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The Young Stranger (DVD Review)

27 Feb, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars James MacArthur, Kim Hunter, James Daly, James Gregory.

Just as dying RKO exuded a little class when it was going under by releasing Fritz Lang’s last two American films, it also managed to launch the spotty but occasionally brilliant big-screen career of a youngster (especially when compared to monocle-sporting Lang) out of another school altogether: live TV.

And school is an operative noun here; debuting director John Frankenheimer’s 1957 expansion of a TV drama he himself had staged about a year-and-a-half earlier is among the sturdier juvenile delinquency dramas released in the wake of game-changers Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause, although this more modest endeavor is more in the “mixed-up kid” genre. In other words, no one is brandishing switchblades here or maliciously tossing around a teacher’s prized collection of jazz 78s like pancakes. Rebel, of course, expanded the field by suggesting that relatively upscale kids (or at least more so than the supporting cast of Angels With Dirty Faces) could be a festering ground for j.d.’s. Stranger goes a step further by making its protagonist a product of upscale Hollywood.

Also reuniting here (with Frankenheimer) were scripter Robert Dozier and lead James MacArthur. The vehicle was inspired by Dozier’s father William — who, like the character James Daly plays here, came out of Nebraska to enjoy success in the entertainment industry (about a decade after this movie, he hit gold as executive producer of TV’s "Batman"). Titled Deal a Blow, the original TV version ran during the summer of ’55 on CBS’s Thursday night anthology show "Climax!" — which is probably best recalled now for having aired the first James Bond dramatization (Casino Royale) a year earlier and (at least by Yankees fans) for the conceit of having palmed off Wendell Corey as someone’s idea of an Iron Horse when he was cast in The Lou Gehrig Story about four months before Deal a Blow aired.

This means that Blow beat Rebel in terms of release by two months — though this movie version, which came out almost a year-and-a-half later, must have seen a little microwaved after James Dean’s CinemaScope instant legend caught up in all the Dean death frenzy. But again, Frankenheimer’s picture is working slightly different turf: MacArthur’s only real transgression is to display movie auditorium hooliganism (not that I haven’t always regarded this as a death penalty offense), which then leads to an altercation with a theater manager played by the always ubiquitous Whit Bissell, who for a long time must have been James Brown’s equal as the hardest working man in show business. MacArthur pops Bissell in the theater lobby, but the question is over whether the latter agitated the situation when he could have just let the kid walk out of the theater.

Dean was 24 when he played a kid of 17 or 18 in Rebel — though Natalie Wood would likely have put hair on your chest really fast. But MacArthur, the adopted son of Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur and making his big-screen debut, really does seem like a kid. His voice doesn’t quite seemed to have changed fully, he drives a jalopy that looks old even for ’57, wears either jeans or a coat and tie (his parents like him to dress up at dinner) and doesn’t seem to get much of anywhere when he flirts with girls. Like a lot of guys who mouth off “patter” at movie screen during bad movies, his material isn’t exactly of Don Rickles quality. Still, he’s a decent kid, and MacArthur (with Disney movies and then “Hawaii Five-O” in his future) gives a solid performance.

The rub is that busy dad Daly doesn’t believe his son’s alibi, making this one of the earliest you’re-too-busy-at-work-to-cut-me-a-break movies that comes to mind for me. Mom (Kim Hunter) has to intervene, and there’s one borderline creepy scene where she has to spill the beans on an unsatisfying marriage in an attempt to placate her son. Stranger’s release came early enough in time for the term “TV actor” not to carry a pejorative ring, as in “Ty Hardin” or “Gardner McKay.” In these preliminary days, the term often meant a good New York stage actor just getting some work, as in Daly, Hunter and James Gregory (here a cop, but later to be immortalized by Frankenheimer as the McCarthy-like crackpot senator from The Manchurian Candidate).

One scene I can’t figure here is the homoerotic wrestling match between MacArthur and his best buddy when the latter is mowing the lawn; there’s nothing like it in Frankenheimer’s work that I can recall (and, to be sure, not in Seven Days in May, The Iceman Cometh or George Wallace). Be this as it may, live-TV superstar Frankenheimer wouldn’t score another feature for four years — and then it was another j.d. drama with “young” in the title: Burt Lancaster’s The Young Savages, which launched a notably resourceful star/director relationship.

This was the era: Phil Karlson’s The Young Doctors, Sal Mineo in The Young Don’t Cry, Robert Vaughn in Teenage Cave Man, actors out of the L.A. phone book in Teenagers from Outer Space — a market clogging that sometimes seemed to affect everything this side of Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea. Even when actor Tom Pitman, who plays one of the gang in Stranger, got his own lead in a Z-production just before his real-life death in a car crash, it was in something called High School Big Shot.

Of course, you can argue that American movies haven’t changed that much, at least during the first 44 weeks of the year. But in those days, the industry was more blatant about it in the marketing.

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