One of the best aspects of the DVD revolution has been the rescuing of films (especially documentaries) that would long ago have fallen into deterioration. My wife recently purchased a GoodTimes DVD of the 79-minute long 1957 documentary film The James Dean Story, directed by George W. George and Robert Altman, who, long before his fictive film breakthrough with M*A*S*H, was a documentary and commercial television director.
The interesting thing about this black and white documentary is not its subject matter, but its approach. On the negative side, unlike most modern documentaries, the film is flowery, verbose, purple prosed to death, and melodramatically stentorian in its screenplay descriptions of the dead young actor’s moods. In short, it is a virtual hagiography. Yet, in its setups to interviewing real life friends and acquaintances of Dean, there is something interesting about the voice-over narration of character actor Martin Gabel as he ‘talks’ to the interviewees. Also, there are some interesting cutting techniques and musical selections that make the film oddly gripping to watch.
The film’s ‘tale’ consists of following Dean from boyhood to UCLA to New York and the Actors Studio to television to his three noted film roles in East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, and Giant. The best parts of the film are those insights provided by the hangers-on who give small details of Dean’s life — a former roommate, as example, pores through Dean’s personal effects and one learns that Dean was poorly organized and terminally late on bills. This says far more of the man than later documentary films on him, which probed (or rather obsessed on) whether or not he was gay. Part of this aspect of the film’s success has to do with the ‘screenplay’ by Stewart Stern (Dean’s pal, who also scripted Rebel Without A Cause).
However, the film’s aforementioned purple prose has to also be laid at Stewart’s feet. Likewise, the fawning hagiographic depictions of Dean, which start from the opening shots of 1950s moviegoers, get to be a bit much, resulting in some really poor symbolism, from ‘the tree of loneliness’ on Dean’s relative’s Indiana farm, to a dead seagull on a California beach to footprints on that selfsame beach, when Dean departs for New York to make it on Broadway. The worst aspect of this tendency results in a digression on Dean’s delve into other arts — painting and sculpture. Thus, we get a shot of a small piece of sculpture, with a male figure in a sort of Le Penseur (The Thinker) of Rodin pose. We see that it has no facial details, and the film makes a big thing out of this, even though there are no other details of the body. Why? Because Dean titled the piece Self. Oo-la-la!