Judge Brett Cullum assures you that he made no "Rebel Without A (insert something clever here)" jokes in the course of this extensive review.
Our reviews of Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Romance (published April 17th, 2013), East Of Eden (published May 7th, 2009), Giant (published February 19th, 2001), and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Dramas (published February 19th, 2009) are also available.
Rebel. Outcast. Hero. Legend.
"Too fast to live, too young to die."
"The damaged but beautiful soul of our time."
On September 30, 1955, James Dean was involved in a car crash near Salinas, CA that took his life. It was a couple of weeks after he had wrapped work on his last starring role, Giant, and at a location near where he shot his first leading part in East of Eden. The crash was a head-on collision that recalled a disturbing sequence from the only other film he starred in, Rebel Without A Cause. He was twenty-four years old, and had been a star in Hollywood for only sixteen months. Clark Gable had a thirty year career, Humphrey Bogart's spanned twenty-seven, and Gary Cooper acted for thirty-five. Each and every one of them had careers that lasted longer than James Dean lived, but Dean remains in the center of our collective imaginations just as strongly as many of the silver screen's greatest leading men. In the last decade or so we've seen similar tragedies with River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain, but James Dean's death was a shock America wasn't ready for. Here was a youth cut down during its prime; the loss of an actor who held great promise and hope as a new breed of Hollywood star. He would be nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards posthumously for East of Eden and Giant, but it would be Rebel Without A Cause that would prove to be his most enduring legacy.
The Complete James Dean Collection packages all three of Dean's films together, including the long out-of-print East of Eden (which had been mired in a rights struggle). Each picture is given a two-disc treatment, with plenty of vintage footage and new documentaries—enough to become all you need in order to examine an American icon. You get a Biblical tale of two brothers (East Of Eden), an operatic story of troubled teens (Rebel Without A Cause), and a grand Texas fable told in the language of classic studio era Hollywood (Giant). It's an embarrassment of riches—six discs, three epics, and one larger-than-life American icon.
Facts of the Case
East of Eden
Cal Trask: Man has a choice and it's a choice that makes him a man.
After bit parts in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sam Fuller's Fixed Bayonets, Sailor Beware with Jerry Lewis, Trouble Along the Way, and a couple of other films, James Dean fled Hollywood for New York. He had decided stage was the medium for him, but it didn't take long for Hollywood to find him again. James Dean was plucked from an obscure short-lived Broadway play by a talent scout and chosen to audition for one of the leads in Elia Kazan's adaptation of the last third of John Steinbeck's book East of Eden. Originally, Kazan pictured A-list stars like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift as two brothers. But they were far too old, and he needed a new approach. Kazan became determined to use veteran theatre actors to flesh out the script's heavy melodrama.
The story, set in pre World War One America, concentrates on two brothers and their relationship with their father. It was a modern take on the Cain and Abel story from the Book of Genesis. Dean plays the "bad" troubled brother, Cal Stark. The movie opens with Cal following a woman (eccentric stage diva Jo Van Fleet, Wild River) as she makes her way through town. It's a woman he's been looking for all his life. Turns out the mother he long thought was dead is actually working as a successful madam in the seedy town of Monterrey, while he and his "good" brother and "righteous" father live seventeen miles away in Salinas. Playing Abra, the sweet girl torn between two brothers, is another stage legend, Julie Harris (the original Broadway Sally Bowles and star of I Am A Camera). Also in the mix are Raymond Massey (The Naked and the Dead) as the father, Adam, and Richard Davalos (Something Wicked this Way Comes) as his brother Aron. Kazan had the right instinct to seek out stage actors, because this is a deeply theatrical film with long passages of dialogue and extended takes. The movie deals in biblical themes; the fact that it is so entertaining and effortless is no small feat on the part of the cast and director. It needed a heavy cast capable of taking the script to natural highs.
Harris got top billing, and was totally charming as Abra, but the movie belonged to Dean. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as a troubled young man reconciling his ideas of what makes a man good or evil. Dean did not get along well with Raymond Massey, who was from "old Hollywood" (a common theme played throughout his career). Dean was a method actor who often improvised his reactions, and sometimes his lines; Kazan encouraged him to do this, much to the consternation of his elder cast member. Dean was never conventional on the set. At one point during a dinner scene, Dean whispered obscenities (that only Massey could hear) mixed with his Bible verses; the pious father's frustration in the final scene is all too real.
When Steinbeck visited the production and saw the young actor, he cried out, "Jesus Christ! That is Cal!." Kazan had discovered a true star, and his gamble on the young man would pay off in spades. Dean proved to be the very embodiment of the theme Steinbeck and Kazan were reaching for—a good man struggling with the world's definitions of good and evil. Cal is deeply flawed, but at heart he only wants to feel less alone in the world. Abra becomes the fulcrum of the plot as her affections shift from the simple brother to the more complex one. But it is the struggle between father and son that lifts East of Eden to a universal level, and sets the stage for Dean's next film.
Rebel Without A Cause
Jim Stark: If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused and I didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?
Rebel Without A Cause follows Jim Stark (James Dean), the troubled new kid in town, as he tries to fit in with a rough group of kids that are in a gang. He's looking for something his ineffective and hypocritical parents cannot provide. Along the way he meets another troubled kid looking for a big brother, John "Plato" Crawford (Sal Mineo, Escape From the Planet of the Apes), and gets romantically involved with a bad girl named Judy (Natalie Wood, West Side Story). The whole movie covers one day and two nights in their lives, chronicling their exploits including switchblade fights, a fatal car crash, and hiding out in an old mansion (oddly enough the same house featured so prominently as the residence of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.). All three of our heroes are middle class juvenile delinquents, and the movies had never seen anyone like them. These weren't poor inner city youths, but the sons and daughters of affluent post-war and post-depression parents. It was revolutionary—for the first time a film was created from the perspective of teenagers rather than adults.
Rebel Without A Cause was a stretch for a Hollywood project that had to meet the industry standards of the production code. Imagine if the movie had been fully realized intact from its first draft: Natalie Wood's Judy would have been a streetwalker, the movie would have opened with teenagers setting a man on fire, there would have been a race through a tunnel which would have killed pedestrians, the "chicken run" sequence would have ended with the loser's car careening onto a crowded Los Angeles highway and exploding, and James Dean's character would have been riddled with bullets in the film's climax. Many things were tamed down before Rebel Without a Cause hit the silver screen, but it was still a tough pill for America to swallow when it premiered in 1955.
Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place) directed the picture, and was obsessed with getting the details right. Most of his young supporting cast really were gang members, and he took their advice on clothes and cars. Ray wanted to film the picture in black and white because he thought that would be more dramatic, but the Cinemascope aspect ratio meant he contractually had to deliver the film in color. Ray was a very hands-on director, probably a bit too much hands-on in many ways. Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet) originally had a much bigger part, but soon found out the director was sleeping with Wood, his then-girlfriend. Tension rose between them. The studio demanded that the young actor appear in Rebel Without A Cause, so Ray couldn't fire him outright, but he reduce him to the non-speaking "Goon" role.
Ray let Dean do his own thing. He named the character "Jim" after Dean, and "Stark" was a reference to his part in East of Eden (it's an anagram of "Trask"). He let Dean improvise a great deal. The opening title shot, with Dean putting a toy monkey to bed, was entirely Dean's idea. Jim Backus (the voice of Mr. Magoo and Thurston Howell from Gilligan's Island) played the father, and was shocked when Ray let Dean manhandle him in take after take of their confrontation scene. Backus was part of "old Hollywood," and saw the movie as a chance to break out of his comic mold. Little did he know that he would be confronted by a young method actor who was often uncontrollable. Dean was frustrating another father on-screen with real life antics on the set. The knife fight was carefully choreographed, but as usual Dean took it to scary, realistic heights during filming. He couldn't act what he didn't feel, and James Dean would take a couple of jabs with a switchblade to make sure the audience felt it.
For all of Ray's attention to realism, Rebel Without a Cause plays more like a fantastic opera without the singing. The fanciful camera work, the huge scope, the saturated Warner colors, and the relentless melodrama lifts the piece into mythic levels. The real gang kids were shocked at how stylized the final product was. It remains iconic because it was so dizzyingly dreamy. The film was extremely well received—oddly, both Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo got Oscar nominations, but Dean did not. Oscar never seems to favor actors when they are too close to themselves in a movie, and that was certainly the case here. Dean was quoted as saying he could not have put more of himself into the part, and that he never wanted to do that again. If you are looking for one role where he plays himself, all you have to do is watch Rebel Without A Cause to find James Dean.
Leslie Lynnton Benedict: Money isn't everything, Jett.
Giant was Dean's final appearance, and the movie where he does the most acting. He plays a ranchhand who becomes a rich oil tycoon in George Stevens' epic tale of Texas. Its inclusion in The Complete James Dean Collection is mandatory, but it really isn't his movie—it really belongs to Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra) and Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk). Taylor got to play one of the toughest dames on the big screen; she's amazing as she portrays a displaced genteel Southern Belle taking on Texas and its prejudice against women. Rock Hudson got to prove he could carry a picture, and was a striking partner for Taylor. They were big stars in a big movie. Giant was a sprawling epic about three generations of Texas ranchers and their children, and a socially-forward parable about the dangers of racism and jingoistic pride. Hudson and Taylor play the heads of the Benedict family ranch, and fight to adapt as the Texas economy shifts from cattle to oil. It also appropriates the struggle of Mexican-Americans as the Benedicts find their family blending into multi-culturalism and a need for social progress.
It all sounds like heady, heavy material, but Giant is a beautifully shot pot-boiler based on Edna Ferber's bestselling book. They don't make movies like this one anymore, but they sure did make some TV shows a lot like it. Dallas took the Texas setting of Giant, kept the ranch and the oil, and even had the audacity to use "J.R." as the initials of its villain after Giant's Jett Rink (Dean) prominently displays his initials all over his businesses. Today you would see Giant on the little screen as a miniseries or tawdry nighttime soap, but its production values and star power make it undeniably larger than life on the silver screen.
It's no insult to either film to call it the Gone With the Wind for Texas. Texans were leery of the novel, finding it too stereotypical and unflattering to their state. But in a brilliant move Stevens took his entire acting company to Marfa, Texas to film Giant on location. The movie has been called "the national film of Texas," and it is remembered fondly by the state. Several works would later pay homage to the film, including the play and movie Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and Kevin Costner's first film Fandango, which featured a pilgrimage to Marfa and what was left of the ranch house set.
James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson were all in their twenties when they were cast in roles that would have them aging well into their sixties. Normally Hollywood productions would have cast older actors and made them look younger in the early reels to achieve this effect. But Stevens wanted them to all look heartbreakingly beautiful from the start, so he got the most attractive leads in their primes. They all age fine, but it seems Taylor easily wins the battle. At twenty-four she could already play any age, thanks to her haughty and sophisticated demeanor. Hudson seemed alright, though he has the thankless job of acting under much padding later in the film and seems a little stiff. Dean probably had the hardest time with his shots as an old man, and you can see him struggle quite a bit in the final reel.
Dean's performance as Jett Rink earned him a second posthumous Oscar nomination. Admittedly, his last stretch as the crotchety drunk seems hard for him, but he throws himself into the young cowboy in the first half with all the fiery passion he brought to his previous roles. Dean did not get along well with Rock Hudson, and seemed to resent that he and Taylor were not method actors like him. He had that streak in him again, and was out to fluster Rock Hudson—who wasn't playing his father, but who got the wrath anyway. He really angered Hudson when he would steal scenes with a well-placed prop like a lariat, and created a lot of very real friction between them. He was cordial with Elizabeth Taylor, and they seemed to get along fine. Their scenes in the film are wonderful, and they make a stunning couple. James Dean swaggered like a real cowboy, and got so deep and natural with his Texas accent that people who live outside the Lone Star State may have to use subtitles to understand all of his lines. It's a brilliant portrayal, and gives you a real sense of what he could have become over time—a versatile actor with more range than his trademark "teen" roles afforded him.
The two disc set Warner Brothers offers for East of Eden is stunning in many ways. The movie has long been out of print, and previous video and laser disc copies irreparably mangled the primarily green color scheme with too much red (not to mention the hack of the Cinemascope ratio down to pan and scan). Some sequences still look gauzy and fogged over, but on the whole it hasn't looked this good since it was released. The sound has been remixed with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround treatment that creates a natural, smooth effect without ever becoming too intense. The surrounds are primarily used to amplify the score or nature sounds, and it never comes across forced as is the case with many older films. East of Eden includes a critical yet informative commentary by film historian Richard Schickel. It's worth a listen, but he certainly points out some flaws in the film I never really saw. Still, he knows his stuff and the commentary is highly entertaining. There are two insightful documentaries on the second disc, including the newly-produced East of Eden: Art in Search of Life and a vintage documentary called Forever James Dean. Included are screen tests, deleted sequences, wardrobe test footage, and even footage from the New York premiere (Dean does not attend, but we get a fleeting glimpse of Marilyn Monroe as she heads into the theatre).
Rebel Without A Cause gets a razor sharp transfer, and restored audio elements from the original four-channel stereo track pressed into the 5.1 format. The colors are vividly rendered, and it's a joy to see the film looking and sounding so clear. A commentary is provided by James Dean biographer Douglas Rathgeb. It's an insightful track with millions of tidbits about the entire cast, and a rumination on the controversial themes. He even goes into the whole debate about whether there was some implied homosexuality between Mineo and Dean's characters. (Rumors of bisexuality surround the James Dean legend to this day.) A new documentary is included on the making of the picture, but it concentrates too much on the kids who played the gang. There is a kooky vintage documentary, with Peter Lawford talking to friends of James Dean, like Sammy Davis Jr., Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and Steve Allen. It's not terribly informative, and obviously straight out of the '70s. But it's still a hoot to see here. There are some deleted scenes with no sound, wardrobe tests, and screen test footage. Also thrown on for good measure are 3 segments from a TV series on the making of the film that includes the infamous "Drive Safe" commercial James Dean shot.
Giant's transfer is fine and dandy. It is the only film not in the Cinemascope ratio, but looks just as well saturated as the other two films in the set. It preserves the matted widescreen quite well with a touch of grain here and there. The movie is presented on a flipper disc that provides the first half of the film on side A and the conclusion on the other. This was done to offer a higher bit-rate on the transfer. The audio is a surround track that seems to present the soundtrack well. Nothing stellar, but solid. Giant appears to be the same disc that was released previously, so its documentaries likely date to 1998, when the film was re-released for its 40th anniversary. We get a lively commentary with George Stevens Jr. (the son of the director), critic Stephen Farber, and screenwriter Ivan Moffat. There is an introduction from George Stevens Jr., and a documentary with industry people talking about the great director. There are two documentaries, one with the cast and crew, and one with people from Marfa, who talk about making the film and their memories of Texas and Hollywood merging for a while. Footage of the premieres are here, and several Behind the Camera segments (vintage newsreel footage which were precursors to the Electronic Press Kits of today). There are stills, and actual documents you can read—the studio blasts Stevens for exceeding the budget, then congratulates him on the financial success of the picture and for his Oscar win.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a lot here, but a couple of documentaries seem to be missing—notably a PBS documentary on Dean's life—and there is no footage of his television days. Rumor has it that Warner Brothers is planning a later release with more documentaries, and Passport video has released James Dean: The TV Years to supplement this set. Rabid fans will still have to shell out a couple more bucks to complete their collections.
With all three movies available as separate titles, and no real extra disc offered with The Complete James Dean Collection, there may be a large segment of the population who decide to just "buy one" and "be done" rather than springing for the box set. For posterity's sake, Rebel Without A Cause is the real stand-out classic of the three films. You could purchase that disc and walk away safely knowing you have the most revealing James Dean performance, and the one movie of the three that the American Film Institute deemed worthy of its Top 100 list. Since both Giant and Rebel Without A Cause were available long before this set, some buyers already own them. These are not upgrades of previous additions, so no need to double dip if all you lack is East of Eden.
The Complete James Dean Collection seems small when compared to the legend that overshadows it. It's hard to believe that in one box set with three movies you own the entire library of Dean's significant film roles. Warner Brothers has done an excellent job with each of the titles, and they all rival any special editions you could find of classic studio films. High bit-rates, loving transfers, and hours of documentaries make this a breathtaking purchase for anyone who loves Dean and his movies.
One of Dean's most famous quotes was "Dream as if you'll live forever, and live as if you'll die today." Odd words for a man who did die suddenly at a young age, but inspired dreams of millions for an eternity. He is forever a teenager, the embodiment of cool; and joins Marilyn Monroe as the ultimate sex symbol of Hollywood. Nobody will ever be what he was, and nobody could ever erase his hold on history—the birth of a new kind of actor, and a death that still shocks.
No judgment here. Just a lot of gratitude to Warner Brothers for finally completing the James Dean catalog with so much reverence and care.
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Scales of Justice, East Of Eden
Perp Profile, East Of Eden
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, East Of Eden
• Commentary by Film Critic Richard Schickel
Scales of Justice, Rebel Without A Cause
Perp Profile, Rebel Without A Cause
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Rebel Without A Cause
• Commentary by Douglas Rathgeb, Author of The Making of Rebel Without A Cause
Scales of Justice, Giant
Perp Profile, Giant
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Giant
• Commentary by Critic Stephen Farber, Screenwriter Ivan Moffat, and George Stevens Jr.
Review content copyright © 2005 Brett Cullum; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.