Three pioneering American neorealist indies: Little Fugitive, Weddings and Babies, Lovers and Lollipops
“The concept of making the film almost unnoticed among crowds seemed to be working.” – Morris Engel, on Little Fugitive
In the early days of cinema, before the rise of the Hollywood studios with their artificial, controlled environments in the form of sets and sound stages, movies took advantage of real locations as narrative backdrops. These could be cityscapes, as in some of the early work of D. W. Griffith, or the great outdoors, as in the innumerable westerns that were a staple of pre-modern cinema. While there was clearly an economic motive in shooting this way, there was also a sense of connecting with audiences in a realistic way as the stories they saw unfolded in recognizable environments.
In spite of the hypnotic power of the studio “look,” which was often somehow plush even in gritty genres like film noir, it never entirely replaced the natural setting. (Even the studios continued to take advantage of the impact of some locations, for example, in a slum street in a Warner Bros. pre-code gangster film.) Italian neo-realism was one of several filmic styles that depended on reality for a sense of immediacy that could not be obtained otherwise. In the late 1950s, the nouvelle vague resurrected this approach as crucial in capturing the reality of people’s lives.
Between neorealism and the nouvelle vague stand Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, whose independent feature Little Fugitive (1953) has been credited – by Francois Truffaut, who ought to know – with providing both spiritual imprimatur and nuts-and-bolts strategies for the French New Wave. Engel and Orkin were both still photographers, with Engel particularly distinguished as a colleague of Paul Strand and a pioneer photojournalist with magazines like PM, Fortune, Collier’s. Orkin also had ties to Hollywood and cinema in general – she had worked for MGM, her mother was a silent star, and she had edited some experimental shorts, an experience that would be crucial in the pair’s future collaborations. Engel and Orkin provided a production template for future independent filmmakers by doing double and triple duty on their films. For their first feature, Engel, Orkin, and Ray Ashley are credited with direction, Engel and Ashley with production, Ashley with screenplay, Orkin and Lester Troob with editing, and Engel with photography.
The verite photographic style can be attributed to an unusual camera designed by Engel and produced by Charlie Woodruff. This camera was small and portable, attached by a single strap to the shoulder, allowing Engel to shoot unnoticed in crowds, from inside dicey spaces (like a baseball batting cage), and even from a moving amusement park ride – all the while maintaining a steady image indistinguishable from the professional tripod-style cameras. In this sense the device could be seen as a prototype for the steadicam.
It’s not hard to see why Little Fugitive, Engel and Orkin’s most famous and successful film, was so inspiring not only to the French but also to American auteurs like Cassavettes (Shadows) and Scorsese (Who’s That Knocking on My Door?). Like the two features that would follow it, Little Fugitive is a paean to the sights, smells, and sounds of New York, from the cramped but somehow comforting streets of Brooklyn to the dazzling chaos of Coney Island as seen through a child’s eyes. Engel and Orkin extrapolate the universal from the personal in this Homeric story of a little boy’s heroic trek alone through the vastness of an urban amusement park.
The “fugitive” of the title is Joey Norton (Richie Andrusco), a 7-year-old from Brooklyn who’s left in the care of his 12-year-old brother Lennie (Ricky Brewster) when their mother is called away on an emergency. Lennie and his friends are droll pranksters, and they pull what turns out to be a potentially deadly joke on Joey: they let him shoot a real gun and convince him that he’s killed Lennie and that they cops will soon be after him. Far from the cliché imagery of sweet, obedient 1950s children, these kids have a vicious black-comic edge: “They’ll sure give Joey the electric chair – he’ll fry!” one says. The terrorized boy grabs the money his mother left for him and Lennie, and runs off to Coney Island.
When Engel interviewed Richie Andrusco for the part of Joey, he noticed what he called an “animal strength” that made him right for the part. This quality is certainly evident as Joey, dwarfed by the teeming crowds, whirling neon, and boundless expanse of sand, moves through his ordeal with what can only be called aplomb. Not that there are overt threats – the crowds are mostly indifferent as he marches along collecting bottles to redeem for pony rides, or wriggles into a group of adults throwing balls at milk bottles, demanding his chance to play. Witty anecdotal touches abound. In a bathroom reference of a kind that was de rigueur in Italian neorealism, Joey drinks too much Pepsi and is desperate to relieve himself; when he comes upon a sign that says MEN, he gratefully traces each letter.
The film’s sometimes painterly visuals add resonance to the tiniest details – two toddlers grappling with each other on the beach; a couple making out on a blanket, their faces unseen; a mother spilling her baby’s milk. These shots seem at once casual, real, and artful, as if in recording the simple truth of an event the filmmakers have stumbled upon art. There’s a stunning sequence of a sudden, violent storm that clears the beach, and the filmmakers take great delight in observing the chaos. Among those scrambling toward shelter are a group of black kids delicately stepping through the huge puddles on the street just beyond the beach. In a lovely wordless passage, Joey wanders across the beach after the storm, at night, dwarfed by the enormity of the world around him and, one feels, by his own future.
During the film’s initial release, some reviewers compared Richie Andrusco to Jackie Coogan, another way of reminding us that Little Fugitive recalls silent film. His wonderfully affecting performance, surely one of the reasons the film won Venice’s Silver Lion award in 1953, showed that it was not only possible but desirable for filmmakers to seek out “amateur” talent without the tics and mannerisms of trained actors. This strategy is verified in the freshness of the other performers, particularly Ricky Brewster as Joey’s initially nasty but eventually redeemed brother, Lennie.
In spite of the commercial and critical success of Little Fugitive, the filmmakers had trouble getting financing for their next work but somehow managed. Anyone who saw Little Fugitive would recognize Lovers and Lollipops (1955) as the work of the same team, even without the credits. Again we see the milieu of New York, rendered in gorgeous black-and-white compositions, and again there’s a child at the center. This time it’s a girl, Peggy (Cathy Dunn), who recalls Joey Norton in her tenacity and willfulness. Both are imaginative kids with an active inner life who can entertain themselves and are well-equipped to deal with any adults who get in the way of their fun. Joey had no visible father, only brief, shadowy substitutes like the pony-ride man; Peggy’s father is dead, and she feels compelled to resist her mother Ann’s (Lori March) threat to replace him with a new one in the form of Larry (Gerald O’Louglin), an old friend who’s visiting. The story is an alternately sweet and sad triangle – Ann and Larry’s precarious relationship and Peggy’s simultaneous attempts to thwart it and find her place in it.
In Little Fugitive, Joey’s interactions were mostly brief encounters with strangers on the beach. Lovers and Lollipops focuses closely on Peggy’s relationships with the adults in her life – her mother; Larry, a sarcastic babysitter; and a photographer who’s taking pictures of her for a book. In the process of coming to grips with her mother’s romantic life, she torments the indulgent Larry in the guise of spending “quality time” with him. During a scene where he reads to her, she crawls all over him, mimics and laughs at him, and interrupts him. This is a rehearsal for other, more cutting scenes where she causes endless grief by hiding from him in a parking lot (later she complains to her mother, “he lost me too!”). Any attempt at romance by Ann and Larry is usually met with force by Peggy, who eventually offers a litany of Larry’s “crimes” in the martyred mode of a child: “He gave me a rotten sandwich and made me eat all of it!” Peggy’s convention busting is at once enchanting and nerve-wracking; it filigrees the film, most notably in a scene where she insists on carrying her toy sailboat into a museum rather than checking it. She sneaks it in and sails it on one of the museum’s small pools, creating a poignant symbol of her own potential drifting away from her mother.
Naturalistic performances make Lovers and Lollipops as vivid and fresh today as when it was released, but the true star here, more even than in Little Fugitive, is the city. Engel and Orkin’s observations are again both casual and calculated, the camera unobtrusively recording images that seem unrelated to plot but hint at the imaginative life behind the faces and streets of the city. These take the form of detailed set-pieces, as in a long sequence on the Statue of Liberty; and of throwaway moments like the scene of a little Chinese boy spanking another one in the background. The filmmakers insist on the validity and fascination of everyone’s lives, even those whose details we never see.
Weddings and Babies (1958) marked the end of a cycle – the third in what could loosely be called the filmmakers’ “New York Trilogy” – but also featured a second technological breakthrough that allowed Engel and Orkin to create a movie with an immediacy rarely seen in movies. In a September 1958 Harper’s article, noted documentarian Richard Leacock described it:
“Engel’s earlier films had been dubbed – that is, they had used a system perfected by the postwar Italian film-makers of shooting a scene with a silent camera and then fitting dialogue to it in the studio. This made it possible to photograph anywhere, without being chained to the big clumsy sound cameras or upset by `extraneous noise.’… To my amazement, Weddings and Babies was not dubbed… Here was a feature theatrical film, shot on regular 35-mm stock, with live spontaneous sound…. [it] is the first theatrical motion picture to make use of a fully mobile, synchronous sound-and-picture system.”
Leacock theorizes that what spurred this invention was the fact that the filmmakers were used to taking their still cameras to various sites, a kind of mobility impossible with traditional equipment. They wanted to replicate this ease in their film, and the result, Weddings and Babies, is as remarkable as their earlier efforts, if not quite on par with Little Fugitive. Part of its freshness today is because of the “live spontaneous sound” – from the noises of a street fair to the rising voices in a domestic squabble. The sometimes clumsy effect of post-dubbed dialogue in the earlier films is absent here.
Weddings and Babies, like its predecessors, is a highly personal film, a kind of insider view of working-class life that resonates with the filmmakers’ sweet sensibility. Engel seems to have written himself discreetly into both Little Fugitive and Lovers and Lollipops in the form of minor characters who were photographers. In Weddings and Babies, the main male character can be read as a virtual double. Al (John Mhyers), like Engel, is a commercial photographer whose hunger to “do something important” is frustrated by the compromises of his business, which only survives because he’s willing to spend most of his time shooting “weddings and babies.” Al’s girlfriend Bea (a radiant Viveca Lindfors) wants precisely the thing that he’s come to hate: a wedding and babies. Added to the mix is Al’s aged widowed mother, Mama (Chiarina Barile), who like him is restless, unsatisfied. Just as Al roams the streets with his camera, trying to find something that eludes him in the bustle of street crowds and fairs, his mother wanders away from her rest home and eventually disappears at a key moment in her son’s life – just as he’s resigned himself to marrying Bea. Mama embodies the film’s theme of the inability of people to communicate in the most literal way possible – she speaks not English but Italian, and in a low voice that’s barely audible.
In all these films, awesome natural forces are always nearby, waiting to remind the characters that there are larger elements of life that must be respected. In Little Fugitive, it’s the rainstorm that sends the beach revelers running, bringing a sense that happiness is short-lived and therefore precious. In Weddings and Babies, it’s more overt in an extended sequence in a cemetery, where a frantic Al finds his “lost” mother sitting glumly among the tombstones. These scenes assert the importance of noticing the pleasures of everyday life, of living in the moment. This is the lesson the “fully mobile, synchronous sound-and-picture system,” wedded to the filmmakers’ gentle sensibility, brings home.
In a sense, these films are all about coming to grips with mortality and recognizing how important other people are. It’s only after a serious loss is threatened – the disappearances of Joey, Larry, and Bea in, respectively, Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops, and Weddings and Babies – that the value of the individual is recognized and the recovery of something irreplaceable occurs. This is what Truffaut, Cassavetes, and Scorsese recognized, and what makes these films fresh, timeless works of art today.