Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Warners and The James Dean Cult --- Part Two

It took Elvis Presley to wash away tears we’d shed over the loss of James Dean. Love Me Tender began the healing with saturation bookings in November 1956. Unlike Warners’ slow rollout of Giant, Elvis and company surged in with a (for Fox) record of five hundred prints to make sure everyone wanting Presley got him then and there. Love Me Tender came into many theatres right behind Giant, and lines announced youth’s embrace of a new teen idol. Should 1956 Hollywood go forward with that proposed Dean biopic, why not let Elvis play Jimmy? It was considered, perhaps not seriously, but few concepts flew higher than a newly minted sensation enacting another who had lately departed. Presley was a known Dean acolyte, but too fresh and untried to haul burdens of a posthumous image darkening with sad and sadder stories of how life and people had let Jimmy down. "Kansas City filmmaker" Robert Altman (so identified by the trades) went in search of loner Dean with scriptwriting George George in a spec documentary project they’d begun in November 1956. The James Dean Story was (so far) sixty-five minutes of profile and interviews with Jim’s relatives back in Indiana. Months passed with bankrolls depleted (by $20,000) as Altman and George shopped their project around for distribution. Would the Dean cult last as long as these two would take to set up a deal? TV networks were better able to strike while Dean irons simmered. He’s hotter than anybody alive!, said one NBC exec. That web was repeating a Robert Montgomery Presents that Dean had done with Ed Begley and Dorothy Gish called Harvest, while CBS was giving third broadcast go round to The Unlighted Road, a Playhouse Of The Stars featuring Dean. CBS also reran I’m A Fool, with Natalie Wood among Jim’s support. All these were scheduled during a Dean-heavy month of November when old anthology product with the actor regularly Trendex-trounced competing stations. All three shows exploited the Dean legend for frankly commercial purposes, said TIME, but as any JD footage was so many ribbons of gold, how could you blame networks for mining them? Warners meanwhile noted awards and nominations still coming Dean’s way. Golden Globe "Henriettas" went to he and Kim Novak in March 1957, while the Academy tabbed Jimmy among possible Best Actors for his work in Giant. It was time for WB to get serious about their backlog. No more limited engagements and catch-as-catch-can bookings for East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause. In response to the overwhelming demand, said advertising, both would be reissued with a new campaign for nationwide combo runs in 1957. Let kids pose with Dean standee. Tie in with local photog or use personal camera, said new pressbooks, Offer free pictures between five and seven PM. Still taboo was mention of the actor’s death in publicity kits. A psychologist or member of the clergy could give talks at the theatre on the meaning of James Dean to teenagers was closest they’d come to dealing with the cult and its cultural ramifications (but what right-minded showman would furnish a lectern for such?). Flip-books of the chicken run sequence from Rebel Without A Cause were made available to whet darker patron appetites, while taglines trumpeted the Academy nomination for Giant. Eden/Rebel played percentage and fattened many an exhibitor’s purse, in addition to enabling recent Dean converts to catch up with his limited output (not unlike later James Bond fans turned on by Goldfinger acquainting themselves with earlier 007 via the Summer 1965 encore of Dr. No with From Russia With Love).

As time passed, Dean cultism was eased toward the margins. Kids were ready to ease up and have a little fun with it. Enter the spook showman. If fans were so anxious to bring Jimmy back, well, that was simple enough. New York’s Jefferson Theatre offered "The Materialization Of James Dean" as part of a stage show wherein JD shared residency with Count Dracula in a so-called "House Of The Living Dead". So much for respectful tribute. The press reported a teen girl found slumped and writhing in her seat in the wake of shock and convulsions sustained during the show’s climax. Two male rowdies had been fighting in an adjacent aisle. One of them kicked her in the head while the lights were out. All this followed said materialization, which consisted wholly of the showing of an illuminated photograph of Dean’s face during one of innumerable blackouts. Hooliganism was an increasing problem as youth patrons emulated anti-social behavior they observed on screens playing The Blackboard Jungle, American-International delinquency pics, and yes, Rebel Without A Cause. Increasingly raucous spook rallies did little to restore calm. A dozen uniformed NYC police were needed on this occasion to quell effects of electric shocks, face-slapping from invisible hands, and a roving gorilla named Gargantua. Ushers with luminous painted features chased up, down, and between rows as screen attraction Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy unspooled. Others were poised meanwhile to exploit gothic possibilities of ongoing Dean fascination. Faded from airwaves Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira) saw profit potential in one-time association she’d had with JD. They’d been friends, maybe more, she implied. Anyhow, the Dean factor fleshed out an act gone stale on fading memories of Vampira’s single year hit doing Los Angeles television, and she’d make the most of it. Maila claimed to be in communication with Dean through the veil and not adverse to on-stage discussions regarding the black magic curse she’d placed on the departed actor for having spurned her. Jimmy’s fans called out to me: "Did you kill him?" I didn’t answer them. The Vampira act was useful adjunct to shilling she’d done up and down the California coast during April 1957 for United Artists’s double chiller bill of Voodoo Island and Pharoah’s Curse (here she’s posed with Bel-Air producer Ed Zabel and a Fox West Coast Theatres manager). The restless spirit of James Dean was now inexorably linked with carny-inspired freak fairs and low-budget horror-thons. All this as someone else picked up the Academy Award for which Dean had been nominated.

Sensing perhaps a need to dignify, if not honor, Dean’s memory, Warners lent support to an (at last) worthy gesture in his name. 1956 had been recorded as California’s blackest year from the standpoint of traffic deaths. An exhibitor who was also Public Information Director for the California Traffic Safety Foundation submitted a script to WB for a short highlighting the problem. Would they consider making a public service film with Cheyenne’s Clint Walker as on-screen host? Television division exec William Orr volunteered studio resources for a subject which would ultimately go to National Screen for distribution. 150 California first-runs got it free for a week beginning June 26, 1957, with drive-ins and other venues to follow after the July 4 holiday (host Walker is shown here taking delivery of a print). Within the week, another Presley feature opened. Loving You would further chip away at Dean’s youth idol preeminence. An Elvis craze was sweeping the country, and it was bigger than Jim’s ever was. Jailhouse Rock would be along in October with the promise of many more to come. Warners had meanwhile dragged feet committing to distribution for Altman and George’s documentary. The James Dean Story was finally announced for WB release in June 1957, but they’d first need to polish it up with industry sheen missing from the barely over an hour’s content submitted by the Kansas City filmmakers. A musical score was added and rocker of the moment Tommy Sands sang a theme tune (Let Me Be Loved) penned by veterans Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. A heavy score by Leith Stevens and doom-laden narration by actor Martin Gabel emphasized downer aspects of Dean’s life, as though early death were just another sad chapter laid atop those many preceding it. Warners fleshed out the running time to 83 minutes with screen tests Dean had made for East Of Eden and at last permitted public scrutiny of that road safety spot with Gig Young intended for Warner Brothers Presents. There would be an August 13, 1957 (near) hometown premiere for The James Dean Story at the Paramount Theatre (shown here) in Marion, Indiana. The state governor and Indiana’s US senator were in attendance. Eveready Nick Adams flew in from Hollywood and opening festivities were coordinated with the annual County Fair in full swing. A huge night parade featured school bands, saddle clubs, girl and boy scouts, plus the Strategic Air Command in flight. Nick Adams, then reigning Miss Fairmount, plus other dignitaries, visited Dean’s old high school and his grave, with a barbecue for all capping festivities at the Winslow Farm where Jimmy had lived with his aunt and uncle. A twelve foot monument unveiled for the premiere may or may not still be standing (anyone know?), though WB presumably stood good on its pledge to donate opening proceeds to a Fairmount school for aspiring actors.

Seventy-three Indiana theatres played The James Dean Story after its regional premiere. Then business fell off. Hindsight suggests Warners waited too long to get the documentary out. New York’s double feature playdate at their Paramount Theatre found The James Dean Story supporting The Black Scorpion, while other situations put it in second position behind A Face In The Crowd (as shown here). TIME’s review was expectedly dismissive. It exploits a ghoulish clamor for Dean’s voice to echo once more from the grave, but it does so with a mortician’s lugubrious solicitude for the living. Soft domestic rentals of $335,000 for The James Dean Story suggested a cult having run its course. Warner’s modest pickup cost of $50,000 assured they’d get a profit, and that in the end amounted to $200,000. This would be the third and last James Dean released since his death. There was nothing left to sell. By mid-1958, WB had Jimmy’s dramatic successor launched in a western slated originally for Dean. The Left-Handed Gun is one of those where you can shut your eyes or ears and summon up JD even as Paul Newman emotes the title role.  Newman seems to me to have had much the (early) career Dean would have enjoyed if not for 9/30/55. The two were screen-tested together in 1954 for East Of Eden, the footage still extant. Would Warners have given Newman such late 50’s opportunities with Dean still living? The sad dispersal of East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause to televised oblivion happened in Summer, 1960. Both were dumped into late shows and ninety-minute berths nationwide. For these two pictures carefully composed for Cinemascope projection, the loss was especially ruinous. It would be years before either would be seen properly by audiences discovering Dean. Giant was held back for theatrical reissues. The first of these in 1963 played Dean’s participation way down. The trailer spotted him fleetingly and near unrecognizable in a scene where he's covered with oil. That seven years later campaign was all about Liz and Rock (their names towering high in previews). Why promote Dean and give emphasis to the fact you’re peddling an old movie? The cult of yore was surely a spent thing by 1963. It would echo if faintly when Warners’ 1970 reissue trailer appeared. By then, a culture of disaffected youth had thrown its net over most filmland product, as witness narration: The star who became a legend, who spoke for all the restless young as no one has before or since (domestic rental take for Giant that year was $539,000). Marketing of Giant since has been given over altogether to Dean’s image. Kino’s 1982 reissue featured him alone on its one-sheet (shown here), while Warners DVD distribution finds Giant absorbed into a box set tribute to the actor.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember the 1982 reissue of Giant. Besides myself and my wife, there was exactly one other couple in that huge theater. (It had been booked into our remaining single screen house.)

6:19 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Can't really picture Dean as Reg Dunlop, though...

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading these these, thanks very much.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Erica Simpson said...

MMM nice photo of Buster, never seen that one before.

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's from "The Cameraman", no? And, Marceline Day is the girl, isn't that right? God only knows how Eddie Mannix must have looked after that fracas! Do you think ANYONE in the theatre that night was actually paying any attention to "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy"? I wonder. R.J.

7:24 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

It's "The Cameraman". By the way, these top banners will be changing often, as I'm having a lot of fun doing them.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Jailhouse Rock and 1950's traffic fatalities. Lest we forget Elvis's "Jailhouse" co-star, the lovely Judy Tyler. Judy was killed instantly in a nasty auto accident just after Jailhouse Rock wrapped and four months before it hit theaters. One wonders how bright her career would have been.

1:50 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023