James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner, Blu-ray)
Before the 1950s, there were no teenagers in the movies, at least not as such. There were adults and children, and that awkward age in between was largely seen as, well, that awkward period in between. You had kids on the cusp, troubled young adults, and juvenile delinquents but the teenager, with his / her hormonal surges and anxieties and identity crises, was pretty much ignored.
In many ways, James Dean was the first American teenager, the screen embodiment of the strangled cry of inarticulate kids to old be considered children but unready for the adult world. James Dean had knocked around in small film parts and television plays for a few years before he was case as Cal in East of Eden (1955), Eliza Kazan’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel (or rather, a small portion of it), and he became an overnight star. He’s basically a frustrated Cain to the Abel of Richard Davalos’ good son Aron and his performance is raw, tense, a combustible mix of ambition and frustration and desperation as the “bad” brother vying for the attention of his father (Raymond Massey), a hard, driven Salinas Valley farming magnate.
Dean wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for the role – he wanted to cast Brando – but screenwriter Paul Osborne suggested Dean for the part after seeing him on Broadway. Dean came from the Actor’s Studio, where Kazan himself had been active and found Marlon Brando, and Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for at least some of his leads and instead cast out of the Actor’s Studio, notably Davalos, making his feature debut as the “good” brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron’s girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor’s Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the craggy madam of the local brothel in Monterey who holds a dark secret to the family past, and she took home the film’s sole Academy Award (out of four nominations) for Best Supporting Actress.
Yet it is James Dean that was remembered. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift had helped popularize method acting in Hollywood, but James Dean brought a new and fresh perspective to it. The film is set in 1917 but Dean feels completely modern and contemporary, a boy not quite comfortable in his body. He’s never still, constantly fidgeting or shrugging or pacing. He drops his eyes in uncomfortable moments and slips into giggles when conversations become too personal. It’s a strikingly articulate portrait of an inarticulate man-boy; you can practically hear his mind whirring just by observing his body language. It was the first significant role for the actor, and his first big credit, and it earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Nicholas Ray’s powerful, profound Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is the ultimate expression of teen alienation and inarticulation in an adult world of its era. Ray’s amazing use of widescreen and color create a visual dimension to the explosion of tempestuous emotions, and Dean’s wound up performances and stumbling delivery perfectly captures the flailing desperation of an adolescent searching for a role model. He becomes the modern youthful embodiment of Ray’s tough but vulnerable outsider/outlaw, just looking for a way to fit in. Forty years later it’s just as affecting. Natalie Wood finally broke out of ingénue roles as the troubled bad girl next door and Sal Mineo is heartbreaking as the abandoned boy who finds a big brother and best friend in Dean. All three young actors earned Academy Award nominations. Jim Backus is Dean’s glad-handing but ineffectual father and Corey Allen, Ann Doran, William Hopper, and Dennis Hopper co-star.
Dean is not the star of Giant (1956), which turned out to be his last performance, but he certainly delivers a star performance in the third-billed role, which he began before his first film had even been released. Rock Hudson takes the reigns as stubborn young ranch baron Bick Benedict and Elizabeth Taylor is the seemingly demure Southern belle who wins his heart and then earns his respect in George Stevens’ big-as-all-outdoors epic adaptation of the Edna Ferber classic about the changing landscape and business-scape of Texas in the 20th century. Stevens won his second Oscar for this ambitious, grandly realized (if sometimes slow moving) epic and Dean would earn his second Academy Award nominations, both of them posthumous. He died in a car wreck before the film had even finished shooting (though after his scenes were completed).
All three of these of these films have previously been released on DVD is souped-up special editions but this collection (available as a box or as individual volumes) marks their respective Blu-ray debuts, each of them beautifully mastered for this release. Each film is also available singly with all of the supplements of their previous DVD special editions.
East of Eden features commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, the 1987 documentary Forever James Dean, the 2005 featurette East of Eden: Art in Search of Life, additional scenes, studio screen tests and wardrobe, costume, and production design tests, and footage from the 1955 premiere.
Rebel Without a Cause features commentary by Douglas L. Rathgeb (author of “The Making of Rebel Without a Cause”), the excellent documentary Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents featuring interviews with the astoundingly articulate screenwriter Stewart Stern and actors who played the kids in Buzz’s gang, the vintage 65 minute made-for-TV seventies-era special James Dean Remembered (hosted by Peter Lawford and featuring interviews with Rebel co-stars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, composer and close Dean friend Leonard Rosenman, and Sammy Davis Jr.), additional scenes (without sound), rare studio screen tests and wardrobe tests, three segments from the vintage TV series Warner Bros. Presents and a new interview featurette Dennis Hopper: Memories from the Warner Lot, featuring interviews conducted with Hopper not long before his death, debuting on this disc.
Giant features commentary by filmmaker/Stevens family archivist George Stevens Jr., screenwriter Ivan Moffat and critic Stephen Farber, the documentary George Stevens: The Filmmakers Who Knew Him (with Frank Capra, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Robert Wise among other), and an introduction by George Stevens Jr., plus a bonus DVD with the hour-long documentaries Memories of Giant and Return to Giant (with cast and crew remembrances and behind-the-scenes footage), a wealth of archival film (including the New York premiere TV special, newsreel footage from Hollywood premiere, and two segments from the promotional TV show Behind the Cameras), galleries of production stills and documents, production notes, filmography, and original and reissue trailers.
Exclusive to the seven-disc box set James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition is a set of three DVDs with original documentaries: the 2005 James Dean Forever Young (narrated by Martin Sheen), the American Masters documentary James Dean Sense Memories from 2005, and the 1984 documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, a portrait of the director and his career, rich with film clips and interview with the stars and artists he worked with over his 40-year career, directed by George Stevens Jr.
All seven discs are in a single fold-out digipack in a substantial box that also includes a 48-page photo book, a collection of 7 ½ x 10 inch reproductions of behind-the-scenes photos, reproductions of studio memos from East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause and three mini-reproductions of the original posters.