Originally Marlon Brando was approached to do the film's narration and he gave it serious consideration. In Robert Altman: American Innovator by Judith M. Kass (Popular Library), the actor said, "Toward the end I think he (Dean) was beginning to find his own way as an actor. But this glorifying of Dean is all wrong. That's why I believe the documentary could be important. To show he wasn't a hero; show what he really was - just a lost boy trying to find himself." In the end, Brando refused the offer and Warner Brothers took over the project from Altman, hiring Martin Gabel, a former member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Company, to narrate the documentary from a script by Stewart Stern. The latter had not only co-written Rebel Without a Cause but had also been a close friend of Dean's.
In direct contrast to contemporary documentaries on movie stars, The James Dean Story avoids sensationalism, industry gossip, or celebrity talking heads and instead offers an introspective and occasionally stark portrait of the Indiana farm boy turned superstar. The documentary begins with James Dean's childhood, when, at the age of nine, he was sent to live with relatives in Fairmount, Indiana and progresses from there through his brief Hollywood career. There are interviews with Dean's aunt and uncle in Fairmount, the man who sold him his first motorcycle, former UCLA fraternity brothers, the highway patrolman who sped to the scene of Dean's fatal car wreck, and Arleen Langer, a New York girl who had a crush on him during his struggling actor days. Some of the rarely seen material includes a screen test for East of Eden (1955), a highway safety film Dean made with Gig Young, and Altman's re-enactment of Dean's high-speed car wreck as well as numerous photographs and film clips from Dean's career. Altman also provides a virtual travelogue of Dean's old stomping grounds from his Indiana childhood (with footage of the Fairmount cemetery, the train station, and the Dean farm) to his New York City days (Rube Goldberg's apartment, Georgie's Restaurant) to California hangouts like Schwab's drugstore.
It was during the making of The James Dean Story that Altman became introduced to the zoom lens which he would soon incorporate into his unique style of filmmaking. He also learned a new technique for presenting archival photographs on film from renown still photographer Louis Clyde Stoumen who called his process "photo motion." This method dispensed with the traditional presentation of static images, instead adding movement to the photograph as the camera closed-in on specific details in close-up.
After Altman completed principle photography and editing on The James Dean Story, he sold it to Warner Brothers who hired musician Leith Stevens to compose a jazzy, evocative score for the film. The studio also coaxed teen idol Tommy Sands to sing the theme song, "Let Me Be Loved," written especially for the movie by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Then, for some inexplicable reason, WB held up the release of The James Dean Story for over a year and a half. By the time the documentary was released to theatres, the young actor's death was no longer topical so the studio buried it in double features with a grade-B horror flick, The Black Scorpion (1957). Not surprisingly, The James Dean Story fared poorly at the boxoffice and has rarely been screened since that time.
Seen today, Altman's second film is definitely a curiosity piece. While the narration has its share of literary cliches and pretentious phrases - "He prowled through the night like a hunter" - the film is still a moving and often unconventional approach to deciphering the James Dean myth. Altman obviously felt some kinship with the ill-fated actor since he too was a mid-Westerner who found success in Hollywood, but he would later take a less favorable look at the James Dean phenomenon in his own production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).
Producer/Director: Robert Altman, George W. George
Assistant Producer: Lou Lombardo
Screenplay: Stewart Stern
Film Editing: Robert Altman, George W. George
Original Music: Leith Stevens
Title Design: Maurice Binder
Cast: Martin Gabel (Narrator), Arlene Martel (Herself, uncredited).
BW-80m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford