at the time, but he later regretted it. Critics came down hard on these scenes, as well. While the dialogue is clean, clear and understandable, I too feel it was totally unnecessary and ruined the film’s aesthetic. The lines given to the actors are so awful and inane that it sounds like a slapped-together B movie. Worse yet, the film’s soundtrack basically stops for these scenes. All of the music and most of the sound effects disappear, making these scenes stand out like a sore thumb more than they already do. For me, they ruined the pace of the film and took me out of it to the point where I had difficulty getting back into it. It’s a shame too, because everything around these three scenes is great. I try to look past them like you would a child who’s made a small mistake, and try to keep in mind what the mindset of the studios and the director was at the time, but if Charlie Chaplin’s work proved that silent films could still work in the new era of talkies, so too could’ve Lonesome. Also for these scenes, English subtitles are available.
On the plus side, there’s a terrific set of bonus material to accompany the film. There’s an audio commentary with film historian Richard Koszarski, which is more informative about Fejos than the film itself; two more restored Paul Fejos films: The Last Performance, a 1929 silent film with a new score by composer Donald Sosin and a reconstructed sound version of Broadway, a 1929 musical; Fejos Memorial, a 1963 visual essay with Fejos narrating the story of both his life and his career; an audio excerpt from an interview with cinematographer Hal Mohr about Broadway’s camera crane; and finally, a 32-page booklet with new essays by critic Phillip Lopate and film historian Graham Petrie, and an excerpt from a 1962 interview with Fejos. It may seem brief, but the two restored films and the audio commentary make these extras a superb addition.
Although Lonesome was unsuccessfully remade in 1935 under the title of The Affair of Susan (which is even less-remembered than Lonesome itself), the film seemed to go underground for decades, and the only place you could see the film was if you had a 16mm projector. Thankfully that’s been fixed with Criterion’s release of the film on Blu-ray. It has some problems, but overall, it’s a technical marvel and worthy of your attention.
- Tim Salmons