East of Eden Rebel Without a Cause Giant Warners
Color Street Date May 31, 2005 68.92
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
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,
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.)
East of Eden 1955 / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 118 min. / (individual price) 26.99
Starring Julie Harris, James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives,
Richard Davalos, Jo Van Fleet, Albert Dekker
Cinematography Ted McCord
Art Direction James Basevi, Malcolm Bert
Film Editor Owen Marks
Original Music Leonard Rosenman
Written by Paul Osborn, John Steinbeck from his novel
Produced and Directed by Elia Kazan
1917. 'Wild' teenager Cal Trask (James Dean) lives with his widowed father Adam
Massey) and 'Good' brother Aron (Richard Davalos) in Salinas. The inquisitive Cal hears rumors
that his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is still alive and hops trains to see her in Monterey - where
she runs a house of prostitution. Seeking redemption in his father's eyes, Cal enters
a business partnership with Will Hamilton (Albert Dekker) to profit from the coming war. But nothing
turns out as Cal plans, especially when Aron's girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) finds herself drawn
to Cal's side.
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
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
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
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 1955 / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 111 min.
Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran,
Corey Allen, William Hopper, Rochelle Hudson, Dennis Hopper, Edward Platt
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Art Direction Malcolm C. Bert
Film Editor William Ziegle
Original Music Leonard Rosenman
Written by Nicholas Ray, Irving Shulman, Stewart Stern
Produced by David Weisbart
Directed by Nicholas Ray
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.
Jim Stark (James Dean) is the troubled new kid in town; he immediately tangles with
the tough high school crowd that drive hot rods and sometimes carry switchblades. But he's attracted
to dreamy neighbor girl Judy (Natalie Wood) and protective of an introverted kid, John "Plato"
Crawford (Sal Mineo). Despite the pleas of his ineffectual and hypocritical parents, Jim keeps to
his dangerous path and is eventually involved in the death of a charismatic gang leader during
a "chickie run" daredevil game on a seaside Palos Verdes bluff. When Plato runs away in panic, Judy
and Jim hide out with him in an abandoned house in Los Feliz, as the police close in thinking that
they're dealing with armed and dangerous 'wild juvenile delinquents.'
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.
Giant 1956 / 1:66 flat letterbox / 201 min. / 26.99
(reviewed by DVD Savant separately at
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,
The Complete James Dean Collection rates:
Movie: EOE: Excellent RWAC: Excellent G: Excellent
Video: EOE: Excellent RWAC: Excellent G: Good
Sound: EOE: Excellent RWAC: Excellent G: Excellent
Supplements: see above
Packaging: 3 two-disc Keep cases in card sleeve 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. Return
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. Return
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. Return
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! Return