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Blu-ray Review: `James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition’

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There’s little point trying to say anything new about the three films that made James Dean a legend, East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956). After all, there’s been nearly 60 years’ worth of awards and accolades that have made each of these movies indispensable viewing. On a smaller scale, the same can be said of 99% of the special features filling up four of the seven discs of the new James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition. That’s because, if you’re a serious Dean collector, you’ve already seen the same documentaries, behind the scenes featurettes, trailers, screen and wardrobe tests, etcetera, that have been widely available since the 2005 Warner Brothers DVD two-disc editions of the three films.

In fact, when I opened the oversize box set dubbed the Ultimate Coldean 2lector’s Edition, I had the sense Warner Brothers didn’t have the confidence in having a new round of profitable sales for Dean films simply by upgrading them to Blu-ray. Someone in marketing figured they needed something to make the package look like it contained new goodies, so they included a 40-page commemorative book, 3 mini reproductions of the original theatrical movie posters, production memos from East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, along with some rather standard black-and-white behind-the-scenes photos . There’s nothing wrong with all this superfluous dressing, but the fluff can’t hide the simple truth that James Dean on Blu-ray isn’t noticeably different from James Dean on DVD.

This isn’t so much a criticism as simply acknowledging what film restoration could reasonably do with the original camera negatives at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI). In particular, while East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause are slightly sharper than we’ve seen them before, it’s hard not to be disappointed by Giant due to the color fading. The original camera negatives could no longer yield an acceptable photochemical print, which means modern viewers can’t fully appreciate the sweep of the Texas plains that director George Stevens gave us in his original widescreen epic.

In terms of sound, for Rebel Without a Cause, the stereo soundtrack was reconstructed from the magnetic soundtrack stripes of Cinemascope release prints. In other words, you can’t complain about the sincerity of the restoration effort. We should be grateful Warner Bros. wanted to refresh the Dean canon. Still, to be “ultimate,” you’d think the set would include all the extras it could find beyond the already common. For example, perhaps a disc of the known Dean TV footage, like The General Electric Theater episode, “The Dark, Dark Hours” where Dean worked with Ronald Reagan.

As it stands, unless you’re a Dean completest and really want the 10 minute featurette with Dennis Hopper, “Memories from the Warner Lot” (the only new bonus and the only one in BR), you might want to simply purchase single volume versions of the Blu-ray editions and not worry about where you’d store the big box. But perhaps Dean collectors aren’t really the best audience for this set. If you’ve already seen all the documentaries and heard all the commentaries, why not consider James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition as a means of introducing an American icon to those for whom Dean is just an enigmatic image from the distant past?

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New generations, in particular, might know little about Dean’s immortality which is not limited to his brief screen career. He became a symbol for the disaffected young for his role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, which has also led to admiration from the gay community for the relationship between Dean and Sal Mineo in the film. His “live dangerously, die young” myth exploded and resonated for decades after his premature death on September 30, 1955. For those who’ve forgotten the story, or those who never heard it, the documentaries that fill four discs are windows into not only Dean, but for American culture at the dawn of the rock era and Hollywood film making in the 1950s. Most useful are “James Dean Remembered” (1974 TV Special), “Rebel Without A Cause: Defiant Innocents,” “Forever James Dean” (1987 Documentary) and many appreciations of director George Stevens and his Giant.

So the bottom line is your bottom line. How much are you willing to spend on three movies that have already been available in fine form since 2005? If you don’t already have these classics and all the more than useful bonuses in your collection, is it better to get the discs separately and not try to use this box as a centerpiece for a James Dean shrine? Your call—but there’s no question about one thing. All film buffs should have the James Dean movie canon on their shelves in one form or another.

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