Thursday, September 22, 2011

James Dean: Forever Young (Warner Bros., 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday’s James Dean festival on Turner Classic Movies began with an intriguing documentary about him from 2005 called James Dean: Forever Young, different from your common run of film-history documentaries in that it’s blessedly free of talking heads and instead tells James Dean’s story through an historical narration written by Michael and Kevin Sheridan (Michael also directed) and read by Martin Sheen. It’s a sanitized version, not surprisingly, with no hints of the real Dean’s Bisexuality (and only a brief mention of Barbara Glenn, the New York actress who was probably the most important lover — or at least opposite-sex lover — of his life; when he went to Hollywood to make East of Eden he wrote her a series of letters proclaiming himself a “Hollywood virgin,” which seems to have meant he had no other girlfriends, which stopped abruptly when he met Pier Angeli!) and with his remarkable ability to get older, unattached men to “mentor” him as something probably a lot more innocent (in the Production Code sense of the term) than it was. What’s most compelling about this film is how much of it is Dean on screen — and Dean on screen in his substantial body of work for television, which even though it was live and routinely destroyed (TV was considered so transient a medium in the early days that even Dean’s early death did not inspire the TV producers and networks to do a search of their vaults and preserve his work, something that would be de rigueur today), a surprising amount of which has survived. This film makes it all the more frustrating that there still hasn’t been a comprehensive attempt to pull together James Dean’s surviving TV shows and issue them on DVD: despite his early death he remains an important enough actor and a sufficiently popular (and lucrative!) celebrity that one would think there’d be interest in preserving every surviving scrap of his work.

The fact is that Dean left a much more substantial and extensive legacy as an actor than just the three films in which he starred (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) and the earlier movies in which he made tiny appearances (some of which were directed by major “names” like Sam Fuller and Douglas Sirk, whom one would think would have noticed his potential — though Sirk told Jon Halliday that he was interested in using Dean again but he “just disappeared” from Hollywood after doing his bit in Sirk’s Has Anybody Seen My Gal? — which, since Rock Hudson was its star, I like referring to as “the ‘other’ Rock Hudson/James Dean movie” — as this film explains, Dean went to New York to study at the Actors’ Studio, try to crack Broadway and make a living on TV), and Dean’s entire surviving body of work deserves to be made available. Many of the clips from his TV shows feature Dean acting with people one would never have dreamed of associating with him — including John Carradine, John Kerr (whom Dean wipes off the screen in their clip together) and Ronald Reagan — as well as more appropriate co-stars like Rod Steiger (with whom Dean appeared on that very interesting Tales of Tomorrow episode, “The Enemy Within,” though from the clip of the two together one sees here one would never guess that the entire show is actually a feature for Margaret Phillips, who played the wife of scientist Steiger and who was really responsible for the mistake in Steiger’s lab for which he’s chewing out Dean, who plays his assistant and got to act wearing glasses for one of the few times in his career: he was extremely nearsighted and for his film roles would rehearse wearing glasses until he had his moves memorized, then take them off for the actual takes).

Certainly any Deaniac should be angry that so much of his legacy remains tantalizingly invisible to the average fan, only hinted at in “teaser” clips in documentaries like this one — and one interesting thing I noted was a lot of the Dean TV shows cast him either as a criminal fugitive, an innocent man on the run from the law or an ex-con trying to go straight, as if the TV machine was trying to cast Dean into the classic gangster mold the way Warner Bros. had tried with the first Method movie star, John Garfield, when they’d signed him in the late 1930’s. At the same time, even in these clips it’s hard not to be impressed by the quality of the writing of these shows and how this period in TV history really did deserve to be called the “Golden Age” — despite the loss of so much of it for the same short-sighted reasons that have relegated 75 percent of the pre-1950 feature-film legacy to oblivion. Aside from the TV clips, there were test shots from Dean’s starring films, including the test that Dean and Paul Newman shot together when they were both up for parts in East of Eden (and the narration of this film offers almost no clue why director Elia Kazan chose the terminally bland Dick Davalos over Newman for the part of the “good” brother — Davalos was so utterly lame and incompetent I can only assume that Kazan gave him the part just to help out a fellow Greek!) and a black-and-white clip of a scene Dean shot in which he sneaked into the female lead’s bedroom and fondled her slipper until she caught him (the scene was scripted for the film but nixed by Production Code administrator Geoffrey Shurlock).

James Dean: Forever Young steers clear of the quirkier aspects of Dean’s story (like his interest in horror films — as a teenager he’d made himself up as the Frankenstein monster for an amateur play, he hung out with horror host Maila “Vampira” Nurmi of Plan Nine from Outer Space infamy, and just before he died he asked his friend, screenwriter Bill Bast, to write a script based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which Dean planned to star and make his debut as a director), and if you’ve read any of the basic Dean biographies it won’t tell you anything about him you didn’t already know (though some of the earliest TV clips suggest he’d already formed his acting style before he ever set foot inside the Actors’ Studio!), but it’s still an interesting look at one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic stars.