While it is rarely shown in retrospectives of his work, Robert Altman’s The James Dean Story (1957) is easily one of the more offbeat and poetic examples of documentary filmmaking. Officially cited as his second feature (Altman’s first was The Delinquents, 1957), The James Dean Story was co-produced and co-directed with George W. George, a former writing partner of Altman’s, as a serious exploration of the young actor’s mystique and impact on the youth culture of the fifties. The project came together quickly in the aftermath of Dean’s death on September 30, 1955. George (the son of inventor Rube Goldberg) pitched the idea of a documentary on Dean to a contact at Warner Bros. who approved the concept. While other producers in Hollywood were furiously shopping the same idea around from studio to studio, Altman, George and cinematographer Lou Lombardo were already on their way to Fairmount, Indiana to shoot the documentary and interview the locals without much in the way of advance preparation.
Lombardo, who shot the bulk of the interviews and transition footage for the film, would remain a close collaborator of Altman’s for many years, serving as film editor on such signature Altman pictures as McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974) and California Split (1974). Lombardo also served as an editor to Sam Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and eventually helmed two films on his own, the spy thriller Russian Roulette (1975) and the drama P.J. and the Kid (1987) starring Paul Le Mat and Molly Ringwald. To give the documentary an authentic and intimate point of view, George approached Stewart Stern, a personal friend of Dean’s who had written the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Stern had turned down other offers to write a screenplay about Dean due to the exploitative nature of such an enterprise so soon after the actor’s death. After meeting with George and Altman, however, he was convinced to join their collaboration.
In Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, Stern described his vision for the documentary: “It wasn’t nice, crisp, uninvolved, objective storytelling because I didn’t feel that way. I wanted to be very sure that Jim came across as human, flawed, searching, lonely, complicated, all those things. But I didn’t want to get into anything that I didn’t know about and I didn’t want to add to the unhealthy side of the legend.”
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, 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 Dennis Hopper was briefly considered before Warner Bros. executives insisted on using Martin Gabel, a former member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company, to narrate the documentary (Stern was not happy with this choice).
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 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 to California hangouts like Schwab’s Drug Store.
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 renowned 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 principal photography and editing on The James Dean Story, he delivered it to Warner Brothers per their arrangement and they 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, Warner Bros. 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). Still, the documentary managed to earn some positive reviews from such high profile critics as Bosley Crowther of The New York Times: “ What should be an effective contribution to the perpetuation of the legend of the late James Dean is achieved in “The James Dean Story,” which was added to the bill at the Paramount yesterday. Intimations of immortality run all through it. It should be irresistible to the Dean fans.” Unfortunately, The James Dean Story fared poorly at the boxoffice and remained an obscurity for many years. It has since become available on DVD from various distributors and 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”) that some viewers have found laughable, the film is often moving and offers an 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). *This is a revised and extended version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other Websites of Interest: