Judge Brett Cullum advises taking a pass on this one, unless you're a hard-core Dean completist.
"This DVD is neither endorsed nor authorized by the estate of James
Everybody is aware of James Dean's cinematic legacy, thanks to movies like Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. The recently released The Complete James Dean Collection conveniently gathered together his three big studio films in one package. But Dean did some other work—in television—as well, and some of it can be found in the public domain. Passport Video has assembled two television productions and a vintage documentary to cash in on James Dean's DVD debut with James Dean: The TV Years. The collection is not comprehensive, since Dean appeared in about thirty televised programs in his career, but they have chosen two where he is prominently featured.
The transfers are horrible. They bleed, they shimmer, they shake, and they are riddled with grain and scratches. The audio is muffled, as if someone stuffed a pillow over a microphone and then started recording. This is VHS, not DVD; and even by video tape standards this would be considered a poor quality image. To add insult to injury, there is an identifying digital stamp on the right side of the screen throughout the entire presentation with the title of the DVD. Don't expect well-preserved images at all. But it is an important collection of hard-to-find footage for hardcore fans.
First up on the disc is "The Bells of Cockaigne" which is an Armstrong Circle Theatre episode. It shows James Dean as a father with a sick child who is down on his luck. He tries to gamble to gain some money so he can help his family out (he's trying to raise funds to move so his son can be in warmer climate). His luck seems to be all bad, but looks like there may be some hope. Gene Lockhart (A Christmas Carol (1938)) plays a co-worker who just may find a way to help him out. It's a good performance by Dean, even if the script is overly sentimental. And the best reason to check it out? James Dean doesn't wear a shirt for the first half.
"I'm a Fool" is an episode of General Electric Theatre. It is a rebroadcast of a play that was originally televised between East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Dean appears as a young man trying to impress the richest and prettiest girl in town, played by Natalie Wood (West Side Story). Eddie Albert (The Longest Day) plays the narrator. Ronald Reagan does the introduction of the play, and that's what clues you in to the fact this was broadcast again after Dean's death. The show is like watching a play on a bad black and white video, and it even seems to suffer from being misframed. The only thing to recommend the piece is the curiosity factor of seeing Natalie Wood and James Dean together before they were paired up more memorably in Rebel Without a Cause.
Finally, we find a vintage documentary called Hollywood Remembers James Dean. It details a lot of the actor's life from birth to death, and pays attention to his lesser-known projects like the televised plays that are seen on the disc. It's a nice piece, and certainly does a good job. Again, the quality of its transfer is not spectacular, but by now viewers should be used to that.
Basically, this is a disc that completists will clamor for, and casual fans could leave behind. These are rarities in the James Dean collection, but they aren't essential viewing for any reason other than they are oddities. The performances are solid, but they are limited by being 1950s television productions. The stories are quick-moving and predictable, and the sets are straight out of community theatre. You can find these offerings on many different discs due to their public domain status; some editions offer a third or fourth program as well. Passport Video has released these at the right time, and their product is fine for what it is: a murky look at a legend's lesser known work. For that it's passable, and fans may find what they are looking for. James Dean: The TV Years is only for die-hards.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
• Documentary: Hollywood Remembers James Dean
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