Tracking Down the Little Fugitive

It’s interesting how some events live in the memory. Often, when I’m watching a big sports event, I’m anxious for the game to end, so that the real fun can start—the discussions and analyses and replays and debates about what happened.

The last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a film that I saw at the Michigan Theater last Tuesday (July 10, 2007). Little Fugitive (1953) was a semi-documentary account of a young boy’s attempt to escape from a crime that he thinks that he committed.

I’d never heard of this movie before I read about it on the schedule for the Michigan’s 2007 Summer Classic Film Series. The description of the film intrigued me; it sounded like a historical document of growing up in New York City in the early 1950s.

So I headed over to the Michigan on a warm summer’s evening to see if the movie lived up to its advanced billing. Before the film, Elmo Morales of Main Street T-Shirts in Ann Arbor (one of the sponsors of Little Fugitive) told the audience about the strong impression that this film made on him when he first saw it.

A Lost World of Youth

So the lights went down, the film rolled, and soon we were playing on the streets of Brooklyn, with Lennie Norton, his little brother Joey, and some other boys. The sound, the lighting, and the camera work was all less clean and “professional” than we are used to seeing from more commercial films, but those same things gave more immediacy and realism to the story.

As the movie goes along, the audience gets most involved with little Joey. He finds himself alone in the world, experimenting with his new freedom at the Coney Island amusement park, where he escapes from his anxiety with all kinds of fun and challenging adventures.

As this 80-minute movie ended, the Michigan audience applauded enthusiastically. When the credits ended with a full screen image of a smiling Joey (played by Richie Andrusco), I’m sure many in the crowd felt like they were saying ‘so long’ to a new friend.

Since then, a warm feeling for this movie has grown in my thoughts. I’m glad the Michigan took the chance to include this little-known film in its summer series, which includes more famous movies like Top Hat (1935) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Afterwards, I read the Internet Movie Database comments on this movie. There too, you could feel the affection for this movie that has grown in other people who have seen it.

Interestingly, the movie made the me think a lot about the differences between this kind of movie and big budget films like The Robe, another 1953 movie in which CinemaScope was used for the first time. In the 1991 book Acting Hollywood Style, author Foster Hirsch writes about this view of Little Fugitive in a chapter titled “Imitations of Life”.

Andrusco is a natural, but would he have seemed as real if he had continued to make films? Wouldn’t he have lost his innocence, begun to repeat himself, to employ techniques of seeming to be real? It’s likely that a performance like his in Little Fugitive is not repeatable.

Which must also mean that seeing Little Fugitive was a quite a unique filmgoing experience—one that will have a special place in the memories of those who saw it.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.



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