June 04, 2009

fejos on lonesome

I think June will be my Fejos month. This passage quoted from The Several Lives of Paul Fejos:
[Universal] had at the story-department properties -- that's what they called them -- stories that they owned, and naturally the first order of business was that I should get all the stories and read them and select one of them, because they'd rather use something they had than buy a new one. So I sat there on 'director's row,' which was called 'pneumonia row' because everybody got pneumonia there, it was so drafty, and read scripts from morning until midnight. Nothing! It was the most horrible amount of balderdash that I ever read; each one was worse than the other. Most of them were stolen from classics and very badly adapted, with names changed and age changed and all that, but everywhere the thing stuck out. I couldn't find a single story.

I had no preconceived ideas about what I wanted to do, but I wanted to do something new. I wanted to do something new in technique or new in feeling. And they had nothing.

Finally I went back to the story department and said, 'You can take back all the stories, I don't want any of them. Don't you have anything else?' They said they had some material but I wouldn't be interested because this was for shorts, short subjects. I said, 'Let me see them,' and took them down to my office and read them, and among them I came across a title called Lonesome. It was a very small script, three pages, the outline of it. It was about a girl and a boy in New York City, who have no friends and who are utterly lonesome. And these two people on a Sunday, as they have nothing to do and they have no friends, start out separately to Coney Island to spend the afternoon there. At Coney Island they meet accidentally and fall in love. Then some circumstance separates the two and neither of them knows the other's name, and there starts a desperate search at Coney Island from roller coaster to merry-go-round to try to find each other, but they don't. At the very end of the picture -- a happy ending -- they find each other. But it was poignantly-written, a beautiful, lovely, tiny little gem.

I ran with it to Junior and said, 'This is what I want to make!' Junior called up the story department and told them that I had selected this, and there was a lengthy talk on the phone. Junior said, 'Well, well,' and didn't say anything to me. Then finally, when he put down the receiver, he said, 'They're all against it. They say it's a property they bought for $25 and it's silly, and it's nothing, it's a travelogue.'

'Well,' I said, 'travelogue or not, that's what I want to make and my contract says I select the story.' Junior said, 'All right.' Then I needed to cast it and, of course, they told me to go through all the people whom Universal had under contract first, before I selected somebody from outside. I selected a very young, 17-year-old British and Canadian girl for the female lead, and one of Universal's very bright boys, sort of a wise-cracking, semi-comedian, Glenn Tryon, for the boy. The girl's name was Barbara Kent. Tryon was very popular.

One of the reasons I selected the story was that it reminded me of New York. I wanted to put in a picture New York with its pulsebeat, everybody rushing; where even when you have time, you run down to the subway, get the express and then change over to a local, and all these things; this terrific pressure which is on people, the multitude in which you are always moving but you are still alone, you don't know who is your next neighbor. There was, by the way, an O. Henry twist in Lonesome: at the very end the boy and girl found out that they lived side-by-side in the same rooming house, but they had never known about each other. It sounds corny, but let's say that it was high corn.
Hearing about Fejos's experience as an immigrant in New York with no English makes Lonesome a more poetic and personal film. What is most interesting about this story is the way Fejos avoids his more personal life and thoughts -- he doesn't mention much about Barbara Kent, although he supposedly entered into a relationship with her until he left Hollywood in 1931, nor does he say much about his theory and approach to filmmaking, although he undoubtedly put a lot of thought into Lonesome and made it one of the most unique films from Hollywood of the era. Did he watch many films? What were his artistic ambitions? I don't know. Curious figure.

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