This is the most unexpected and delightful video release of the year. The Criterion Collection has rescued a lovely, generally unknown gem from the oblivion of archival and festival showings. Lonesome, which was made on location in New York City (and on the Universal lot) in 1928, is the simple story of a couple of working-class young people who find each other at Coney Island, fall in love over an afternoon and evening, and then lose each other in the great mass of New Yorkers at play. Until . . .
It’s an incredibly fluid film: the camera is constantly (but not distractingly) moving, tracking the lives of these two as they go about their day. We meet them before they meet each other; we know that they will meet each other (why else would the camera be following them so closely), but director Paul Fejos’ storytelling is so sophisticated that we are apt to miss a rather obvious point about Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon) that is right in front of us—and them. And the fact that Mary and Jim and the audience miss this point binds viewers even closer to the story.
It’s also unabashedly romantic, with lush color and visual effects that lend a fairy tale quality to what is a typical Hollywood romance. Typical, that is, except in the dreamy, almost delirious highs and despairing emotional lows that the characters experience.
Lonesome is a silent film with three talking sequences added after completion. Fejos stages each awkward transition from visual poetry to fixed-camera dialogue scenes in such a way as to emphasize the strangeness. They’re jarring—how could they not be?—but in a way that doesn’t detract from the arc of the lovers’ story.
This attractive package also includes Fejos’ two other Universal films: The Last Performance (1929) is a theatrical melodrama starring Conrad Veidt, and Broadway (also 1929) is a gangster melodrama with music, carefully reconstructed from various sources. But Lonesome by itself is enough reason to buy this Blu-ray.