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Sweet talkie: An almost-silent romance in 1920s Coney Island

Lonely together: The 1928 silent-talkie hybrid “Lonesome,” screening at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch on May 21, follows a couple that meets in Coney Island.
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It’s Sodom by the Sea on the silent, silver screen!

A bit of movie magic will bring the People’s Playground to Prospect Heights, for the final screening of this season’s Silent Movie Matinee series. “Lonesome,” showing on May 21 at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch, traces the clumsy romance of a couple who meet in Coney Island. The film was shot at the birth of talkies, and fuses silent and full-sound techniques into a unique hybrid, said the man behind the series.

“It’s a very strange out-of-body experience. You’ve seen these characters live and function in silence, but then for three scenes they speak, and the moment you hear their voices it’s a little awkward,” said Ken Gordon, a freelance film curator and historian. “But this awkwardness is fascinating because it puts us right at that intersection when silence turns into sound.”

The “part-talkie” film was shot in 1928 by director Paul Fejos, who used it to explore his anxieties of living in a modern city, being surrounded by crowds but never truly feeling connected. That sentiment still resonates with viewers nearly 90 years later, said Gordon.

“For him, it was a frenetic, urban city that was a little faster than his comfort level, and also filled with isolation,” said the Midwood film buff. “In a sense, he created a New York state of mind. It translates that experience that any New Yorker, any Brooklynite, grew up with, that’s in your blood.”

“Lonesome” follows Mary, a telephone operator, and Jim, a factory worker, who venture to Coney Island during the Fourth of July weekend and meet by chance. Viewers watch the couple gradually tumble into love against the magical backdrop of 1920s Coney Island. The film serves up a delightful slice of old Brooklyn, said Gordon.

“There’s something about Coney back then that was just a breath of fresh air,” said Gordon, a Brooklyn native who frequented the shore while growing up. “I still love that place as a refuge, as a getaway without leaving the city. For me, if I can ever show anything that’s Brooklyn, that’s great. I like bringing it local.”

Gordon’s film series has been running since 1997, drawing crowds of all ages for the silent films with a live piano soundtrack. He showed mostly comedies in the early years, until Gordon got a better sense of what moviegoers fancied.

“Comedy is great, but man cannot live by comedy alone,” said Gordon. “My experience is they want something from the heart, so I started steering it toward more serious films, more dramas.”

The experience is completely different from today’s films, and will surprise those unfamiliar with silent movies, said Gordon.

“Many people who don’t know silent movies might think it’s hokey, but that really isn’t the case,” he said. “The acting and the visual camera work of silent films is of a very specific style that tells you the story without saying the words. They’re really trying to communicate something and that’s what the audience discovers.”

“Lonesome” at the Brooklyn Central Library Dweck Center [10 Grand Army Plaza at Eastern Parkway in Prospect Heights, enter at side entrance on Eastern Parkway, (718) 230-2100, www.bklynlibrary.org]. May 21 at 12:30 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Caroline Spivack at cspivack@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2523. Follow her on Twitter @carolinespivack.
Updated 1:34 am, July 10, 2018
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