By Mary Engel
Little Fugitive was a very small independent film made in 1952 on the streets of Brooklyn and in Coney Island for $35,000. There had been a few independent films before them but not many, and they helped lead the way for many other filmmakers. Little Fugitive was shot with a specially designed hand-held 35mm camera, that my father Morris Engel made with a mechanical genius named Charles Woodruff. The camera allowed him the mobility to follow the actions of the little boy who is the star of the film, Rich Andrusco, all over Coney Island, and to shoot from his point of view. I have always felt that my father’s cinematography in Little Fugitive is so strong and unique, which is evident throughout the film. Almost every frame of film could stand alone and be a still photograph. The contribution of my mother, Ruth Orkin, to the film was also very important. She came from Hollywood and helped my father with the continuity, and also became the editor of the film. Ruth was also great at marketing and helped promote the film, to ensure it was seen by audiences everywhere. In 1952, the film industry in the U.S. was mostly based in Hollywood, and the world of New York City independents hadn’t really begun in full force. Some of Morris’ early filmmaker friends were Stanley Kubrick, (they were magazine photographers together) and documentary filmmakers such as Richard Leacock, Lionel Rogisin, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker. Pennebaker was a good friend of my father (and remains my friend), and has always said how influential Morris had been.
The wonderful quote from Francois Truffaut was significant for my father throughout his lifetime, since Truffaut credited Little Fugitive with helping to start the French New Wave. Truffaut said, “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American filmmaker Morris Engel who showed us the way to independent production, with his fine movie Little Fugitive.” Joseph Burstyn became the U.S distributor of Little Fugitive. He was known for handling some of the great Italian film after many others had rejected them. Burstyn had a great impact on the film since he was able to bring it to Venice, where it won the Silver Lion in 1953. Unfortunately, he died tragically before the film was released. However, Litte Fugitive had tremendous success when it opened, and played at 5,000 theaters through-out the United States.
My parents both loved movies from an early age. My father used to go to cowboy movies at the Lowe’s movie theaters in Brooklyn, where he would spend the whole afternoon. My mother grew up in Hollywood and used to keep a rating book of every film she saw. She would give them 1 – 5 stars, and would review the film as well. She also collected autographs of movie stars, but later discovered it was more interesting to photograph them instead. She became a well-known photo journalist, and photographed some of the best known movie stars including Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, Woody Allen, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Spencer Tracy to name a few. I have been handling my parent’s archives since they passed away, and it has been a wonderful legacy.
One of the most magical things is hearing people’s memories of Little Fugitive. Many people remember seeing it when they were young and it created a lasting memory for them, and they see it again and again. It helps brings back their childhood memories of summers at the beach, the 1950s or of Coney Island. We had a wonderful 60th Anniversary celebration in New York City at The Film Forum. Many people came who had already seen it, and it was also introduced to a whole new generation. Little Fugitive seems to hold a special place in many people’s hearts, and I will never get tired of hearing all the memories and thoughts about it.
Thank you to everyone who has supported Little Fugitive all of these years including : Angelo Draicchio from Ripley’s Films; Vincent Paul–Boncour from Carlotta Films; Anne Morra and Peter Williamson from The Museum of Modern Art; Brian Shirey, Gary Palmucci and Richard Lorber at Kino/Lorber; Jacob Perlin of Artist’s Public Domain; Bruce Goldstein of the Film Forum. In addition, my Little Fugitive team of friends and advisors: Foster Hirsch, John Beatty, Andrew French, Joel Schlemowitz, Doris Kornish, Terry and Angelo Corrao and of course to Rich Andrusco for being such a fantastic actor and wonderful friend all these years!