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Eclectic DVD presents
James Dean Era (1953-55)

"I used to fly around quite a bit. Took a lot of unnecessary chances on the highways. And I started racing. And now I drive on the highways, and I'm extra cautious."
- James Dean

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 08, 2002

Stars: James Dean
Other Stars: Natalie Wood, Eddie Albert, Ronald Reagan, Gig Young, Susan Douglas, Don Hanker, Robert Middletown, Frank Maxwell, Murvyn Vye, Edgar Stehli, Pat Hardy
Director: Don Medford, Justus Addiss

Manufacturer: Cleopatra Video
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h: 23m: 05s
Release Date: December 04, 2001
UPC: 022891100898
Genre: compilation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Let's play counterfactual history for a minute: what if James Dean didn't die in a car crash at the age of 24? If he went on to have a long career and put together a body of work like that of say, Paul Newman, would his image today have the same sort of pungency? Would we pore through ancient archives looking for the slightest Dean artifact, or seek out his every performance, no matter how brief, like art historians trying to hunt up a new Vermeer? I'd guess not, but of course we'll never know. And I admit to being a sucker for the Dean image; for instance, one of the reasons I remain so committed to my sneaker of choice, Converse's Jack Purcells, is that James Dean wore them. His work in three feature films —Giant, Rebel Without a Cause, and East of Eden— tapped into a particular sort of disaffection among America's youth in the mid-1950s, and were enough to establish his legend; his untimely death only made the flame for him burn that much brighter. And those three films have been pretty much Dean's entire body of work. The folks at Eclectic DVD have scoured and come up with more, though. The main material on this DVD are three television plays from the 1950s that featured Dean; they vary in quality, and may leave you wondering just how golden the Golden Age of Television really was. The first, Something for an Empty Briefcase, appeared on Campbell Sound Stage, "presented for your enjoyment by Campbell's Soups." (They're seriously pushing the beef noodle here, by the way.) The Dean persona is already fully formed: he plays your basic juvenile delinquent, shooting pool and committing petty thefts. He tries to rob a young woman, but falls in love with her instead: Noli, played by Susan Douglas, is from Ohio and wants to be a dancer. She tries to turn the young punk onto culture by making him listen to Mozart and look up words in the dictionary. The love of a good woman makes him want to go straight, but Sloan, his crime boss, won't have it. And the briefcase of the title is a clumsy and heavy-handed metaphor for Dean's heart: "I want to put something inside. Something I made, or something that's mine." It's not a particularly satisfying or original drama, but you probably won't be surprised to learn that Dean is the best thing in it. Up next, from the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, is The Unlighted Road, in which Dean has just been discharged from the Army after a tour in Korea, and goes to work as a counterman at a roadside diner. It's much like the previous story here —a virtuous young woman, Pat Hardy, tries to keep Dean from falling in with the wrong crowd, but he is, inevitably, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He becomes an unwitting collector for a black-market trader, and thinks he's run a cop off a road in a car chase and killed him. Dean, of course, does the right thing, and all's well that ends well. The beer advertisements here are particularly fun, reminding us that when this was originally broadcast it was National Tavern Month, and offering such catchy bits of dialogue as, "Lots of people enjoy square-dancing these days, but it sure makes a fella thirsty." Rounding out the trio is I'm a Fool, based on a Sherwood Anderson short story, produced for G. E. Theater, with your host, Ronald Reagan. Reagan tells us it's an encore performance, and though the point isn't made explicitly, it seems as if this was rerun after Dean's death. Despite having the best writing pedigree and the best-known bunch of actors, it's probably the weakest of the three stories on the DVD. Dean is a young man who heads out for the big city, leaving behind his tearful mother, who insists: "Promise me you won't get mixed up in no way with no sneaky people." Sorry, Ma. He takes a job at a racetrack's stables, and the poor boy is soon smitten by the rich girl, played by Dean's Rebel Without a Cause co-star, Natalie Wood. Narrating the story is Eddie Albert as an older incarnation of the Dean character looking back at his misspent youth. It's a sketchy parable about telling the truth, I suppose, which wouldn't be of much interest fifty years after the fact if it weren't for the future careers of its cast members.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: These television dramas weren't shot to last, and it shows. Something for an Empty Briefcase is probably the worst, with many scratches and a lot of debris, poor, low lighting, and just generally the ravages of nearly five decades. Insult to injury: on the bottom right corner of the screen, a logo for Stardust Records pops on and off. The Unlighted Road fares better; it was shot on film, at least. I'm a Fool isn't as bad as the first, but again, the years haven't been kind.

Image Transfer Grade: D


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The Unlighted Road, the best visually, is unquestionably the worst in terms of audio. The balance is heavily in favor of the treacly score, and the dialogue is very difficult to make out with some frequency. Otherwise, the dramas require some extra attention from the listener, given the limited capacity of live television.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Rebel Without A Cause, Giant, East of Eden
1 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Audio CD—twenty tracks
  2. Two television commercials featuring James Dean
  3. At the Race Track — Dean and racecars
  4. Photo Gallery, with Dean audio interview
Extras Review: It's a great big potluck of extras on display here, anything and everything James Dean. There's a second disc that's an audio CD (45m:25s), featuring music from the period; it's annoyingly without track listings. There are a couple of alternate takes of familiar tunes (Bill Haley and the Comets doing Rock Around the Clock; Tutti Frutti by Little Richard), some truncated cuts from other 1950s icons (Elvis doing That's All Right, Mama live, cut off about halfway through; Marilyn Monroe singing I Wanna Be Loved By You, in a cut that sounds as if it was lifted directly from the soundtrack for Some Like It Hot), and less familiar novelty songs, like Gene Norman singing Snaggle Tooth Ann, and Woodpecker Rock, by the Braves. At the top of some of the cuts are audio clips either of Dean or preachers from the early '50s fulminating against the evils of rock. The deleted scene (called Rare Outakes [sic]) is from East of Eden; it's full-frame and in black & white. Dean has a cameo in a Pepsi commercial (Pepsi Cola Hits the Spot), and the eeriest thing on hand is a public service announcement, with Gig Young and Dean fresh from the set of Giant, warning kids about driving too fast. At the Race Track (01m:30s) shows stills of Dean with cars, intercut with some silent footage, and playing over it is the vroom-vroom of racecars; the Photo Gallery shows some familiar images, along with audio of Dean discussing acting technique. You'll also find trailers for Dean's three most famous features, as well as links directly to the commercials on the TV dramas, under the heading, And Now A Word From Our Sponsors.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Dean's career was cut so tragically short and opportunities to see his work are so limited that the hardcore James Dean fan will cherish this DVD. But it's more interesting as an addendum to his film work, and the stories here aren't crafted well enough to stand up on their own. A grabbag of extras provide some further allure if you simply cannot get enough of James Dean, but unless you've got his photograph plastered all over your bedroom, you'll probably find this set more intriguing than entertaining.


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