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The James Dean Story (1957) HD online

The James Dean Story (1957) HD online
Language: English
Category: Movie / Documentary / Biography
Original Title: The James Dean Story
Director: Robert Altman,George W. George
Writers: Stewart Stern
Released: 1957
Budget: $35,000
Duration: 1h 21min
Video type: Movie
This documentary, which was undertaken soon after James Dean's death, looks at Dean's life through the use of still photographs with narration, and interviews with many of the people involved in his short life. Interviewees include the aunt and uncle who raised him after his mother's death (when James was 9), his fraternal grandparents, a cabdriver friend in New York City, and the owner of his favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. James's father, who was alive when the film was made, does not get a single mention.
Complete credited cast:
Martin Gabel Martin Gabel - Narrator (voice)
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
James Dean James Dean - Himself ('East of Eden' screen test footage) (archive footage)

Originally conceived as a biographical film. Elvis Presley lobbied to play James Dean, but the decision was made to make a documentary instead.

Robert Altman's first choice for the narrator was Marlon Brando.

James Dean's father refused to contribute to the film.

All the members of James Dean's family who consented to participate in this documentary only did so after stipulating that 5% of the film's profits should be donated to the James Dean Memorial Foundation.

Robert Altman and George W. George (son of Rube Goldberg) set out to document the life of James Dean after learning of his tragic demise in a car crash. The film was released two years after Dean's death.

The opening title sequence was created by Maurice Binder, who went on to greater fame as the man behind the iconic titles to the James Bond movies.

This documentary about James Dean, includes numourous interviews with those people whose recollections of the film star were still fresh in 1956/57.

James Dean admitted to being heavily influenced by the acting styles of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.

Reviews: [11]

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    Perceptions will vary wildly about this film and may parallel some misunderstandings of who Dean was: Unless you have an intuitive view, you might think of Dean as arrogant or standoffish...the icon you see in posters of "rebel". In reality he was shy, tender, yet very driven to constant self-exploration. This documentary, shot not long after Dean's passing, successfully tells his story through his real friends and family. Hollywood apparently no longer aspires to make this kind of honest film without the sensationalism and innuendo heaped in for "box office". Back in '57 folks didn't cry on cue just to prove the depth of their sentiments while being interviewed. Yet one can plainly feel the love felt and the deep impression Dean made on those around him. Altman and George reveal that the "rebel" aspect attributed to Dean was not some sort of love of violence (a la today's Pulp Fiction), but was Dean's expression of loneliness and search for acceptance...much like the character Cal in East of Eden.
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    I liked this documentary THE JAMES DEAN STORY a lot when I watched it for the first time. As I had not really seen any other documentaries about Dean to compare with, it provided me with much information about the actor unknown to me at the time. When I watch it again now, I realize that there have been made several more thorough, and perhaps less speculative documentaries about James Dean since this was first released in 1957. This documentary is clearly a product of its time; Dean had tragically passed away only two years before, and one senses that the film tries to present him in a way to match the expectations of his fans. Whereas some later documentaries (and biographies) have made a point of trying to separate the man and the myth, THE JAMES DEAN story is transparently calculating at times. The narrator Martin Gabel also speaks in rather calculating (if engaging) manner, as if able to walk into Dean's soul and read his thoughts (a side-note: Marlon Brando reportedly considered doing the narration, but finally declined). This film is clearly aimed at a popular audience, who has not been constantly fed with documentaries about anything and everything through TV such as today.

    On the plus side, however, the documentary is not so overly concerned with Dean's status as a "Hollywood rebel" as one might expect. Much focus is also given to other aspects of his life than being a movie star, such as his interest in painting and playing the drums. Some of the interviews are also of interest; the recollections of the two bartenders whom Dean used to hang around with shed light on the cheerful, less solemn side of James Dean. The part where Dean's cousin Marcus (at that time about ten years old) reads out loud a letter he received from Dean a few months before the latter's sudden death is quite touching. Leith Stevens' jazzy soundtrack is excellent, and really fits the mood of the film. In the end, THE JAMES DEAN STORY is by all means worth to watch to anyone interested in the life and talent of James Dean, though there have been made more all-around satisfying documentaries since the time of its making. (This review has later been somewhat revised and updated)
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    If you know anything about James Dean, then this movie will probably not add much to your knowledge. What we see of Dean is mainly through still photographs. Most of these are just portraits that add little to the film, but there is an occasional one that surprises, like a nice one of Dean enjoying himself in a ballet class. The scene of real interest, which is saved for the end, is from a black-and-white audition Dean did for "East of Eden."

    The tone of the narration would be appropriate for the biopic of a saint--you are made to think that Dean's early death was some sort of national calamity.

    There are several interviews with some of Dean's relatives, friends, and even some restaurant owners and taxi drivers. The depth of the questioning is often inane, such as when the interviewer asks the restaurant owners, "How was his appetite?" We watch as a previous friend rummages through a box of Dean's miscellaneous stuff like phone numbers and a note from his laundry. It seems that everything that Dean touched was sacred. We don't even get any insights from Dean's girlfriend, the one with whom, "for the first time he found the timid belief that life was possible."

    The most frustrating thing about this film is the narration's constant speculations about Dean's motivations and thoughts. For example, consider this, "He took his envy to the beach. He looked at the ocean and he was jealous of its power. He envied the gulls for having found each other. He envied them their freedom and their solitary flights. Suddenly he knew that as an actor he could be the ocean and flood everything with his power. As an actor he could be a gull." A good part of the movie is filled with such florid prose that has no basis in fact. Amid all of the speculations there is none about the common one of Dean's being homosexual, or bisexual. He supposedly avoided the draft by registering as a homosexual.

    The main question I have always had about Dean is the extent to which he manufactured his own myth of being the sensitive, misunderstood, moody, independent intellectual. This film got me no closer to answering that.
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    I watched the movie because Robert Altman directed it, but I'd assumed it was going to be a straight forward documentary of Dean's life. Then about half way through it something didn't feel right. The people being interviewed spoke like they were on automatic pilot and the childhood photographs chosen for the movie had the quality of a spoof. I watched it a second time and realized it was Altman's documentary of the American Celebrity Cult, not James Dean. Our devotion to movie actors was reaching a new zenith in the 1950's and the life and death of Dean was a timely example of it. It's a movie about us in the same way Nashville is, or A Wedding, or Short Cuts.
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    Gold as Heart

    There is something very appealing about a documentary that dares to psychologize its subject (if not to the point of the Self digression), because so many documentaries, these days, try to feign objectivity to the breaking point, even when, ala Michael Moore, their position- pro or con, is manifest from the get-go. Similarly, the personal accounts of Dean seem far more genuine than later documentaries in which interviewees seem to mug for the camera, and pull apocryphal tales out of their asses, just to get their own lousy fifteen minutes in the sun. The interviewees here are speaking contemporaneously, before Dean's legend really took off, and there is none of the deliberate or unintended fuzzing of memories towards the better angels of Dean's nature.

    The lone exception to this particular good quality of the film, is a scene where Altman gets the family and friends of Dean to re-enact their reactions to first hearing of Dean's death in a car crash of his Porsche on September 30th, 1955. What makes this section so poor a piece of filmmaking is the fact that earlier, we get to listen to a surreptitiously recorded 'real' conversation between Dean and his relatives, and the contrast between that and the 'scripted' parts is so great. Also, the film makes good use of the slow panning technique over still photographs that would later be used so successfully by documentarian Ken Burns. However, a caveat should be noted, and that is that the reason the technique works so well in the film is that the source photos are so intriguing. Yes, Dean comes off as a terminal narcissist, but he really did know how to strike the pose, and surround himself with photographer pals to immortalize himself.

    That said, the film, even at its mere 79 minutes of length, tends to wear a bit thin after the hour mark, because the reality is that Dean, despite this film's best intentions and claims, was not a particularly good actor. He was a relentless and born ham, and one need only watch Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, vis-à-vis Dean, to see the gulf between good and mediocre Method actors. Yet, while scenes from his films are few, there are some good passages with some of Dean's friends from New York and Los Angeles restaurants, some outtakes from films, newsreels of the opening of Giant, and a Public Service Announcement for safe driving, which more than make up for the film's deficiencies. Thus, The James Dean Story is a film and DVD worth watching, even if there are no extras, for its dated style becomes that rare quality that enhances even as it detracts. When was the last time you engaged a piece of art you could say even that of?
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    "The James Dean Story" is introduced as "A different kind of motion picture," explaining, "The presence of the leading character in this film has been made possible by the use of existing motion picture material, tape recordings of his voice and by means of a new technique - dynamic exploration of the still photograph." The only "tape recordings of his voice" noteworthy is one short recording Mr. Dean make while visiting his family in Indiana; he wanted to record any family recollections of his great-grandfather Cal Dean, intrigued because he played a similarly named "Cal" in "East of Eden". Dean asks if Cal Dean was interested in art, and learns the relative was an auctioneer. James Dean was interested in art and had warm relationship with his family, obviously. That's the only 100% accurate revelation in this documentary. James Dean was interested in art and had warm relationship with his family.

    An amazing "screen test"/"outtake" from "East of Eden" appears near the film's end. It's a black and white scene between Dean (as Cal Trask) and co-star Richard Davalos (as Aron Trask). Dean is at his mesmerizing best. If this scene appeared only here, and no "East of Eden" film was completed, this documentary would be an essential, high rated film. But the scene, a perfect "10" in isolation, should be considered an "East of Eden" extra. Dean's "Traffic Safety Film" is also worth seeing.

    There are the expected interviews with family and friends. My favorites were the guy (Lew Bracker) going through a box of stuff Dean left with him, and Dean's family. There wasn't enough from Aunt Ortense and the letter from Dean to his little cousin was very nice. More reading of Dean's letters would have been welcome. Dean's unidentified writer friend seemed to have a better thesis for the film; filmmakers might have considered developing it as a main focus.

    Robert Altman's direction of Martin Gabel's reading of Stewart Stern's script is dreadful. What were they thinking? Perhaps, filmmakers can be forgiven due to the closeness of Dean's passing. Don't expect "The James Dean Story" at all. This movie is more about Dean's effect on people (both the fans and filmmakers) than the man. It is very clearly an early piece of the James Dean myth-making "legend". Tommy Sands sings "Let Me Be Loved". The narrative refers to Dean as "He" with a god-like air. The shots of Dean's family seeming to "know" the moment he dies are truly wretched.

    ** The James Dean Story (8/13/57) Robert Altman ~ James Dean, Martin Gabel, Richard Davalos
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    I remember reading about this documentary many years ago and felt quite intrigued. The timing for this feature length tribute was just right. Released for the cinema in 1957, "The James Dean Story" really captures the spirit of the man as well as the star. It's great to see people who knew Dean being interviewed and that counts for a great deal. All the major aspects of Jimmy Dean are covered: the loss of his mother at a young age, his initial efforts in the field of acting, how Dean was thought of as a person and other aspects besides. The narrator does a fine job of guiding the viewer through the documentary and his voice is commanding.
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    Released two years after Dean's death at the untimely age of twenty-four, THE JAMES DEAN STORY is a valuable document as it includes interviews with many of the family and close friends who knew him - his grandmother, his aunt and uncle, his acquaintances in New York and Hollywood, and other workers who befriended him. Sometimes their testimonies seem somewhat stilted on screen, as if co-directors Robert Altman and George W. George had rehearsed their dialogue beforehand and were prompting them into making reactions. On the other hand their love for Dean seems palpable, despite his reputation for being difficult.

    Narrated by theater actor and sometime director Martin Gabel, the film paints a portrait of a troubled personality whose father and mother died young and who was brought up in rural Indiana by his aunt and uncle. Although extremely helpful with the chores, young Dean always appeared lonely, as if in search for something he could never access. Apparently he used to spend a lot of time under a favorite tree, that not only served as a place of sanctuary but gave him the time and space to reflect.

    He cut his theatrical teeth at school, and then decided to make the big move from Indiana to New York. After a short time in the wilderness, he landed a role in the short-lived production SEE THE JAGUAR (1952), but shot to stardom two years later in THE IMMORALIST, adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from the novel by André Gide. His raw energy, stimulated by loneliness, produced an electrifying performance that outshone those of his costars Geraldine Page and Louis Jourdain.

    Yet this was not enough for him - after a dispute with the producer, Dean walked out on THE IMMORALIST to seek his fortune in Hollywood. After spending many nights sequestered in local hostelries, hobnobbing with stars and hangers-on, he landed a leading role in EAST OF EDEN (1955), directed by Elia Kazan. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Gabel's narration sounds a little portentous at times, but nonetheless we are given a portrait of a complex personality at once alienated from yet keenly desirous of praise from the world. His career really took off with the help of father-figure directors such as Kazan and Nicholas Ray, who understood his potential and made every effort to develop it. Dean was a mercurial actor - even more so than his illustrious contemporary Marlon Brando - who never gave the same performance twice, either on stage or screen. If a director could develop that raw energy, then they could be assured of a memorable performance from him.

    True to the spirit of the late Fifties, we are not told about the actor's alleged bisexuality. Our attention focuses rather on the way in which the actor did not perform on screen at all, but simply drew upon his perpetual feelings of alienation and loneliness to produce a series of electrifying screen characterizations. Truly he was an icon of the times, whose early demise only served to enhance his legendary status.
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    The James Dean Story is the first documentary made about James Dean two years after his death in 1957.Martin Gabel provided the narration that chronicled Dean's short life and career using still photographs.Also included were interviews from relatives,friends and the owner of his favorite restaurant located in Los Angeles.Finally,the viewer is also treated outtakes from his movie East Of Eden and the videos of the opening night of his other movie,Giant.

    Considering that this documentary is done almost 60 years ago,I still think that it was good during its time.It probably helped in forming the James Dean myths of an actor who died early considering that the best is yet to come from this "one of a kind" and enigmatic movie star.
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    This 1957 documentary was thrown together to capitalize on the Dean legend and hopefully cash in on it. Out of luck - even Dean's ardent fans avoided this turkey. Using still photography and a morose narrator, Martin Gabel, this contains little useful information not already known about Dean. Interviews with family and neighbors back home shed little light - they are so terminally dull and brimming with flat affect, one is astonished that Dean's fluidity of expression and sensitivity grew out of this environment. Of some value is an outtake from EAST OF EDEN (presented here in dimly lit black and white) between Dean and Davalos. It's a gruelling 82 minutes.