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The Lasting Appeal of James Dean

September 30, 2015 | By

James Dean acted in only 3 films before he died in a car crash in September 30, 1955. Sixty years after his death he still remains one of the best known Hollywood actors of all time. A Silhouette tribute to the star.

James Dean

James Dean

Sixty years after his death in a car crash on September 30, 1955 James Dean remains one of the best known Hollywood actors of all time. The average person, who might not recognise most stars from sixty years ago, will usually recognise not only Mr. Dean’s name, but his image as well. Indeed, James Dean adorns merchandise from t-shirts to coffee cups. Several biographies have been written about him as well. Curiously, his career in film was not long. He was only credited in three feature films: East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956).

Given the brevity of James Dean’s career, it is difficult to explain how he has remained popular decades after many of his contemporaries have been forgotten. There can be no doubt that much of it has to do with the three films he made. Of these, it is perhaps Rebel Without a Cause that has had the most impact. Indeed, when James Dean is portrayed on various merchandise it is usually as Jim Stark from the film, complete with his t-shirt and jacket. Rebel Without a Cause would not only receive a good deal of acclaim, but it would also prove to be successful at the box office. It was particularly popular with teenagers, who identified with the disaffected young Jim Stark. Prior to Rebel Without a Cause most screen portrayals of teenagers were obedient, respectful of their parents, and rarely got into trouble. Jim Stark was a sharp contrast to such characters as Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich.

While it would appear that Jim Stark is the most iconic of James Dean’s roles, he would give impressive performances in the other two feature films in which he played a lead role. In East of Eden he played Cal Trask, the moody and disillusioned son of a farmer who is jealous of his brother Aron (played by Richard Davalos). In many respects Cal has a good deal in common with Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause. He could be brooding. He was not particularly happy with his parents and especially not happy with his brother. That having been said, Cal also differed a good deal from Jim Stark. Cal started a thriving business and eventually found the happiness he wanted.  For his performance in East of Eden James Dean became the first person ever posthumously nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

James Dean actor

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

Arguably the role of Jett Rink in Giant provided James Dean with the tour de force of his performances. Jett Rink was a ranch hand and handyman who resents the wealthy Benedicts family. Jett Rink eventually strikes oil on a small bit of land he inherited and becomes one of the wealthiest men in the state of Texas. Giant covered a span of several years, so that the character of Jett Rink began as a young man about the same age as James Dean and ended the film as much older. James Dean’s performance as Jett Rink was impressive, and he was once more nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

 

James Dean

James Dean in East of Eden.

Today James Dean is known for his performances in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, but it must be kept in mind that in the Fifties he was probably known for his appearances on television as well to the American population. James Dean made his television debut in 1951 on an episode of The Bigelow Theatre. Afterwards he appeared on several of the better known anthology shows.  In the Omibus episode “Glory in the Flower” he played a disaffected teenager not that far removed from Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. In the Kraft Theatre episode “A Long Time Till Dawn” he played a former prison convict trying to start a new life. In the Schlitz Playhouse episode “The Unlighted Road” James Dean played a veteran of the Korean War who goes to work in a diner.

It is quite possible that by the time production began on East of Eden that James Dean already had a following of fans among television viewers. He would gain many more with his appearances in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause.  With his death at such a young age (James Dean was only 24 when he died) he arguably attained immortality.

It is impossible to know where James Dean’s career would have gone had he lived.  He might have continued appearing in dramas such as East of Eden and Giant. He might have followed the path of contemporary Steve McQueen and began making action movies in the Sixties. Regardless, there is one thing of which one can be certain. James Dean would have remained a star. Sadly, he died all too soon.

Rebel Without a Cause trailer

More to read

Alfred Hitchcock’s Early Career
An Attempt At Understanding Woody Allen
Tribute to Bette Davis and James Stewart
An Overview of American Movies of 1958

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Terence Towles Canote is the author of the book Television: Rare & Well Done. He runs the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. He has been published in Capper's Weekly, The Old Cowboy Picture Show, and other small press publications.
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