A Baby Was Stolen From a Hospital and Then Found. Or Was He?
The new doc “The Lost Sons,” premiering at SXSW, examines the case of Paul Fronczak, who was snatched from a Chicago hospital as a baby and then found in Newark—or so they thought.
In April 1964, Dora and Chester Fronczak suffered the unthinkable. Having already lost their first child, the Chicago husband and wife were ecstatic over the arrival of their healthy, smiling son Paul. No sooner had this infant come into the world, however, than he was snatched away, abducted from Michael Reese Hospital on the day of his birth by an anonymous woman posing as a nurse. The Fronczaks were thrust into agonized turmoil, and so too was the city’s police department, since officers hadn’t been called to the hospital until an hour after Paul’s disappearance, thereby giving the kidnapper ample time to escape with the tyke in tow. The story became Chicago—and then national—news, but despite that attention, Paul had vanished without a trace.
Until, that is, 15 months later, when a young boy with a black eye was found abandoned in his stroller on a sidewalk in Newark, New Jersey. Conversations between detectives in New Jersey and Illinois soon led to speculation that this kid was, in fact, Paul Fronczak. When Dora saw the boy and immediately claimed that he was hers, the case came to a spectacular, happy end. It wasn’t until he was 10 years old that Paul even learned about this amazing tale, when he went snooping for Christmas presents in the family home and found, instead, a box full of newspaper clippings and letters that detailed his early ordeal.
Premiering at SXSW, director Ursula Macfarlane’s The Lost Sons (produced by CNN) is the amazing story of Paul, now a grey-haired actor whose first-person narration to the camera forms the foundation of this true crime documentary. A jovial and candid middle-aged man, Paul had a relatively ordinary “Rockwell painting”-style childhood, even if—as his younger brother David confesses—something set him apart from the rest of the Fronczak clan. During his youth, Paul struck out on his own to fulfill his rock ‘n’ roll dreams as a bass player, relocating to Arizona and, afterwards, to Las Vegas, where he segued into acting. His good looks may not have made him a marquee star, but he nonetheless found his footing, appearing as a stand-in for George Clooney in Ocean’s 11 and as an extra in Rush Hour, and marrying his wife Michelle, with whom he had a daughter, Emma.
Emma’s birth, however, ignited a long-dormant question in Paul: “What really happened to me?” Thus, a DNA analysis was undertaken, much to the chagrin of Paul’s parents, who after initially agreeing to scientifically determine whether they were related to Paul, reversed course. That didn’t stop Paul, who admits that he went through with the test and, upon hearing that he wasn’t a biological Fronczak, contacted local investigative TV reporter George Knapp to publicize his situation. Recounting this decision in hindsight, Paul exclaims, “People are going to fucking hate me, aren’t they? He’s a dick!,” and it’s to The Lost Sons’ credit that it doesn’t try to sand the sharp edges off this inherently prickly predicament, which afforded no easy answers to anyone.
The Lost Sons is about Paul’s quest to uncover the truth about his origins and identity—and, in doing so, to also find out what happened to the real Paul Fronczak. That mission resulted in appearances on 20/20 opposite Barbara Walters, as well as obsessive sleuthing that caused a marital rift that couldn’t be healed. In a new interview, Michelle proves so upset about the end of her marriage that she can’t discuss it—an example of the decades-spanning toll the 1964 baby-snatching took on so many lives. For Paul, though, there could be no lasting peace without comprehension, and thanks to genetic genealogist CeCe Moore and her team of DNA experts, revelations were forthcoming, albeit with considerable complications, since an early promising thread—the discovery of Paul’s cousin, Alan Fisch—was undone by the fact that Alan was adopted, and then passed away shortly before they could meet in person.
The further it proceeds toward its bittersweet conclusion, the more the documentary becomes a tribute to the magic of medical science, which allows people to know themselves—and their heritage—in ways that would have seemed outright fantastical as recently as 50 years ago. At the same time, it’s a poignant portrait of the innate desire to understand where we come from, especially when we’ve been denied that awareness. In Paul, The Lost Sons finds an individual whose unbelievably unique experiences speak to universal notions about self, family, disconnection, loss, and healing.
Unfortunately, such topics are tackled via the hoariest of formal devices. Macfarlane’s investigative effort is rife with dramatic recreations, often with faces obscured, or drenched in slow-motion to amplify the drama’s momentous mysteriousness. Those sequences are handled clunkily, as are staged shots of Paul standing at sunset on a desert rock ridge (to evoke “searching”) or lifting weights in silhouette (to suggest “obsessiveness”). These moments coat the proceedings with a layer of gloppy cheese that’s all the more frustrating for being totally unnecessary, since Paul is a gregarious guide through his own saga, and there are enough talking-head interviews (with relatives, friends, experts, and journalists) and archival news reports, home movies and photographs, to supplement his commentary.
The Lost Sons proves to be a film with little interest in cinematic form—a byproduct, perhaps, of its own origins as a CNN venture. Fades to black that are tailor-made for commercial breaks only strengthen the sense that Macfarlane has her eyes on the small screen, although that’s hardly an excuse for her ho-hum style, especially in light of the many inventive documentaries (and docuseries) premiering each week on streaming platforms. The director’s clichéd embellishments impede rather than facilitate or clarify, padding the material’s runtime to no appreciable end.
Those shortcomings do much to hamper The Lost Sons’ impact. Still, they can’t quite neuter what is, at heart, a moving tale about the many ways in which multiple lives could have been different, and the difficulty—and solace—that comes from accepting how things are.