Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Michael J. Sheridan is an archivist and film editor with an impeccable set of credits and the kind of preservation-activist rap sheet that should be given special notice in our industry. Starting as a lab worker and eventually head negative cutter at MGM in the 1960s, he graduated to editorial work on features. His knowledge of the MGM library made him acutely aware of the dangerous trend in the 1970s to empty film vaults of the kinds of associated extras that we now know are invaluable - work prints, deleted scenes, optical negatives, audio odds and ends. His expertise eventually brought about the
That's Entertainment! nostalgic compilation films. When the MGM lot was closed down to become Lorimar, Sheridan got himself in hot water by rescuing tons of irreplaceable film that was simply being thrown into dumpsters because the lawyers and executives considered it useless junk. Plenty of gems that show up as extras on Turner/Warner/MGM DVDs exist because of Michael personally sticking his neck out.
Not only that, but Sheridan is an excellent source of information on what really happened around MGM, going back to 1963 or so - through him Savant learned many facts about the final cuts of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the hack job done on Roman Polanski's
Dance of the Vampires for its initial domestic release.
I met Mr. Sheridan personally in 1998 when he was already a couple of years into putting together his personal grail film, a documentary about his favorite actor James Dean. Instead of interviewing people about Dean, which had been done many times before, Sheridan had the idea of assembling every scrap of Dean's early television and film work. All the fans have seen Dean's
three starring features but except for a clip here and there, most of his four prolific years of work has been out of reach since it aired. Sheridan spent years tracking down good copies of Dean's shows, finding many that were thought to have been destroyed. He also made preliminary arrangements to use hundreds of famous photos of Dean taken by name photographers, several of whom had become friends with the actor and made him one of the most-photographed personalities of the time.
After all the research and editing, Sheridan had a show with amazing content that would make any Dean fan water at the mouth. But getting the film to completion would take almost ten years. Why?
One cannot just cut together a lot of film and expect the world to leap forward to bless one's project, no matter how interesting it is. There's a fascinating docu going around called L.A. Plays Itself that uses clips from Hollywood films to paint a portrait of Los Angeles. So far it's been shown mainly as a special presentation with the filmmaker narrating, because the clip licensing fees for the project would be extraordinary. Not only do studios ask large sums per second to use their clips, they have every right to turn down a clip sale if they don't like the context. And one reason they might not like a project is because its producer assembled their property (the clips) presuming that they could be had. Clips can be like real estate - the price can go up when it's known the footage is essential to a project. Call a studio's clip licensing phone line sometime. Because of the constant deluge of flaky inquiries and fishing expeditions ("I might need a clip,") some won't respond without a hefty up-front fee.
And just because one pays a lot of money for a clip from a studio, it doesn't mean one has the right to use it without 'clearing' the personalities on-screen, or any music that might be heard, or in some cases the play being performed. It all depends on the language of the contract by which the original production was made. Sometimes it's easy, and in other cases one finds out that actor x (or actor x's estate) has veto power over any use of his likeness, and has lawyers waiting in ambush for the unwary producer who dares inquire what payment might be necessary.
Also, publishing rights for the classic photos of Dean weren't available just for the asking. Many of these stills fetch high fees when reprinted in magazines and books. Michael Sheridan had to assemble a preliminary file of prospective deal memoes ... "If the docu is made, then I will agree to ..." All of this cooperation takes a great deal of time and trust to make happen.
As the core James Dean film material was of course controlled by Warner Bros., the film's key deal had to be with them. But James Dean: Forever Young was such a unique docu that it eventually cleared all of the obstacles in its way.
James Dean has easily had more biographical films made about him than any other star. As early as 1957, Warners put out
The James Dean Story, a fragmented bio co-directed by a young Robert Altman that was so desperate for material, it filmed a UCLA student who remembered Dean from the Sigma Nu fraternity. All of the docus probed into Dean's personality as if it were a big mystery, and some reached for cosmic implications in the circumstances around his early death.
Michael Sheridan's movie is almost 100% straight prime-source Dean performances and photos, accompanied by a fine narration script (read by Martin Sheen) that sticks to the facts and allows us to draw our own conclusions. We see that Dean had terrific luck. He was obviously a friendly sort that made good contacts wherever he went, and not just with people who could advance his career. He had solid friendships with his fellow New York hopefuls and stayed with them even as he found success, going so far as to promote some careers himself. We see some great candid shots of Dean and Martin Landau at New York coffee counters.
Dean obviously was an extremely good-looking fellow who would stick out of a cattle call and attract the eyes of directors and photographers. He also talked with a natural rural Midwestern accent, which made it easy to picture him as unsophisticated or immature characters -- his immediate contemporary Montgomery Clift perhaps had to work harder to be accepted as an ordinary guy.
By using narration to chart Dean's movements between New York and Hollywood between 1951 and 1955, the film gives us an accurate picture of just how industrious the actor was, rushing between assignments and scoring positively in almost all of them. And he works with an astonishing group of players then trying out the new waters of live television - Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, John Carradine, Betsy Palmer, Edward Binns. A lot of the teleplays are about troubled kids or young punks up to their necks in crime, but there are also oddball assignments like Biblical plays, or a hayseed skit where Dean is a hillbilly angel complete with wings. James Dean: Forever Young has at least forty minutes of this fascinating television work. The narration points out an amusing moment when Dean apparently pads one non-speaking bit as a bellboy by sneaking in a few unscripted words - we see some very un-amused looks on the face of co-star John Forsythe.
What we get from the clips is the realization that Dean wasn't a God but simply a very good actor who went through the same mill that everyone else did. He was noticed by big names like Elia Kazan, and he didn't confront them with a mass of psychological problems - Dean was a halfway simple guy who wanted to make good and was able to make a good impression with his personality and work habits. There's nothing so amazing about any of that, unless those qualities were rare in a person of such high talents. After this docu one has a better handle on Dean than after any of the interview pieces I've seen.
Besides the fine selection of portrait-study photographs, Sheridan makes deft use of candids. Dean's story ties in well with the rest of Hollywood history when we see him trading on-set visits with Marlon Brando (on Desiree) and visiting with his relatives when crossing the country.
Photos and home movies of Dean's car racing hobby chart the last weeks of his life right up to his death on the highway. I believe the shots of a Porsche car zooming up the road are taken from an earlier docu, but I don't remember which one. Sheridan shows us the actor's associations with Liz Taylor and Pier Angeli without delving deeply into his love life or reaching for sensational details - there's enough here to set the average Dean fan reevaluating the actor from a fresh start. I'm glad it turned out so well.
Warners' DVD of James Dean: Forever Young is a solid enhanced transfer of an unusually clean-looking show. The old kinescopes of Dean's productions were either in great shape or have been given a serious digital going-over. Timothy Wynn's sparse score is accompanied by carefully chosen pop songs by Bruce Springsteen, Jim Croce and Paul McCartney and Wings.
There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
James Dean: Forever Young rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson