|Cast:||Lori March, Cathy Dunn, Gerald O'Loughlin, Bill Ward|
|Director:||Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin|
|Screenplay:||Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin|
Morris Engel is far from the most well known independent director - he made just three films in the 1950’s - but those films usurped the Hollywood stranglehold, with his debut, Little Fugitive, showing that a non Hollywood American film could be a worldwide hit through the film festival scene. Engel didn’t merely prove people all over the world would watch a US film made on a minor budget ($30,000), he showed that a different style of filmmaking was possible.
The backbone of Engel’s filmmaking was direct sound handheld photography, which was made possible when he actually constructed his own lightweight 35mm camera that allowed him to film everything on location. The device made Engel the envy of such future luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard and the Maysles brothers, who were among the many who requested to use his camera once they heard of its existence.
Engels & his film editor wife Ruth Orkin’s second feature, Lovers and Lollipops, depicts a transitional phase in the life of a 6-year-old girl. With Peggy’s father having passed away before his time, her young mother, Ann (Lori March), begins dating Larry (Gerald O'Loughlin), a guy she knew a long time ago, probably before she got married. Peggy (Cathy Dunn), as most every child, has manipulated the old relationship with her mother into being one where her mother is there to please her. Thus, the new relationship between Ann & Larry conflicts with the mother daughter relationship because Larry compromises Peggy’s ability to monopolize Ann.
Even though there’s always three relationships going on in Lovers and Lollipops, any description of the film is bound to sound rather pedestrian. The conflicts in and of themselves are rather straightforward and disinteresting, but that has very little effect on the overall quality of the picture because the films are entirely predicated on incident rather than plot. The characters are rather simplistic because the point is not to study character, but rather to show the effects of indifferent and non cooperative factors.
Rather than telling the story in the traditional manner, Engel and Orkin’s use images to depict the courtship and Peggy’s alternating acceptance and rejection of it. In Engel & Orkin’s work, there’s always an added layer, the relationship the humans have with their environment, and this interaction is crucial to every scene because it’s ultimately the only thing that alters or distracts from the two situations.
As the father of New York independent filmmakers and a poet of urban life, Engel was, not surprisingly, a great influence on Martin Scorsese. Perhaps even moreso than the Italian Neorealists, Engel understood that the distinguishing characteristic of your life was where you spent it. Human behavior, thought, amusement, and most importantly interaction are so predicated on setting that truth could not be found without situating characters in a distinguishable locale that they were either extremely familiar with (for instance their house) or rather new to (i.e. Larry taking Peggy to the toy store). Engel is obviously more touristy than the Italians, who tended toward their fishing villages, with his exceptional use of New York City landmarks such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, & the Bronx Zoo making Lovers and Lollipops a time capsule of 1950’s New York.
Engel’s scenes are so impressive because he brings his photography background to the framing of the sequences. Cinematographers put each scene at the mercy of the actors, mostly allowing them to dominate by centering them in the foreground. Engel, on the other hand, is not afraid to allow the architecture be the centerpiece and the action be people’s interaction with it. His scenes are notable for the utter lack of camera movement. Hollywood went stagnant with the introduction of sound, and outside of the genre films that drew inspiration from the old German masters, still tended to be talking heads if the cameras were placed. However, Engel was starkly different than their brand of still shot because he had his characters move through the frames, which he shot as though they were a series of still photographs with the relationship between the people and objects, foreground and background, defining the shots. For instance, Peggy hiding in a parking lot is marked by her and Larry passing through rows of cars. Peggy, the actual subject, is always in the distant background, so the scenes display her interaction with the cars. Larry does happen to pass through the foreground from time to time, but that allows the inanimate objects, the cars, to accentuate the distance between the caretaker and mischief maker. Perhaps what made Ruth Orkin an excellent editor is, as a distinguished photographer in her own right, she instinctively knew how these “series of stills” should be pieced together to make a logical layout of slide show.
Though Engel & Orkin’s techniques would ultimately be more associated with the cinema verite movement of directors such as D.A. Pennybaker and Richard Leacock, Engel’s application of his handheld location techniques to credibly depicting the behavior of a child helped inspire Francois Truffaut to his debut masterpiece The 400 Blows. Truffaut later stated, “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with [this] fine movie (Little Fugitive).”
Lovers and Lollipops is not merely a technical accomplishment. Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin have succeeded in applying their techniques to capture ordinary human behavior. Peggy is, for me, one of the great movie children she’s everything movie children we are used to are not. She’s not overly cute and precious, delivering one liners that make us laugh with or at her. She’s somewhat whiny and irritable, but bratty without being a brat. She’s not a good kid or a bad kid, not overly intelligent or incredibly articulate. She may technically be a lonely child who seems left out due to her lack of a father, but still, she’s just a regular child who demands attention and seeks to manipulate the situation to her benefit, without exactly realizing that.
The crux of the film is whether Peggy will accept or reject Larry as her new father, but, of course, this issue is never addressed directly. We simply feel that she’s testing Larry, and frankly herself, to see if the change would be for her benefit. She’s not that smart, nor particularly calculating, and most of the time she doesn’t really know why she does the things she does, or at least she doesn’t have any reason beyond her own whimsical fancies. She’s just used to being the center of her mom’s world, so naturally she’ll expect to be the center of Larry’s world, and their world, as well. There’s nothing deep or extraordinary about it, but that’s also a lot of Lovers and Lollipops charm.