Two years after the death of the 24-year-old actor in a car crash, THE JAMES DEAN STORY appeared on the nation's screens, where it reinforced the myth and fed the cult that had grown around the talented young maverick. Suffused with romantic melancholy, the film betrayed none of the cool,
modernist detachment that later became associated with its co-director, Robert Altman.
Because its subject died so young, THE JAMES DEAN STORY did not have to strain to cover all the key phases of his life. Following the death of his mother, nine-year-old Jimmy Dean comes to the small farm town of Fairmount, Indiana, to be raised by an uncle and aunt. As an adolescent, he develops
an interest in athletics, painting, motorcycles, and acting. After a stint at UCLA, Dean heads to New York City, where he acquires a reputation as an eccentric and a rebel. After studying at the Actors Studio, he scores a triumph in a play called "The Immoralist" and goes west to conquer
Hollywood. There, he lands major roles in EAST OF EDEN (1955), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), and GIANT (1956). His reputation and cult status growing by the minute, particularly among the young, he crashes his Porsche en route to a race he has entered and dies almost instantly.
THE JAMES DEAN STORY begins in self-hype with the printed promise of "a different kind of motion picture" featuring "a new technique" based on the "dynamic exploration of still photographs." The film's use of stills--panned and zoomed wherever possible--is indeed ingenious and adroit, though
hardly revolutionary. The movie's production designer referred to the technique as "photo motion," though he confessed, in a more candid moment, that the film was "put together with stick-um." The effectiveness of the photos is due less to their interesting juxtaposition than to their subject's
remarkable handsomeness and to his extraordinary talent for posing.
The film stands or falls, however, on its narration, which was written by Stewart Stern, who worked on the script for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and was a close friend of Dean. Stern emphasized the sensitive, romantic, little-boy-lost side of his late friend--the side that appealed most to Dean's
teenage fans--and soft-pedaled his less attractive traits. The sincerity of Stern's heartfelt script goes a long way toward compensating for some of its adolescent excess ("Fly, bird"). At one point, Stern provides viewers with an interesting psychological profile of Dean, complete with symbolic
"We weren't as tough on him as we originally intended to be," Altman said later, and Stern tended to agree, referring to the movie as "a kind of reinstitution of the legend that we were trying to avoid." This was, perhaps, inevitable, given the target audience for the documentary and the fact that
its subject was a mystery even to those closest to him. "He was hard to understand, you know?" says one witness. The filmmakers apparently empathized with this statement, which they ran twice.
Aside from the stills, the most important visual ingredient in THE JAMES DEAN STORY is the numerous filmed interviews with Dean's friends and kinfolk, all of whom seemed to have liked him a great deal. (Winton Dean, Jimmy's father, declined cooperation with the filmmakers and is nowhere mentioned
in the film.) In one of the high spots of the movie, we hear a surreptitious recording Dean made on one of his visits to Fairmount. Intrigued by the coincidence of his great-grandfather Cal Dean, an auctioneer, bearing the same first name as the character he had just portrayed in EAST OF EDEN
(1955), Dean asks his grandfather for a sample of an auctioneer's spiel. After hearing it, the delighted Dean explodes into the inimitable boyish laughter he occasionally unleashed on screen.
Also included is a small portion of the retrospectively touching traffic safety spot Dean made with Gig Young (another doomed figure) shortly before the fatal accident. Later to be reprised to death, the spot concludes with Dean revising the familiar slogan "The life you save may be your own" to
"The life you might save might be mine" while playing with the weighted rope he exploited so memorably in GIANT (1956).
Warner Bros., which had released Dean's three major movies and was still harvesting the fruits of the James Dean craze, contributed to the finished film a priceless excerpt from Dean's EAST OF EDEN screen test along with some celebrity footage from GIANT's premiere. The studio launched the
documentary with a big publicity campaign that included a soundtrack LP and the exhibition of Dean's mangled Porsche at a Los Angeles theater. But it was all of little avail. Arriving too late, or possibly too early, in the course of the legend of James Dean, the picture was a major box-office
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- Review: Two years after the death of the 24-year-old actor in a car crash, THE JAMES DEAN STORY appeared on the nation's screens, where it reinforced the myth and fed the cult that had grown around the talented young maverick. Suffused with romantic melancholy, th… (more)