There are a handful of actors and actresses on this planet who you could say gained more by their death rather than their entire life. One of these actors was James Dean. James Dean was born on February 8th, 1931 in Marion, Indiana. In the next 24 years, he would bridge himself to stardom. But arguably, he wouldn’t receive that iconic status until he died on September 30th, 1955 in a horrible car accident in his Porsche 550 Spyder in Cholame, California. The people at Hollywood Select Video decided to release a 2-disc collection of various television pieces he did before his most recognized three films: Rebel Without a Cause, Giant & East of Eden. These pieces give an interesting look at the rise of a legend.
On December 13th, 1950, a Pepsi commercial aired with the curious slogan of “More bounce to the ounce”. It featured a young James Dean at 19 years of age who was hired because he looked like a typical teenager. A few months later he played a role in Hill Number One, a family theater production that played out like a Bible recreation. It recounted events that happened after the death of Jesus. Here James plays the youngest of Christ’s Apostles: John.
Next on Dean’s slate was a few pieces for the Westinghouse Studio One where he played a bellhop with a certain swagger in a fancy hotel. The more important role was a speaking one where he played a Union Soldier who was court martialed for falling asleep on the job. However, he was saved by one Abraham Lincoln and this was a pivotal part in the film as it showed how stoic but gentle one of the greatest presidents was. Another Westinghouse piece entitled Sentence of Death had him in the role of being accused for a murder he didn’t commit.
Odd roles would also be taken by James Dean. One was an episode of Tales of Tomorrow called Evil Within in mid-1953 where he played an assistant named Ralph to a scientist who invents a solution that unlocks evil within humans. The scientist’s wife ingests the potion and starts to plan his murder. On the Campbell Soundstage in Something for an Empty Briefcase, James played Joe Adams, an ex-con who wants to go straight but then tries to snatch a purse. The girl who owns the purse doesn’t rat him and instead the two fall in love.
As the winter months of 1953 and early 1954, James Dean found himself in an increasing important role each time he came on camera. Sticking with the criminal role, he plays a ex-hoodlum Joey Harris in A Long Time Till Dawn from Kraft Television Theater. Here he gets out of prison and tries to reunite with his wife and become an auto mechanic. Naturally things don’t go as planned. Future roles would have him playing a young stockroom worker trying to support his family or a farm boy wishing to marry a city girl he had a summer fling with.
However, a pivotal role came in late 1954, in General Electric Theater for the episode entitled I’m a Fool. Here he again plays a naive country boy who dresses up to be a go getter uptown type. He meets the love of his life (played by Natalie Wood) but then loses her because of the charade. This is important for a few reasons. Due to this performance, he and Natalie Wood would land their roles in “Rebel Without A Cause”. There is also an introduction done here by Ronald Reagan who would later re-film the introduction with mention of James Dean’s death since it was so close to the happening.
The rest is history. James Dean would go on to star in his big three films: East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause & Giant. There is some controversy over a Highway Safety PSA that was filmed in December of 1955 with Dean. Conflicting reports say it was after he left the set of Giant and that he did a PSA for Highway Safety where he gives the advice of “Take it easy driving, the life you save might be mine”. It’s controversial because it never aired and that the line was actually ad-libbed. It was supposed to be “The life you save might be your own”. Thirteen days later, he died behind the wheel of his Porsche and the rest is Hollywood legend and myth.
This two disc collection contains pieces of television most people have simply not seen, even for a lot of fans who see the actor as icon of a rebel youths with rugged good looks and daring ways. In reality, James Dean was a farm boy who was acting out and perhaps growing up way too fast for his psyche to handle properly. However, throughout the two discs you do see a metamorphosis. James starts out in bit roles but does a little something with each one to make him stand out. Soon, he is taking supporting roles and standing out even more until he started to land his large most known roles.
There is some problems with the two disc though. One, the picture quality ranges from okay to awful. True, most of these productions are in the public domain but if there was anything done to clean them up, I sure didn’t see it. That is excusable due to the age and assumed condition of the footage. The inexcusable issue I have is spelling and other grammatical mistakes in the little introductions that accompany each episode or commercial. Obvious ones include a misspelling of Porsche (Posrche) and certain grammatical faux-pas like punctuation. But then there was just laziness too where all of the dvd chapters for a section would be named “Synopsis” instead of act numbers.
Perhaps, since I received a screener copy, these errors were fixed when the discs went gold and into true production. But they go through the effort of including a lot of interesting footage of James Dean and then just don’t seem to follow through on the little things. The discs also include seven trailers which include four movies where he didn’t have a credited part. There is also a documentary directed by Robert Altman included on the disc which was done a couple of years after his death. Fans of James Dean will appreciate these two discs, however casual viewers will be dis-swayed by the sloppiness and the production value. If you followed the man’s career, then you probably want to fork over the cash for the package. It’s an amazing look into how a farm boy became a man, but then couldn’t handle being that man. A tragic death later and his estate today still makes several million a year off that whirlwind Hollywood career. It’s a shame, it really is.