[10 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Though it’s a bit puzzling why there would be a need to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the death of one of Hollywood’s most legendary stars, as opposed to, say, the 60th, Infinity Entertainment has chosen to do so with a special two-disc collector’s set. James Dean: The Fast Lane, From Country Boy to Hollywood Legend in 1,734 Days includes rarely seen footage of the young star in addition to several performances which have popped up elsewhere, officially or otherwise, over the years. It also features trailers for films in which Dean appeared and the little-seen 1957 documentary film The James Dean Story. It’s that comprehensiveness—this is certainly the most complete compilation of Dean’s early work yet—that makes this collection the “Collector’s Set” its cover proclaims.
James Dean is one of those rare icons, like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, whose presence in pop culture’s collective consciousness continues to grow even decades after death. To this day he is celebrated as a symbol of youth, of passion and of rebellion. He is remembered as much for his brooding good looks, brief, mythic rise and fast, fiery end as he is for East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. It’s hard to believe that he had only those three leading roles! Two of the three were nominated for Academy Awards, but only one had been released before his death, and that makes his enduring legacy all the more appealing.
Of course, while it might be tempting to believe those three films were his only screen performances because they are the only ones most people have seen, James Dean actually did have a number of other credits to his name. His debut, in 1950 at the age of 19, was in a commercial for Pepsi-Cola. Included here, the spot shows Dean getting the music going for a group of teens who’ve got “The Pepsi Bounce”. He was chosen for the commercial because it was felt he represented the typical teenager, which is perhaps a bit of foreshadowing of the place he later came to occupy in the public eye as the quintessential symbol of rebellious youth.
Rebelliousness often goes hand-in-hand with “tortured” or “troubled”, especially in the morality plays that made up much of television programming in the early ‘50s. In the ten on this set, Dean plays a criminal or ex-con in five of them, and a naïve young man trying to escape his humble or distressing circumstances in two more. But he wasn’t any sort of one-note player. His characterizations in these sometimes otherwise almost unbearably predictable productions are distinctly nuanced portrayals that are each so captivating that they alone redeem almost every one of the shows of which they are part. And that’s important to note not only because they clearly show the brilliance of Dean’s talent from the very beginning, but also because he’s not necessarily a major player in all of them.
Some of the television shows, however, are quite good even beyond Dean’s participation. Kraft Television Theater’s A Long Time Till Dawn, written by no less than Rod Serling, pulls you in to the story despite its rather hokey ending. The program also features the original, somewhat creepy, advertising for Kraft imitation cheese products. Sentence of Death, a Westinghouse Studio One Summer Theater production is a delicious little slice of nourish detective thriller that is surprisingly engrossing beyond Dean’s wrongly accused death-row inmate.
A few of the television plays have other details that may interest viewers. I’m A Fool, introduced by an obviously insincere Ronald Reagan and narrated by Eddie Albert, is notable because it is the first time Dean worked with his Rebel Without a Cause co-star, Natalie Wood. In fact, the synopsis suggests that this served as her unofficial audition for that film. Harvest, an attempt at a sweeping epic scaled to the small screen, features one of the more compelling performances by Dean featured here, although the other performers (including Ed Begley) are not particularly watchable, but it’s also an intriguing piece because, like some of Dean’s other work, it contains eerie parallels to his real life.
James Dean’s real life and his meteoric ascension to stardom (the 1,734 days of the DVD subtitle is reference to the less than five years between his debut and his death), are addressed in director Robert Altman’s documentary, The James Dean Story, which not only provides biographical information and testimonials of Dean’s talent from friends and family, but also shows a candid side of Jimmy Dean through gorgeous photos and snippets of a fascinating audio recording that Dean made on a trip back home to his family’s farm in an attempt to find out more about his own origins. His laughter on the tape is spellbinding. Though the film is seemingly incomplete here, given a few edits which skip jarringly (perhaps portions of the master reel have been lost), it’s a haunting portrait of the country boy who was somehow destined for immortalization despite his own, very mortal, foibles and desire to tempt fate.
One of the most disturbing inclusions on this set (which has been released before, but is no less shocking for that) is Dean’s final work on film, which, in retrospect, appears to be the ultimate in fate-baiting. It’s a never-aired 1955 highway safety PSA in which he cautions young drivers to slow down out there because “the life you save, uh, could be mine.” It was filmed just 13 days before the fatal crash of his Porsche 550 Spyder.
Allowing for the occasionally poor quality of the picture and sound on some of the footage presented here, as well as the sometimes questionable quality of the material—it was the 1950s, after all—James Dean: The Fast Lane is a wonderful, and wonderfully more complete, companion to his better-known big screen triumphs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the 54th anniversary or the 154th, his work, his legacy and his legend are timeless.