Afterwards Charles and I watched the next item in the three-DVD boxed set of James Dean’s television appearances: Run Like a Thief, an episode of the Philco Television Playhouse from September 5, 1954 (which means he made this after his first starring film, East of Eden, though it aired “live” on NBC before Eden was released) which impressed Charles considerably more than it did me — Charles even called it “James Dean’s fourth film.” It was actually a vehicle for German-American actor Kurt Kasznar, who plays Alexander Ingles, a headwaiter who divides his year between resorts in Florida where he works the winters and a lavish hotel owned by Madame Pollard (Barbara O’Neal, former Bette Davis co-star) in the summers. He has just returned to Pollard’s establishment, where he lives as well as work, from his Florida season and he has particularly high hopes for his favorite assistant on the Florida job, Robbie Warren (James Dean), whom he hired as a busboy but whom he proclaims as a born waiter with an instinctive understanding of how the 1-percenters who are Madame Pollard’s clientele want to be served. He cites Robbie as an example for his other two busboys of how they should do their jobs, and Robbie duly arrives and gets hired by Alexander, with Pollard approving on his recommendation. Then disaster strikes: a diamond bracelet falls off Madame Pollard’s arm in the restaurant and Alexander picks it up and shows it to his wife Della (Gusti Huber). He wants to return it but she wants to keep it, and their dull moral dilemma over it takes up most of this TV show’s running time. Madame Pollard is reluctant to report the disappearance of her bracelet to the police because she’s worried people will stop coming to her hotel if word gets out that a valuable item of jewelry got stolen there, but instead she works with Robert Wheelock (Ward Costello), a private investigator from her insurance company, who hopes to recover the bracelet so his company won’t have to play a claim for it. In the end, of course, Alexander overrules his wife and gives back the bracelet.
Run Like a Thief isn’t particularly impressive, but it is an intriguing outlier in James Dean’s brief career even though in one respect it parallels his three big features: once again he’s a young man in conflict with a father figure (in Eden and Rebel Without a Cause it was his biological father; in Giant it was his surrogate father Bick Benedict, played by Rock Hudson; and here it’s Kasznar’s character as a surrogate father) whom he idealizes and then realizes has feet of clay. What makes this an outlier in Dean’s work is that he speaks his lines clearly and distinctly instead of affecting the Brandoesque mumble he’d used in East of Eden (and would also employ, albeit less extremely, in his other two starring features) and he’s playing a wholly sympathetic character — as he did in the immediately previous program on the Dean TV box, the Robert Montgomery Theatre’s Harvest. These shows prove that Dean had a wider range as an actor than you’d guess from his features and he could play other things besides alienation. Indeed, it occurred to me from watching this show that had Dean lived into his 30’s “new Bogart” would have been at least as logical a career trajectory for him as “new Brando”; he could have conceivably turned the youthful alienation of his early roles into Bogart-esque world-weariness and soured, but ultimately regained, idealism (just as the real Bogart built on his remarkable early performance in John Ford’s 1930 Up the River into the powerful characterizations of The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and his other great films from the 1940’s). There’s also an odd sense of classism about Run Like a Thief, directed by Jeffrey Hayden from a script by Sam Hall based on a story by Mann Rubin: throughout the show Alexander hails Robbie as a natural waiter and tells him he can look forward to a long career as a headwaiter like the one he’s had — and while this would be a stronger show if Hall had given Dean some lines about how he had broader ambitions and didn’t want to be just a waiter all his life, we do get the sense that these are people who have so totally accepted the class they’re in and mothballed any aspirations for anything better (in 1930’s movies people who were as good at headwaiting as we’re told Alexander is would have told their friends and significant others that their ultimate ambition would be to own a restaurant of their own), and we all too readily understand how possession of that bracelet, however legally dubious and however brief, gives Alexander a sense of belonging to the world of 1-percenters he’s been so faithfully serving without even dreaming, much less hoping, that he could ever be one of them.