Sunday, August 5, 2018

General Electric Theater: “I’m a Fool” (MCA, Revue Productions, CBS-TV, aired November 14, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I watched two intriguing episodes of the General Electric Theater TV show, which ran from 1951 through 1962 and was a key element in the political evolution of its host, Ronald Reagan. It put him in touch with General Electric and in particular its fanatically Right-wing CEO, Harold Boulware, who hired Reagan not only to host the TV show but to tour GE’s plants and give suitably “inspirational” talks to its workforce. Later, after Boulware retired, his successors let Reagan go because they thought his talks were getting too openly political and towing too much of a Right-wing line that wasn’t exactly what they wanted their workers to hear from their bosses. These both came from late 1954 and we were watching them as part of the three-DVD boxed set of James Dean’s television appearances, and though they came from the same program the two shows were dramatically different in their levels of inspiration and accomplishment. Both came from Los Angeles, where Dean was living following the completion of his first featured film role, East of Eden, but before the movie had been released. The first was an adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s 1924 short story “I’m a Fool,” about a young man from a farm (so once again Dean was playing the farm kid he was for real) who heads for the (relatively) big city of Sandusky, Ohio to try to get a job as a “swipe,” basically the kid who cleans the horseshit out of the stables at a racetrack. He meets a philosophical old Black man named Burt (Roy Glenn, who actually turns in the best job of acting in the film!) who agrees to hire him, and Dean’s character (he’s just referred to in the cast list as “The Boy” and we never learn his real name) applies himself and works his way up enough to the point where, though he’s far from affluent, he can pose as at least a semi-rich kid enough to impress the guests of a fancy hotel. There he meets the genuinely affluent Wilbur (Leon Tyler), his girlfriend Elinor (Gloria Castillo) and their friend Lucy (Natalie Wood — so she worked with Dean before they made Rebel Without a Cause together!). “The Boy” is instantly smitten with Lucy — and she with him — but to impress her he makes up a phony story about being a rich kid from Marietta, Ohio. The two spend a day together before Lucy’s train is scheduled to leave at 10 p.m., and as “The Boy” realizes that Lucy is literally the girl of his dreams, the girl he’s always wanted to marry and settle down with, he desperately tries to get the chance to tell her he’s been lying about who he is and reveal his real identity — but he runs out of time, her train arrives, and she promises to write him — but of course the only address she has for him is the one for the phony identity he’s given her. 

I haven’t read the original Anderson story since I was in high school, but as I remember it took place just a short time after the events its narrator is recounting, and I believe the central character did have a name. Arnold Schulman, who adapted the story for TV, decided not only never to tell us the James Dean character’s real name but to have the framing sequences take place about 20 years after the main events and be narrated, on screen, by Eddie Albert as James Dean’s older self. (Since Dean died so young we don’t have a genuine older version to compare him to, the way we have the genuinely old Orson Welles to compare to how he was made up in the later scenes of Citizen Kane, but I sincerely doubt James Dean would have grown up to look anything like Eddie Albert.) Director Don Medford and production designer John Robert Lloyd worked out a quite creative design for the film that allowed the actors to walk between the story’s main locales — the rural community where Albert-as-Dean is living and from which he reminisces the events of the story, the farmhouse Dean leaves to seek his fortunes in the big city, the racetrack where he works, the hotel lobby where he meets Lucy and the fairgrounds where they spend most of their day together à la Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Maytime — which are represented by sets of such Spartan stylization one is reminded of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. More recent live telecasts of major musicals have adopted this simple strategy of telling a story with multiple locales in live TV by allowing the actors to walk from one set to another so they can all be standing at once, but in 1954 it was a rare and unusual gimmick that adds to the poignancy of this story. It also includes at least two scenes in which the flashback scenes are shown on a process screen while Albert stands in front of it narrating his memories: one of the rare times a process screen has been shown on film, especially in a movie that is not itself about filmmaking. 

This film stands out among most of the items in the Dean TV box not only because it’s based on a story by a recognized major author (and its tale of bittersweet romantic tragedy with elements of comic absurdity is very typical of Anderson’s work) but because in a way it prefigures Dean’s role in his very last film, Giant. Though Dean’s character in Giant would become genuinely rich, not merely posing as rich as he is here, in the later stages of “I’m a Fool” his character grows a moustache because he thinks it lends him dignity (as Jett Rink grew one in the later scenes of Giant), and the point of the story is that he remains the same bitterly alienated person he always was no matter how much wealth and status, real or imagined, he pretends to, and in particular he blows his one chance at happiness and a normal family life. Dean’s performance is excellent — what reviewer Martin Hafer heard as Dean “tend[ing] to mumble and occasionally flub[bing] lines” I heard as Dean playing a poseur whose mumbles and stumbles are those of the character sustaining an imposture and not sure how long he can keep it up. “I’m a Fool” was one of the few Dean TV shows that was shown again as a memorial after his death, and the soundtracks from it and Dean’s final TV performance, The Unlighted Road (a Schlitz Theatre presentation oddly not included in the box, though it’s available on YouTube; Dean made it between Rebel Without a Cause and Giant and it was therefore the last Dean performance actually seen by a public audience during his lifetime), were taped off the air by someone who released a bootleg LP of them which Dean’s 1970’s biographer David Dalton was able to obtain a copy of and therefore fill in accounts of these entries in Dean’s otherwise then-lost body of TV work. It seems incredible that no one realized shortly after Dean’s death that his corpus of live TV constituted an important part of his legacy and therefore it was not only artistically but commercially a good idea to make a conscious effort to save it all. Instead it was considered just more of the flotsam and jetsam of the live TV world, and what survived did so pretty much by accident.