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James Dean's movie career was so brief that his undying legend almost completely overshadows the films themselves. He was recognized as brilliant, worked with three top directors and was then was killed so suddenly that two of his three pictures, all Warners films, were released after his death. His life seemed to be cut off before it even began, but those three performances are so impressive that it's easy to believe, had he lived, that he might have become the greatest actor of them all. To those who witnessed the James Dean phenomenon the fifty years that have passed seem like nothing, with Dean's image frozen in a perpetual youth. He wasn't around long enough to grow fat and contemptuous of movie stardom as did Marlon Brando, or fall apart physically and psychologically like Montgomery Clift. No mysteries or conspiracy-minded legends are attached to Dean, as has happened with Marilyn Monroe. He'll always be Peter Pan, never growing old, communicating such youth and vitality in his films that we can't quite believe he's dead.
Warners' boxed set of The Complete James Dean Collection is not quite the ultimate item that rumors had prepared us for. His last film Giant is the same as the earlier two-disc restoration that is unfortunately flat-letterboxed at 1:66 instead of enhanced. The transfers of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause are splendid - Rebel is an improvement over an earlier disc and the last time we saw Eden in any form was fifteen years ago in a ruddy-hued laser disc. Although the extras include a fine pair of new featurettes from Sparkhill, two hoped-for items are not present - the recent American Masters PBS docu on Dean, and Michael Sheridan's new docu, Forever James Dean. Perhaps web rumors are to blame for letting us think those items would be included. (Note, 5.31.05: readers have written to tell me that their boxed sets include flyers for upcoming releases of docus that sound as though they may be the awaited items.)
One of Elia Kazan's best pictures, East of Eden has sublime acting and direction that balance its tendency toward heavy theatrics. John Steinbeck's novel wears its allegorical purpose out in the open to recreate the original dysfunctional family - adding levels of human characterization to a few short lines in Genesis. Eve broke away from the Garden of Eden because she couldn't stand being bossed and critized by the self-righteous Adam, leaving him to raise two emotionally-scarred boys. The self-assured Abel questions nothing and is complacent in the knowledge that he's superior to his wild brother Cain. Cain's agony is his awareness of the lost family and his inability to connect with a disapproving father.
That the movie East of Eden doesn't collapse under this bibilical weight is a remarkable feat. It stays intact because its characters struggle with the ideas of goodness and badness, aware that the labels they assign to themselves and each other are limiting and deceptive. Aron feels strong but doesn't realize how much he depends on certain assumptions - the absolute righteousness of his father, the presumed love of Abra. Cal may seem the sensitive innocent, but we see plenty of hints that his time away from home is spent misleading the local girls - there's always one or two hovering about and he's far too confident as he tricks the barmaid Anne (the interesting Lois Smith) into leading him to his mother. Abra doubts her own virtue as she realizes she wants something less confining than what Aron has to offer. Even Adam wavers under harsh reminders of his fallibility, and not just the failure of his refrigeration experiment. The terrible draft board job curbs his interest in standing in judgment over people. The uncovering of past secrets deals the final blow to Adam's carefully-tended self-image.
The richness of pre- WW1 agricultural California places the tale in an accessible Americana setting, and the richly drawn characters transcend what could easily be a stagey, word-heavy script. Kazan's direction emphasizes the spaces between words, the reaction of characters on the side and the visual context of each situation. When Cal runs out to cry under a tree the camera hangs back and we see only his feet under the 'weeping' willows. Abra joins him there, affirming her shift of loyalty.
East of Eden is the logical precursor to the 50s teen-angst picture. Cal's adult-oriented problems are the center of the story. The censors won't allow Kazan to depict Kate's fallen women, but the nature of her business is abundantly clear. There are other indicators of the character of the times that run counter to the All-American image usually presented by Hollywood. The Salinas residents are largely well-to-do Anglos surrounded by Mexican-American, Italian immigrant and 'Portugee' laborers. The enlistment parade stresses jingoistic xenophobia, showing how a German-American shoe repairman changes suddenly from a beloved neighbor to a Hun enemy, who 'doesn't feel sorry enough.' Interestingly, it is the idealistic Aron who knows instinctually that the patriotic war parade is essentially wrong - that its purpose is to mobilize hatred. Father Adam would surely applaud Aron's effort to be peaceful and condemn Cal's leaping into the fray - even though the only thing that could stop the mob is Sam the Sheriff (Burl Ives).
Bad timing and rash decisions are determining factors; Kate's horror just at the moment of accepting her son is heartbreaking. But offers no simple way to assign blame. Cal didn't create the emotional calamity that sends his brother off to war - with his iffy chances for return symbolized by a literal collar of sharp glass. The potential for disaster was already there in the lies of the father, to be ignited by Cal's search for truth and acceptance.
East of Eden was frequently complimented for its creative use of the relatively new CinemaScope format. Elia Kazan's handling of the wide screen is more emotionally valid than the merely graphic blocking of John Sturges' celebrated Bad Day at Black Rock. The town and landscapes exist as context in the periphery of the frame, but Kazan is unafraid to go in for extreme close ups. He keeps cramped interiors from seeming too spacious by using areas of darkness to mask the frame, as in the corridor to Kate's room. He has no problem stylizing the frame for a purpose, as when he darkens areas of the image for the first shot of the enlistment parade. Only his tilted 'Dutch' angles in some of the emotional dialogue scenes appear a bit forced. There is also a dizzying single shot of Cal swinging where the camera swings with him, which also seems ill-advised. Too flashy.
The superb acting in East of Eden erases the gap between theatrical and movie work. Because the drama keeps an emotional temperature several degrees higher than the average film, the intense playing never seems to be "too much." Dean's teenaged mannerisms and adolescent slouching make a fascinating portrait of a restless kid who can't relax for a minute. Followers of method acting lump Brando, Clift and Dean together, but Clift plays his roles completely differently. Dean's Jett Rink in Giant transforms into a strange proto-Howard Hughes type, but across the three films we don't get a wide range of characters. He's so good at them that it's tempting to believe he'd be transcendent any kind of role, something we'll never know.
Top-billed Julie Harris equals Dean for sensitive vulnerability. I haven't seen many female characters in movies successfully change affections from one brother to another, while retaining our respect and approval. We don't approve because Dean is the star, either - Cal is just more likeable than Aron, and more needy, and Abra is naturally drawn to needy types. Abra's greatest fulfillment is when she mediates between Cal and his father. Harris doesn't let the moment degenerate into grandstanding emotionalism. When Harris' face moves from elation to despair, our personal reactions follow obediently.
The disc extras recount a clash between Dean and old-school actor Raymond Massey, the kind of fellow who memorized his lines and had difficulty going beyond his two or three ways of playing a scene. Whatever shake-up or insecurity the new approach caused, Kazan apparently guided the actor through or gave him the motivation to relax and let things happen. Massey's performances weren't always stiff and unyielding - he was often cast to that type - but in East of Eden he's both more subdued and more forceful than usual.
The presence of Jo Van Fleet makes us want to see Wild River on DVD all the more; several situations in East of Eden are repeated in that movie. Both Nick Dennis ("Va Va VOOM, PRETTY POW!") and Albert Dekker appeared together in the same year's Kiss Me Deadly. Intriguingly, a lot of incidental details from East of Eden show up in the early films of another native Californian, Sam Peckinpah, as if he were deeply impressed by the movie. Salinas and Monterey are only a decade or two past the Wild West days; Sam the Sheriff behaves like he might have known Peckinpah's Steve Judd, a lawman who supposedly 'cleaned up' Monterey.
Warners' DVD of East of Eden is a welcome sight; I've heard the rumor that rights disputes are responsible for its being out of circulation for a number of years. The transfer is impeccable. Earlier Warnercolor videos were often hue-challenged but the image here is rich and clean. Leonard Rosenman's score comes through well in Warners' dynamic mid-50s mix; the only thing that seems artificial is the dubbed re-voicing of the mumbling Timothy Carey as Kate's bouncer Joe. The original four-channel stereo has been remixed to 5.1. 1
East of Eden is a two disc set. The feature disc has a commentary by Richard Schickel and a theatrical trailer that tries shamelessly to associate the characters with sinful deeds and motivations. The second disc has an old but worthwhile TV docu called Forever James Dean, and a handsome new featurette by Sparkhill with input from Julie Harris and Lonny Chapman, as well as file interviews with Elia Kazan and Paul Osborne.
Diehard fans will be most intrigued by two lengthy film galleries containing additional scenes and screen tests, as well as wardrobe, costume and production design tests. We see Richard Davalos and James Dean playing trial scenes together in B&W. Color and 'Scope tests give us a good look at planned wall coverings and props as well as many cast members in their costumes. We note the professionalism of the actors; 1955 was still the studio era when even big stars did what they were told. A test for Lois Smith reveals that the director must have found her a very interesting actress - she's filmed in romantic closeups with Dean and surely convinced studio executives of her promise. Smith received good notices in a Western follow-up, Strange Lady in Town, and is still going strong as an actress.
Footage from the Broadway premiere shows a kinescope of one of those sidewalk-interview situations that corners celebrities on the way into the big show. Denise Darcel's spotlight is stolen when the camera switches away to see a flash of Marilyn Monroe disappearing into the theater. Imogene Coca is there, being complimented on her television comedy. John Steinbeck himself shows up (probably in the company of Kazan) and offers some jokey remarks - we'd never think he was the celebrated author of The Grapes of Wrath.
Rebel Without a Cause is the touchstone film for the creation of the modern teenager - it hit the screens concurrently with Blackboard Jungle but differs in crucial ways. First of all, it's told from the point of view of the kids, not some teacher learning about life in the inner city.
Secondly, the teens here aren't disadvantaged ghetto orphans but upscale middle class kids. Their parents may or may not be divorced, but the families they come from are affluent enough to afford allowances for clothing or their choice and in many cases cars. Anybody can understand why a slum kid might break the law, but America in the 50s couldn't fathom why their darling babes were rebelling against parents that won the war and gave them so many consumer luxuries - memories of the Depression were barely 20 years old.
Director Nicholas Ray initiated the first film that gave the teen problem its fully-liberalized spin. Building on his noir classic They Live By Night, which identified its star-crossed criminal teens as innocents in an evil world not of their making, Ray makes James Dean and Co. the noble victims of adult hypocrisy and blindness, seeking new relationships when all the traditional ones have broken down. In one stroke, American youth recognized the concepts of teen angst and alienation, from an actor-messiah already in his grave.
Around 1957 Mad Magazine presented a terrific cartoon article that spelled out the facts of teen alienation so clearly, it should have been required reading by responsible authorities everywhere. The argument of the piece is that all the supposed teenage sins - irresponsibility, loose morals, corruption, interest in consumer goods - are just a faint mirror-image of a society that worships the same idols. Those that condemned teens were simply scapegoating them for their own sins - eating their own young, one might say.
When we college students saw Rebel Without a Cause around 1971, Mad's general argument still held. The 'eating their own young' idea had finally come to pass with the Vietnam war. But the James Dean movie looked like what it was, an overstated and preachy psychodrama. James Dean's Jim Stark was a great character, and we loved looking at Natalie Wood. But the overly glamorized Juvenile Delinquent thrills made the movie seem like an upscale take on the fourth-rate JD flicks from A.I.P. and Allied Artists that followed. Pictures like Teenage Doll and even the superior The Cool and the Crazy were self-consciously trashy; Rebel wants to be meaningful as well. 2
Thus the over-boiled dramatics. Jim has some utterly laughable encounters with his parents. His mother is an appearances-obsessed ninny. His father is an emasculated (frilly apron: check) marshmallow who can't stick to an opinion or a decision. There's no faulting Dean's acting, but the 'famous' moment where he points fingers left and right and wails "You're tearing me apart!" is just plain bad. When Dean demands that his father stand up for himself and speak up, far too much adult perspective is lumped onto the Jim Stark character; it's the author pontificating in terms far too articulate for a mixed-up teen. Those scenes and the one where Jim, Judy and Plato form their own impromptu family are probably core emotional experiences for the teens of 1955 who saw their own lives mirrored on the screen. The dramatics are awkward, by any objective standard.
The plotline is fixed to ensure that Jim Stark and Judy find nothing but hostility wherever they turn - parents that don't understand, a father that rejects his daughter's affection. The concerned social workers of the beginning are shoved aside by police who treat the kids like public enemies. Meek Plato needs to be given a gun to provide the cops an excuse to open fire. As we learn in the featurette extra, the 'real' high school kids who played roles in the film considered the story rather corny and unbelievable. They could help Ray and his studio crew get the cars and the clothes right, but the Greek Tragedy structure was there to stay.
Rebel Without a Cause does one thing perfectly: Nailing the underlying 50's anxiety. The scared little kid of 1948's Pitfall, the one who has nightmares over vague ideas of family discord and an unstable world, is now in high school. The Griffith Observatory scene shows the unruly teens eager to contemplate ideas to which they can relate. In Blackboard Jungle the hoodlums are mobilized (none too believably) by the moral implications of Jack and the Beanstalk. Jim Stark and his peers are mesmerized and then traumatized by Ian Wolfe's doom-laden speech about the end of the universe, complete with visual effects on the planetarium ceiling that clearly represent nuclear annihilation. Why should teens mind their P's & Q's and respect authority, when those in charge of the world are trying so hard to murder the entire human race? 3
It is now difficult to assess the original achievement of James Dean's interpretation of the modern teen. Practically every depiction since of American youth has been influenced by his example. The only real debate over disaffected young men in movies from then 'til now is deciding if a particular actor is riffing on Dean in this picture or Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The vacuum left by Dean's death launched a dozen big careers. As 25 year-old, Steve(n) McQueen really had to stretch to pretend he was a confused high-schooler in The Blob. It's said that future Billy Jack Tom Laughlin drove director Robert Altman nuts by making an entire crew wait while he ran around the block to be suitably winded for a scene in 1957's The Delinquents. Robert Vaughn, Robert Drivas, Michael Parks ... the list goes on and on, and includes Rebel alumni Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams.
Nicholas Ray's visual storytelling cannot be faulted. An unstable perfectionist, Ray fostered intimate relationships with his actors and encouraged a style of improvisation almost unknown on studio shoots. As Jim Stark's dad, actor Jim Backus was reportedly quite shaken to find himself manhandled in take after take, with James Dean tossing him across his living room. A Dean inspiration would frequently lead to an unplanned Ray setup.
Los Angeles also never looked better. The Griffith Observatory will forever be most famous as the locale for Hollywood's first teen switchblade fight, and anybody driving west on Pico in Santa Monica will instantly recognize the front of Santa Monica High as Jim Stark's alma mater. I don't remember any specific rash of murderous "chickie runs" imitating the grandiose finish at the cliffs of Portuguese Point, but no doubt similar mishaps were blamed on the film, which the Sparkhill featurette tells us ended up being banned in many communities. 4
Frankly, another reason that Rebel Without a Cause plays better now than it did in 1970 is the distance between us and some of the casting. Both Jim Backus and Edward Platt got snickers of recognition as Mr. Magoo and Maxwell Smart's 'The Chief' in Get Smart. Now they no longer seem confined to those associations.
Warners' 2-disc DVD of Rebel Without a Cause looks terrific, with a sharp enhanced transfer and improved colors. Unlike East of Eden the soundtrack is not billed as a remaster, but it's as forceful as always. Leonard Rosenman's score must have stuck in Bernard Herrmann's dreams, because a main melody line seems to have migrated intact into his score for Marnie (and a tiny phrase into Fahrenheit 451 as well?).
Douglas L. Rathgeb's commentary fills us in on a million details starting with the origin of the mysterious monkey toy that Dean plays with behind the titles. You can tell that the WB publicists recognize Dean-mania - the trailer is so excited about the hot actor, it barely has time to mention the presence of Natalie Wood.
Disc two has a treasure trove of tests, screen tests, and wardrobe tests that back up the stories of how the teen gang was assembled for the film. "Additional Scenes" include several B&W takes shot before the movie was switched to color.
Climbing the quality ladder of featurettes, first up are three fat segments from Warners' promotional TV show with Gig Young, the kind of fluff that spends minutes contemplating the grandeur of studio trucks rolling to location. But it does contain Dean's famously ironic 'Drive Safely' plug. Next up is a garishly painful docu called James Dean Remembered, which uses Peter Lawford as a lame-beyond-belief host in hipster garb circa 1972 or so. It's hard getting through to the content.
Sparkhill's new featurette rounds up several of the teen actors from Rebel to comment on the experience of working on a famous film with the legendary actor. The lore/myth/rumors are more believable when heard directly from the mouths of folks who were actually there. We're told that when studio folk came for Natalie Wood after a car accident with Dennis Hopper, she pointed down the hospital corridor and said "that doctor called me a delinquent!" as an endorsement for getting the Judy role. Wood's boyfriend Hopper was reportedly written out of the picture after she started an affair with the older Ray, a situation similar to the John Ireland/Joanne Dru/Howard Hawks legend on the movie Red River.
The Complete James Dean Collection gathers the actor's films together for the first time. They've all since been reissued and given ratings: Giant is "G", East of Eden "PG" and that daa-angerous Rebel Without a Cause is "PG-13". Hollywood hadn't time to quite accept Dean among their own and nominated him as a best supporting actor on Eden and finally as best actor on Giant. Although there is no expected fourth disc with the newest long-form docus on Dean, the boxed set will encourage fans that only know one movie to check out the other two. Those already familiar with Rebel will surely be impressed by the wondrous East of Eden, and intrigued by the epic Giant and its progressive social agenda.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviewed: May 28, 2005
1. Along with Rebel
Without a Cause and scores of other Warners stereophonic films from this time, the original
four-track stereo version of East of Eden was rescued in the late 1980s by then- special
projects manager Michael Arick. He haunted the Library of Congress for days until the clerks
finally admitted that the Warners file prints (with their original magnetic-striped stereo audio)
were on-site and available. Warners had long since thrown away their own stereo masters.
2. When I say that we 1971 college freshmen thought Rebel Without a Cause
was cornball and overdone, I don't mean to imply that we were fit judges. Most of us nodded lamely
when confronted by the fuzzy non-philosophies of things like
Easy Rider. Time has also
taken the sting of awkwardness away from the film's image of 1955 teens. Nowadays, anything more
realistic about the 50's aesthetic than the moronic
Grease has to be considered
a rare find.
3. More Nicholas Ray trivia - the planetarium speaker Ian Wolfe is also
Ray's voice of doom in They Live by Night, telling the young criminal Bowie that he hasn't a chance of
escaping with his new bride.
4. The ultimate idiocy of movie copycats was the news that some high
football players were reportedly killed when imitating a stunt seen in The Program, a teen
movie about jocks partying
after the big game. They lay down in the middle of the road on the dotted lane lines to prove their mettle, as
cars zoomed by on both sides. The scene was even in the trailer of the film, shown around 1991 or so.
There's no way to prevent this kind of stupidity except to ban performances of Peter Pan - kids might jump out
windows, you know. Or maybe it would suffice to euthanize all high school athletes the moment they make varsity.
Rah! Rah! Zis Boom Splat!