Two in a Million

The city romance of Paul Fejos's Lonesome
by Aaron Cutler  posted September 13, 2012
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It would be a good thing if some educationist or sociologist would turn his attention to making films that deal with problems of modern life. The cinema is a more or less modern thing, and it ought to be used, now and again, as a means of getting something clear about the life that takes hold of us, and our attempts to pretend that the hold is a handshake.
—Robert Herring, in a Manchester Guardian review of the film Lonesome

There is a tradition of films about the balance between love and lonesomeness in modern cities. One can call them city romances. Their stories are shared between two people. They can be strangers getting to know each other, as in In the Mood for Love, or an embattled couple rediscovering passion, as in Voyage to Italy. They can both be from the city (The Lonely Guy), both be foreign to it (Before Sunrise), or one of each (Minnie and Moskowitz), marginal to it (City Lights) or with established homes and jobs within it (The Shop Around the Corner), but they must both, in some way, be lost in it. This lostness, which over time becomes loneliness, then lonesomeness, comes from feeling like you don't know anybody, and have no one to talk to; over time, you go from simply being alone to believing you deserve to be, and fearing that you'll never be anything else. You're a stranger in town and completely unmoored, or so buried in work that you don't have time for a social life, even if you want one. Either way, you feel isolated from being swallowed up in the crowd.

That is, until you find someone. You don't know who it is at first, except that he or she seems to be as unattached as you are. This is what initially draws you together, and then keeps you together over the course of the closed, precious span of time you'll have—maybe a day, maybe less. You fight the alienation of modern urban life by discovering yourselves in each other. Your lonesomeness, and your need to get rid of it, are what the two of you have in common.

The lovers of current city romances are often upper middle-class, if not rich, yet in the genre's early successes they emerged from the working masses. The years 1927 to 1928 saw the release of four great city romances, all of them about poor or working-class people in a real or mythical New York. F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, a Song of Two Humans, Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York, and King Vidor's The Crowd were all major Hollywood productions by prominent filmmakers. Paul Fejos's Lonesome wasn't. The film, newly issued (along with two additional Fejos films) on a beautifully restored Criterion home video release, was shot on a low budget with little-known leads, surrounded by innumerable other anonymous faces; its director, far from an established Expressionist master, was a Hungarian former medical student and World War I veteran building his second feature. He had made his first film, The Last Moment, a wordless envisioning of a suicide's interior life (considered the first American avant-garde feature, and also unfortunately now considered lost), on Universal Pictures sets at night with an essentially volunteer cast and crew. He then screened it for several critics and film industry members, including Charles Chaplin, who helped guarantee it a commercial release. Universal told Fejos that he could have his pick of available stories for his second film, and granted his demands for unconditional control. The filmmaker, who would years later say that he found Hollywood "phony" and become a full-time anthropologist after his fiction filmmaking career ended, chose to flesh out a three-page suggestion for a short documentary about city life.

Even though it was shot in a studio (as film historian Richard Koszarski's excellent audio commentary is quick to note), Lonesome feels like a documentary record of how workers arrive at and leave urban factories. Its leads (played by Barbara Kent, who died last year, and Glenn Tryon) first appear when they are jolted awake in separate cheap hotel rooms by their ringing alarm clocks. The particulars of her graceful, gentle glide around her small space, ending with a run out the door, and his harried rush to throw on his tie both give way to a massive, mutual anonymity. They don't see each other at the bustling diner where they both line up for breakfast, nor on the subway, where one desperately attempts to burst through the briefly opened door. At work he raises factory levers in a line, and she sits in a long row of telephone operators connecting people across great distances; a gigantic timepiece appears superimposed over them to count the seconds. They and their fellow workers live by the clock.

The mood of a parallel genre developing alongside the city romance, the city symphony, was often celebratory, even exultant. Films like Berlin, Symphony of a Great City and Man with a Movie Camera delight in technology driving the unprecedentedly fast movement of city life with the incredible energy and innovation of their own film techniques. In watching these propaganda films, a viewer might thrill over how well people are coming to use machines in their lives. What can get lost in this excitement, though, and what shots of Lonesome's two heroes glimpsed among the working stiffs find, is the thought that people are not only using machines, but also coming to live like them.

The need for companionship here arises from a new form of alienation particular to the growing industrial working class. The film offers no suggestion of either the man or the woman having any family members, or knowing anybody outside their co-workers, to whom they don't talk much anyway. It's a function of modern urban life that the more people live in a city with you, the easier it is to avoid interacting with them in any way beyond the cursory. When you live only for work, as they do, you risk living for nothing else.

You can stay alone in a big city without feeling lonesome if you forget this isolation. When fellow laborers invite them out on July 3, a half-day for workers, they strain the embarrassed grins of single people ashamed to be spotted in public and say that they have other plans. Sometimes when you go out with other people, it exacerbates your lonesomeness—the shared laughter surrounding you, rather than inviting you to join in, can keep you out by reminding you of how unfulfilled you feel.

Yet you can still have a private fantasy life, as these two do. Even if they're so tired of being alone that they can barely stand their own company, solitude can help them better imagine a life beyond themselves than being with other people does. They go home from work to Saturday Evening Post and Police Gazette stories about millionaires and duchesses wooing each other in disguise. They, too, could be rich and happy someday, perhaps. Then music starts, and they look out their windows. A band is calling them to join the group on the street below.

They have always been near each other, even during working hours. The difference now is that they're willing to look. The closer the strangers draw together, the more the film changes from swarming group shots to close-ups. The more they see each other, the more each begins to stand out from the mob. At last, they meet on the beach. She turns his personal world upside-down by reminding him that he has one.

They duet through a typical romantic comedy routine, the game of mistaken identities, but the rehearsed notes fall flat. His Wall Street travels and her cruise shipping are quickly revealed to be ruses—the film's suspense comes not from whether they can sustain false identities, but rather from whether they can discover their own true ones. They reveal their true professions to each other, and their true names, the first time we've learned them: Jim and Mary. And they find that they're actually happy and comfortable being themselves with each other. He says: "If I had known when I first saw you that you were only a telephone operator instead of a swell, I'd have proposed to you right on the spot." She says: "And if I had known that you were just a punch-presser, I—I would have accepted."

The two break with the fantasies they've been given, instead creating their own. The mass culture that a capitalist system produces—the stories that Jim and Mary read, the pictures they might see—helps push the system further by feeding people dreams of prosperity. Rich and poor alike work to get rich or richer, for the sake of achieving the leisure they imagine. The lower-class life, by contrast, is seen as a life of suffering, regardless of whether that suffering is shameful or noble, and so must be escaped. Romance fantasies in popular culture have often told tales of people crossing classes, with the couple ending up rich and happy together, regardless of where they started. But in reality, each class sticks to its own—for most people in any historical moment, this cross-class happiness is a phantom, yet many long for it regardless. So when Jim and Mary say, after each learning about the other's reality, that they want to be together, that they long to be together, and that they are happy together—not despite their conditions, but partly because of them—they're not passively accepting life, as we've seen them do. They're actively embracing it. The punch-pressers and the telephone operators, too, can love and be loved. They turn their dreams into reality by making reality into their dreams.

They speak these words when alone together, and we hear them. Lonesome was originally shot as a silent film, at a moment when Hollywood was transitioning to sound, and Fejos was ordered by the Home Office to add three dialogue sequences months later. These scenes are flat and static, as opposed to the flowing camera of the film's silent sequences, due to the technology of the time. Critics, both then and now, have consistently dismissed these moments as awkward and uncomfortable, inconsistent with the rest of the picture, feeling tacked-on and adding nothing to the plot. But they add to the rest of the film largely because they are inconsistent with it. For the first time in their lives onscreen, Jim and Mary speak, and they do it because of each other. When Jim promises Mary that "We'll never be lonesome anymore," he says it in his own voice, out loud; when he later argues with a judge and police, he does so with the voice that Mary helped him find.

Even after the lovers fall back into silence, we retain the sounds of their voices in our heads, distinguishing them as individuals. The brightly smeared color that enters the film as they spend time together achieves a similar function. Within a long-shot world, Jim and Mary see each other in medium and close-up; within a black-and-white, silent world, they can see and hear each other in color and in sound.

The moment of being alone together gives them respite before returning to the carnival. They do their best to keep track of each other amid the pack, but can't always, and likely know and fear this in advance. One of the most terrifying movie moments that I've seen comes late in Vincente Minnelli's city romance The Clock, when a subway door closes between two lovers getting to know each other; the man chases the car, his mouth open in panic that he'll never see her again. Lonesome presages that scene with the constant threat of Jim and Mary coming apart. This great, throbbing fear of losing someone, which makes you hug yourself to him and to her all the tighter, might seem strange, and even silly, to an age when cell phones, e-mail accounts, social networks, and the constant overlap between the three make it simple to track people. But even in its latest forms, technology can still alienate people from each other—the easier it is to find company, the less precious it might become. Lonesome, by contrast, believes love to be a better guide than any machine. Even if Jim and Mary separate, they know how to keep each other in mind. A city is only so large.

Thanks to Marcelo Felix, Phillip Lopate, and Jay Weissberg.

À Nani, muitoinfinitoesempre. 


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The Criterion Collection
Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon in Lonesome, directed by Paul Fejos
Photo Gallery: Two in a Million


silent film  |  New York  |  film review  |  Paul Fejos  |  Lonesome  |  studio system  |  Hollywood  |  technology  |  social classes


Aaron Cutler is a writer in São Paulo. His film writings can be found at

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