The story of a boy and his dog is a timeless one. It’s one that can be told in the streets of the big city, suburban America, or even in one of the many poor towns along the Mexican border. In The Runaway a lonesome boy lives on the streets while searching for his father in Mexico. After a misunderstanding at the bull ring where he works for spare change the boy hits the road again one step ahead of the law, but not before taking a runty little greyhound pup from the meager kennel where he’s been sleeping. After all, no one has been interested in the pup that’s been for sale for so long, and the two have built up a kinship. The boy can not bear to leave the pup behind. Not too long after their getaway the two runaways meet up with a priest who decides to help the boy with his troubles, gets him a place to stay, helps train the racing dog, and searches for the father.
The plot may sound basic enough, but the 1961 production of this tender family friendly film is captivating due to its ultra-low budget, simple presentation and the performances of its fine cast, which includes the beloved Cesar Romero (TV’s 1966 Batman villain The Joker) in the unlikely role of a priest. There’s also a remarkable child actor, one-time Disney favorite, Roger Mobley (The Donna Reed Show, Jack the Giant Killer) in the role of a lifetime, and an old classic film star cutie, Anita Page (Our Dancing Daughters, Free and Easy) in the bit part of a nun. With the timeless tale of the trials and tribulations of a boy and his beloved dog you’re sure to enjoy The Runaway.
It is the tall, suave and sophisticated Romero who holds the film together with his thoughtful performance as the priest who guides Felipe. Although, if you’re familiar with the actor at all you may find it difficult to conceptualize him in this holy depiction. After all, Romero’s early days in Hollywood were spent playing one distinguished “Latin Lover” after another in numerous musicals and romantic comedies, as well as the rogue bandit The Cisco Kid in a string of low-budget westerns. But those who grew up watching Batman on TV will remember Romero better as the white-faced, green-haired, cackling villain, The Joker. Neither two ends of the spectrum suggest much of a holy presence. However, Romero was an enduring and versatile star and a true professional who chalked up an overwhelming variety of roles in a long career that lasted nearly sixty years. With that said, I think his role as Father Dugan is one of his best.
Likewise, Anita Page fulfills the obligatory role of the nun admirably enough. She too was previously known for a much more scintillating presence. In fact she starred in one of the most famous and popular films in the first years of the talkie era, 1929’s The Broadway Melody, which was the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The screen beauty had retired from the movie business in 1936, but made a special return to the screen twenty-five years later for The Runaway. It is not a particularly notable performance, but the lady holds her own, demonstrating how talent does not fade with one’s looks. Like a good instrument, acting just gets better with age. Otherwise, time reveals a harsh light on what never was there in the first place.
Many years ago the folks in the TCM marketing/promotional department sent me a copy of The Runaway along with an original comic book version of the tale (a rather unique and different marketing device). It was a part of their ongoing film series, Lost and Found, and received a special world television premier. Apparently, the film never received distribution in the US because of litigation over rights, but it did get released overseas under the title, St. Mike.
I can’t tell you how thankful I am to those brilliant TCM people for sending me an early copy. Mostly because I’m not sure you can find it any where and I would never have seen it any way else. You’ll definitely never see this film pop up on NetFlix, let alone appear at your local RedBox. I suspect you may soon see it as a part of a retrospective collection on famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler whose work is sublime, and beautifully compliments the simplicity of the story.
TCM itself has aired it, but very infrequently. The fact is, if they did schedule it more often during the family viewing hours I’m sure it would become a cult hit. It just has that kind of universal appeal. So do yourself a favor and seek out this little gem on your DVR device. It would be a shame if you missed it and never found out what happens to Felipe and his lovable dog.