John Frankenheimer’s The Young Stranger was very much a product of the 1950s. For many these days, this era has taken on a rose-tinted aura. It was a time when Americans were united against the “Red Menace,” and if not, you might have Joe McCarthy come after you. It was before the unpleasant realities of Vietnam and before it became clear that African Americans, women, and gays were no longer thrilled to be permanently in the back of the bus. James Dean epitomized rebellious young people on screen, but James MacArthur seemed more like the nice boy next door. (Of course, if Dean happened to live next door, you might want to make sure the shades were down, and the doors were locked.)
In retrospect, we are told this was “The Golden Age of Television,” ignoring the current splendors of “reality shows,” over-orchestrated talent spectacles, and cable channels for every taste (or lack thereof). At the heart of this paradigm were the dramatic shows, programs that were done live with no retakes. There were, indeed, occasional treasures, like Lillian Gish in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful (which fortunately the Museum has saved), but not everything was golden. I remember a live adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the creature, venturing from one part of the soundstage to another, under the never-ceasing vigilance of the camera, made the wrong move. The director was forced to shout out, “Close the g__ d___ door!” (The commercials, too, were done live, and I recall an unfortunate young woman sitting at a table and playing a nurse who, when she forgot the sales pitch for whatever snake oil she was selling, fainted dead away—my kingdom for a teleprompter).
Television was a mixed blessing for the movies. In a sense, perhaps, the cinema went into irrevocable decline as the audience decided to stay at home, ringing the death knell of the studio system. TV, however, provided an infusion of new talent. Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, and Frankenheimer all started around the same time, with the latter two engaging in parallel careers, each directing his first theatrical feature in 1957 (Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men and Frankenheimer’s The Young Stranger), two years after Altman. Both wound up directing the definitive film versions of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpieces: Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1962 and Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh in 1973; and both reached some sort of career peak in the 1960s—The Fugitive Kind, Fail Safe, The Pawnbroker, The Hill, and The Group for Lumet, and Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, and Seconds for Frankenheimer. Even from this latter group of perhaps his most personal films, however, it would be hard to discern a Frankenheimer personality beyond “vaguely liberal.”
The Young Stranger started out as a television play (a chamber piece, which Frankenheimer had originally directed), and it is very Eisenhower-era, from the predominance of Cadillacs and martinis to characters’ habit of going into theaters in the middle of movies. There were lots of rebellious-delinquent movies around at the time, but it’s not at all clear what James MacArthur (son of Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur) was rebelling about. His career was almost entirely on television, and it is hard to name another major film among the few he made.
Andrew Sarris exiled Frankenheimer to his “Strained Seriousness” category, saying the director “betrays his television origins by pumping synthetic technique into penultimate scenes as if he had to grab the audience before the commercial break.” Frankenheimer does manage some visually stunning things in films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, and Seconds, but Sarris dismisses him as “a director of parts at the expense of the whole.” Critic John Baxter, citing the same early films of which Sarris is critical, takes the contrary view that Frankenheimer was “a perfect bridge between television and Hollywood drama, between the old and the new visual technologies….” However, Baxter indicates that the director’s choices became “erratic” and, even though he was fortunate enough to work with Burt Lancaster on five films during the actor’s prime, much of Frankenheimer’s later career is sadly forgettable. He wound up back in television.