James Dean Story, The (1957)

“Success was nothing more than the concealing leaf which covered the tree of his loneliness…”

James Dean Story Poster

Synopsis:
Directors Robert Altman and George W. George chronicle the tragically brief life of movie star James Dean.

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Review:
Released just two years after Dean’s death, this unusual documentary is notable as one of Robert Altman’s first feature films, and for its use of a new “photo motion” technique which allowed Altman and George to incorporate numerous still photographs of Dean into the film’s narrative arc. The result is an undeniably adulatory yet surprisingly affecting look at Dean’s brief Hollywood career, one which examines his mystique as a brooding, introspective “rebel” by exploring the influences of his humble background as a semi-orphan on an Indiana farm. Martin Gabel’s solemn narration is often laughably corny (see quote above), but somehow fits within the sensibility of this poetic ’50s homage — it may not offer a fully balanced view of Dean’s life, but does provide an informative reflection on his enduring resonance with disaffected youth, and will almost certainly be of interest to film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A truly heartfelt homage to Dean
    James Dean Closeup
  • Effective use of Louis Clyde Stoumen’s “photo motion” technique to incorporate archival photographs into a documentary film
    James Dean Photo Stop

Must See?
Yes, for its cinematic interest.

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One Response to “James Dean Story, The (1957)”

  1. First viewing. A must, and in complete agreement; it’s a unique approach among documentaries, even if it comes off somewhat like a eulogy and, as stated, is “undeniably adulatory” in its depiction of Dean. In a way, how could it not be? His death was still fresh in the minds of the public, as well as the hearts of those that filmmakers Altman and George interviewed on-camera (and many of those make for intriguing time-capsule figures). How else, really, at this time, could this iconic figure have been portrayed?

    What couldn’t, of course, be included here is something that no doubt only became more widely speculated later, and continues to be widely speculated today: that Dean was either gay or bisexual. You won’t find a whisper of that here. Well, maybe a whisper. Or two. Or three. I won’t pinpoint where that’s hinted at – I’m just saying see the doc and then…discuss.

    The most troubling aspect of Dean’s character, perhaps, is that he comes off as kin to Woody Allen’s ‘Zelig’: wanting to morph into the character/characteristics of whatever he takes a fancy to at any given time. Of course, that’s what actors do – but, on the whole, they don’t tend to do it in real life.

    The doc was written by Stewart Stern – who wrote ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and, it would seem, is meant to be “the writer friend” in the doc who seems to nail Dean’s real problems.

    Altman fans in particular should make sure to catch this. But ffs in general will find this a fascinating tribute to a one-of-a-kind personality. It pales a bit when compared to the approach taken for another big-screen trail-blazer in 2007: ‘Brando: The Documentary’. But, in an odd way, both films essentially share the same root.

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