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Case Number 17072: Small Claims Court

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James Dean: The Fast Lane

Infinity Entertainment // 1951 // 480 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // August 20th, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants a return to the Golden Age of Appetizers.

The Charge

"Take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine."—James Dean, in a highway safety PSA filmed shortly before his 1955 highway death

The Case

DVD buffs—and reviewers—always want more, more, more. Sometimes we get it. That's the case with James Dean: The Fast Lane. There's a documentary on the actor whose life was famously cut short by an automobile accident. You say you want to see more, some television appearances, perhaps? Fast Lane provides ten appearances from 1950s anthology shows, ranging from bit parts to major roles. Heck, there are three in a row in which he plays four guys named Joe, three in some kind of trouble with the law. It also throws in a couple of commercials, including the infamous safe driving spot he filmed just before his death on the road. A quick look at IMDb shows that this isn't everything Dean did for television, but does appear to include everything Infinity Entertainment could find.

What more could you ask for? Kraft Television Theater includes the easy appetizer recipe given at the commercial break. Sadly, I don't see the "handy snack rolls" used to make them easy on Kraft's Web site, though.

James Dean: The Fast Lane has two discs:

Disc One
• Pepsi Commercial
Dean is one of a group of clean-cut teens that could only exist in a 1950s Pepsi spot.

• "Hill Number One"
A Family Theatre Easter episode finds a chaplain telling soldiers the story of Jesus' resurrection at Calvary. Dean appears briefly as John the Apostle; Roddy McDowell also has a bit part.

• "Ten Thousand Horses Singing"
In a Westinghouse Studio One episode, the chief (John Forsythe, Dynasty) of a small airline ends up with a runaway bride along for the ride on a cross-country trip. Dean briefly plays a bellboy, with no lines.

• "Abraham Lincoln"
This Studio One entry features vignettes in the life of Abraham Lincoln (Robert Pastene), including one in which he pardons a soldier (Dean) who fell asleep on guard duty. Dean gets a few lines here.

• "The Evil Within"
From Tales of Tomorrow, Rod Steiger plays a scientist who takes home a serum that "unleashes what you might call the evil in a human being." He leaves it in the fridge, where it leaks onto the pie his wife has for dessert. Dean plays his research partner, getting a few lines.

• "Something For An Empty Briefcase"
From Campbell SoundStage, Dean's the star here as an ex-con named Joe "just back from up the river" whose life is changed by a beautiful woman and the book she recommends. It's a dictionary, not a Bible.

• "Sentence of Death"
Another Studio One finds Dean playing a guy named Joe who's been sentenced to death for the murder of a drugstore owner. A socialite (Betsy Palmer) who saw the crime says he wasn't the witness, but police are skeptical.

Disc Two
• "A Long Time Till Dawn"
In another big part for Dean, this time on Kraft Television Theatre, he plays an ex-con named Joe whose homecoming could be spoiled by the fact that he beat a friend to death. The ending didn't feel worthy of Twilight Zone maestro Rod Serling, who scripted it.

• "The Bells of Cockaigne"
In this Armstrong's Circle Theatre episode, the Joey played by Dean isn't a crook but, desperate for money to help his asthmatic son, he gambles away his paycheck. Could a janitor who just won $500 in a newspaper's contest lend a hand?

• "Harvest"
A farmer's son (Dean) wants to move to the city to get a job and marry his girlfriend in this episode of Robert Montgomery Presents or The Johnson's Wax Program, depending on how you recall it. Either way, Robert Montgomery does a lot of omniscient narration.

• "I'm a Fool"
An older, wiser man (Eddie Albert, Green Acres) looks back on a romantic mistake made by his young, foolish self (Dean) in a General Electric Theater installment. Natalie Wood (Rebel Without a Cause) co-stars in the Sherwood Anderson story, and Ronald Reagan delivers an introduction redone for a repeat after Dean's death.

• Trailers
These aren't just for Dean's three big movies—East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant—but also for movies in which he had bit parts or cameos—including Fixed Bayonets!, Sailor Beware, Has Anybody Seen My Gal, and Trouble Along The Way.

• "Highway Safety PSA"
The infamous, never-aired spot from 1955.

• The James Dean Story
Robert Altman's 38-minute documentary from 1957 feels at times like it's trying too hard to play up Dean's rebel image. He may have been an intellectual who played the bongos, but it sounds like he was an intense actor—and also a good kid, if his aunt's interview was any indication. Narrator Martin Gabel does his poetic and profound best.

James Dean fans could get a kick out of these 1950s tidbits, but if you've been reading through the descriptions above, you'll note that he's barely a presence in some of these. Dean handles the few meaty roles he got well, which is especially notable considering that some were live broadcasts with short rehearsal times, and some of the scripts were just corny ("The Bells of Cockaigne" is Exhibit A here). That said, there are some decent dramas here if you're looking for more than just glimpses of Dean. Betsy Palmer plays a ditzy dame who shows unexpected steel in "Sentence of Death," and good performances make "Ten Thousand Horses Singing," "Abraham Lincoln," and "The Evil Within" worth a look. My favorite of Dean's appearances was "I'm a Fool," for several reasons: it's a good Dean performance that has some fun with his rebel persona, the performances are strong across the board, and it has a stylized production that takes full advantage of live drama technique. Each episode has a brief synopsis, mainly to help you spot Dean.

Picture and sound quality aren't optimal here. It looks like they were working mainly from kinescopes, and you'll find scratches, flickering black-and-white images, and even a couple of freezes. A few lines here and there get lost.

Fast Lane does what it set out to do, and does something more, giving viewers a sampling of the much-heralded era of live TV anthology series. For hardcore James Dean fans or anyone interested in 1950s TV anthologies, it's a good buy at under $15.

The Verdict

It may be just a curiosity, but I can't find any guilt here. Now if only they'd have included some handy snack rolls and the easy appetizer recipes that Kraft Television Theater viewers could send away for…

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 84

Perp Profile

Studio: Infinity Entertainment
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 480 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Documentary
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Documentary

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