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Lovers and Lollipops
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Lovers and Lollipops

The filmography of Morris Engel is short – three films in half a dozen years – and that of Ruth Orkin is shorter still, since she collaborated with Engel on only the first two of those movies. Yet the husband-and-wife team made a lasting impact on international cinema with their brief excursion into feature filmmaking during the 1950s. At a time when the major Hollywood studios still dominated most aspects of American production, Engel and Orkin were pioneers of independent filmmaking who made up in energy and creativity what they lacked in substantial budgets and fancy techniques. Lovers and Lollipops (1956) is an excellent example of their distinctive style.

As the eye-catching images of their films testify, Engel and Orkin started out as photographers. Engel studied at the left-wing Photo League cooperative in the 1920s, covered the start of the Normandy invasion in 1944 as a combat photographer, and then became a photojournalist, working for such major magazines as McCall's and Collier's. Orkin went to work for MGM in 1942, hoping to become a director, but quit when she realized the obstacles facing a woman in the male-controlled film industry. Turning to photojournalism, she contributed to Life, Look, and other top-flight publications; when cancer cut back her mobility in the late 1950s she stayed active but changed her strategy, taking some of the most highly regarded photos of her career from her apartment windows. She and Engel married while working on their first film, Little Fugitive (1953), and remained so until her death in 1985. Engel went back to commercial photography when Orkin's illness struck, but continued to dabble in film and video until his death in 2005.

Orkin and Engel wrote and directed Little Fugitive, which set the tone for all of their movie work, in collaboration with Ray Ashley, a journalist and friend. The title character is a seven-year-old boy who runs away from his Brooklyn neighborhood to the Coney Island amusement park after his older brother plays a cruel prank on him. Anticipating the advances in lightweight camera equipment that would propel cinéma-vérité documentary a few years later, Engel did the cinematography with a small, portable 35mm camera he helped design, which allowed him to shoot in public places without being noticeable and to sustain a steady image (long before steadicams were invented) while moving and in tight spaces.

Made on a $30,000 budget, Little Fugitive won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and earned an Academy Award nomination for best original story. It also made a big impression on other aspiring filmmakers who wanted to follow their own instincts outside Hollywood's orbit. They included John Cassavetes, who started work on his legendary Shadows in 1957, and Martin Scorsese, who began setting stories against vivid New York City backgrounds a few years later. Overseas, meanwhile, French filmmaker François Truffaut was inspired by the picture's childhood subject and spontaneous production style when he created his prize-winning debut feature, The 400 Blows, in 1959. "Our New Wave would never have come into being," he told an interviewer years later, "if it hadn't been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with [this] fine movie."

Despite the success of their first picture, it took a couple of years for Engel and Orkin to raise money for their second, Lovers and Lollipops, which is somewhat less compelling but every bit as original. The child in this story is a little girl named Peggy whose widowed mother, Ann, has been dating Larry, an old friend who's thinking about moving back to New York after living in South America for a long time. Peggy is likable enough, but unlike the too-adorable kids in so many films and TV shows of the 1950s, she has a bratty and self-centered side that takes over her personality with growing frequency as she tries to figure out how Larry's presence is affecting her mother and how much her own life would change if Larry married into the family.

As before, Engel did the photography and Orkin handled the editing. The film's most outstanding feature is, again, its brilliant use of New York City locations – the Museum of Modern Art, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Bronx Zoo, and more – as strikingly authentic backdrops for scene after scene. The story gains its own sense of authenticity from a realistically meandering plotline, and while the acting is always engaging, it has a subtle awkwardness that makes it resemble real, awkward life more than polished movie acting. Peggy is played by Cathy Dunn in her only film appearance, and the adults are played by Lori March and Gerald O'Loughlin, who went on to long careers, if not major ones. The screenplay tosses in unexpected bits of business that further heighten the sense of lifelike spontaneity, such as Peggy's modeling work for a professional photographer, and the way she and Larry lose track of each other when they're only a few feet apart on a busy Chinatown street. The closeness of the characters and their environments is so concrete and genuine that an Italian neorealist could be proud of it.

Engel made his third and last theatrical film, Weddings and Babies, in 1958, working with other collaborators now that Orkin was ill. The main character is a commercial photographer – perhaps a stand-in for Engel himself – whose professional ambitions conflict with his girlfriend's desire to settle down and have a conventional middle-class home. Once again Engel made a technical leap forward, using new equipment to create what documentary master Richard Leacock hailed as "the first theatrical motion picture to make use of a fully mobile, synchronous sound-and-picture system." Although they released no films together after the 1950s, Engel and Orkin are remembered as indie trailblazers to this day. Lovers and Lollipops is a marvelous showcase for their wit, their intelligence, and their belief that ordinary human behavior has an indefinable charm that charismatic movie acting rarely manages to capture.

Directors: Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin
Producers: Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin
Screenplay: Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin
Cinematographer: Morris Engel
Film Editing: Ruth Orkin
Music: Eddy Manson
With: Lori March (Ann), Gerald O'Loughlin (Larry), Cathy Dunn (Peggy), William Ward (Peter).
BW-82m.

by David Sterritt

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