A 2006 Encounter With James Dean --- Part One
How come James Dean seems less interesting to me now than his various co-stars and supporting players? Maybe I’m tired of everything revolving around him. Among those casts of his three big features, there was plenty of drama to go around. I looked at the extras on the DVD’s this week and found myself pondering the fates of Jim Stark’s classmates who didn’t die young --- the ones that survived to pull their time in forgotten movies and disposable TV shows. Cheapo Warner programs seem to have been the alumni clubhouse for youthful movie hopefuls who’d sputtered on the launching pad. Richard Davalos had to watch Dean take all the bows for East Of Eden, but Davalos got to outlive Jimmy by fifty years (and counting), though his acting future would take him in the direction of Hawaiian Eye and any number of other 60’s vid staples. Same for Corey Allen, Dean’s switchblade opponent in Rebel Without A Cause. He did a Hawaiian Eye as well. All these young actors had to face a reality James Dean would be spared thanks to a premature death. Even those with promise faced the music of Surfside Six (Dennis Hopper), 77 Sunset Strip (Nick Adams), and God forbid, Frankenstein Conquers The World (Adams again). So what if Dean had lived? My own guess pretty much assigns him the career Paul Newman enjoyed, but wait, could Jim have delivered the goods for the next half a century as Newman would? I’m not so sure. He’d have likely been exposed before long (Humphrey Bogart speculated as much shortly after 9/30/55) --- imagine Dean submitting to Rally Round The Flag, Boys or The Secret War Of Harry Frigg. Well, actually, it’s easy to picture such an eventuality, but harder, perhaps, to envision Dean successfully running such a studio gauntlet. We do know that Jim was all but set to do Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left-Handed Gun, both of which were ultimately played by Newman. Whatever career he may have ended up with, Dean was indeed lucky to go out with the pristine screen record he had. His fans would have certainly been disillusioned to encounter a middle-aged James Dean in decline, holding up one corner of a late sixties TV tent like The Bold Ones or The Name Of The Game, and yet, if he’d lived, it might have come to that …
Having checked out East Of Eden, I was again struck by the artful manner in which experienced character actors accommodated Jimmy’s ultra-mannered playing and very often pulled his inexperienced bacon out of the fire. Succeeding generations of aspiring players might well have chosen more seasoned role models over the Dean image they worshipped so unceasingly --- hey, I’d nominate Albert Dekker for one. That old reliable Dr. Cyclops is a steady pivot around which self-indulgent Jimmy can twirl --- Burl Ives too (you can almost feel his frustration with Dean in this still of them together). These guys stand there and deliver dialogue like the old pros they are, while Dean relentlessly mopes, sulks, and whines (Ann pointed out to me that if young men had really acted that way back in 1917, when the story takes place, they would have probably been put away). Raymond Massey’s the primary unfortunate we always hear about in those production anecdotes --- forever depicted as the stolid old performer clinging doggedly to inflexible line readings as this revolutionary genius of acting shows him a thing or two about spontaneity. Well, for my money, it’s folks like Massey that made Dean look good. They were noble (if unwitting) straight men to a show-off upstart from whom they might have expected a little more simple courtesy and professionalism. If Dean had lived long enough, he may well have gotten some of that same medicine from future hotshots --- imagine him achieving Massey's senior status and having to play opposite someone like Mickey Rourke.
I don’t want to knock Dean too hard here. He got a lot better on his second and third tries. Rebel Without A Cause (the subject of tomorrow’s Part Two) was an effectively deliberate movie star performance where he calculatingly turned on the charm for the fans he knew he’d accumulated since East Of Eden, and Giant is one of the great, if unintended, self-parodies in all movies. The problem with Jimmy in East Of Eden is that he’s such a crybaby. Did 1954 chicks dig that? The one I watched it with didn’t. Some happy day I hope to see one interview where a brave member of that long-in-the-tooth acting brigade who once worked with James Dean is willing to stand up and say, You know what? He seemed like a big deal then, but his stuff just doesn’t work for me anymore. Of course, that’s a sure way to get your footage jettisoned from any of the Dean documentaries that have so far emerged from that profitable ongoing industry, but I’d sure be glad to present the Courage award to any of those old-timers prepared to just once part from the standard verse. By the way, to clear up the matter of Marilyn Monroe’s presence here --- she served as volunteer usherette at the East Of Eden premiere --- handing Milton Berle his program in this shot.
Here’s something they did get right in East Of Eden --- the clothes. I swear I think that’s what got the serious youth money this one brought ($3.3 million in profit --- the equal of Jack Webb’s Dragnet feature!). Check out this still of Jim in his sweater and open collared shirt. Really sporty, not in 1917 perhaps, but it sure rang the bell in 1954. I could slip into any of these ensembles and look way cool today. To hell with all that period accuracy and verisimilitude stuff. These outfits, simple yet timeless, were exactly the way to sell East Of Eden (I must admit that Richard Davalos’ pompadour was a little beyond the pale --- although it nicely anticipated similar looks to come with Fabian and Rick Nelson). The costume tests for the three principals shown here looks to be among those later discarded. Rigid period sartorial adherence was well and good for Davalos and Julie Harris, but our boy Dean was far too valuable a merchandise to cinch up in heavy wool suits with celluloid collars. The smartest move Warners made was keeping him in those khakis and lightweight tops (it does at least explain why they wouldn’t let him wear something in the way of a jacket whilst hopping all those freights!). This was the kind of showmanship WB needed when it came time to cast The Spirit Of St. Louis a few years later. Were it not for casting conflicts (Giant), we may well have had James Dean as Lindbergh instead of an aging James Stewart. Imagine the boom in aviation wear we might have had with Dean as a fashion inspiration --- kids would have probably been wearing flight goggles to school! That Davy Crockett coonskin cap thing would have never gotten off the ground.