Review: Lonesome and the Curse of the Partial Talkie

If you are a classic film fan who likes to own DVDs, you no doubt know about Criterion. Criterion continues to releases dozens upon dozens of classic films on Blu-Ray and DVD. Just browsing their site for movies can become an hours long event. Once, I came across an apparent silent film from 1928 called Lonesome, which I had never seen nor heard of before. The very few reviews online indicated that this was indeed a classic, but mostly unknown, film. With such high praise, I made the purchase.

Yes, Lonesome is absolutely a classic. Although it is very simplistic, the simple story is very completing and engrossing thanks to the two main characters. The plot: a man and woman meet and have a fantastic time an amusement park, until they get separated and can no longer find each other. There is nothing more to it than that, and nothing more is needed. Within that is a story that is at times romantic, funny and heart wrenching.

The atmosphere in the film is tremendous. Throughout the entire time, the beach and the amusement park (the two main settings) appear to be in a frenzy–people everywhere partying and having a good time. The use of color for some moments accentuates the raucous scenes.

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But the true magic of the film lies with the stars: Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon. The two are immediately charming and likable, their romance a natural one. Strong chemistry is there the whole time, as we enjoy their time together and become attached to their relationship. And so, when the two are separated and all is hopeless, it becomes a heart wrenching experience for the viewer as well. Kent and Tryon are the perfect on screen couple. Together with frenetic and fast-paced direction from Paul Fejos.

The film has only one major flaw, and it’s a bit of doozy. There are three sound scenes in this otherwise slim, and they are just downright awful. Imagine the attempts at dialogue shown in Singin’ in the Rain and you’ll have a good idea of what it’s like. The film’s frenetic pace grinds to a halt, leaving the camera completely stationary for long periods of time as they talk. It doesn’t sound good, and the dialogue is in and and pointless. The gimmick grinds the film down a half which, thankfully enough, it does recover from.

Although the sound and dialogue is of poor quality in Lonesome, I’ve since come to realize that this wasn’t the only problem with it being a partial talkie. The partial talkie itself just is a problem. The significance of The Jazz Singer is obvious, and the songs are the most memorable and greatest part of the film. But it still a partial talkie. There is something a little jarring about Jolson talking and then within the same scene is no longer talking. It is almost a distraction, and it certainly is jarring and takes out of the movie.

For some other films, the addition of sound is especially frivolous. The First Auto is a miserable enough film on it’s own, a completely depressing tale which Dickens would have found to be heavy handed that masquerades as a comedy. The addition of sound in the movie is absurd. Imagine going to see a movie to hear the new sound technology, only to find out there’s scattered utterances of one syllable words like “bob.” Yes, that is exactly what happens in The First Auto. The sound added is a complete non-entity.
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Maybe at the time partial talkies were exciting, but it doesn’t work for this pair of modern eyes. At best, it is a bit of a distraction. At worst, it brings down the quality of the movie. So please, go see Lonesome. Just pay no attention to the talking.

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TCM Silent Film Schedule: September

Summer Under the Stars is over, but there still aren’t a lot of silent films on TCM this month. There are eight total, three of which star Greta Garbo.

7th
Within Our Gates: A very historically significant film, this is considered by some to be a response to DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It is a counterpoint to Griffith’s film, showing the unfair treatment of African Americans in the United States. Directed by Oscar Micheaux, it is the oldest surviving film directed by an African American.

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8th
Exit Smiling: This comedy was directed by Sam Taylor, frequent collaborator of Harold Lloyd. Beatrice Lillie makes one of her very few film appearances, alongside Jack Pickford, brother of Mary Pickford.

14th
A Lady of Chance: Although considered a silent film (the last star Norma Shearer would make), additional dialogue scenes were added in the wave of partial talkies. Shearer does not speak in the scenes.

18th
Love: Although you wouldn’t be able to tell based on the title, this is an adaptation of Anna Karenina. Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, the biggest on screen couple at the time, star.
The Single Standard: Garbo stars in this one as well, playing a woman who decides to break society’s rules and have an affair.
Wild Orchids: Yet another Garbo film, where she plays opposite Nils Asther (her romantic interest).

21st
Torrent: Yes, this is yet another Garbo film. In this one, she plays a peasant turned opera star.

22nd
The Phantom of the Opera: This is the famous Lon Chaney Sr. version, arguably one of the most well known films. It also features early Technicolor use. TCM will be airing the 1930 reissue, the most commonly seen version, which runs shorter than the original release.

28th
The Merry Widow: This Erich von Stroheim film was adapted numerous times in the sound era. A technicolor scene is also in this film, although the surviving print does not contain the scene. Joan Crawford and Clark Gable make uncredited appearances.