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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

A Long Time Till Dawn  Kraft Televison Theatre 1953

James Dean  The Big Story 1953

Harvest  Robert Montgomery Presents 1953

Sentence Of Death Studio One 1953

PepsiCola commercial  1950  YouTube   Autumn 2021

I was never a particular fan of James Dean. I recognised very effective moments in each of his films, but not much more. But my recent explorations of YouTube's vaults uncovered some early appearances on American television, and it seemed worthwhile to look at a few.

Except for the last, which is there just for fun, these recordings all come from various anthology (i.e. different play each week) shows in one year, 1953, and aren't his entire output in what was a very busy time for Dean. Watching them together produces two striking impressions.

The first is that all the roles are what we can with hindsight call 'James Dean roles' troubled youths with a macho swagger that doesn't successfully hide a vulnerability and even fragility beneath. Producers and casting directors must have spotted that quality in Dean's auditions and quickly typecast him.

And the second is that he doesn't always deliver. While there are clear and impressive 'James Dean performances' in a couple of these, in the others he brings little to the roles that any other young actor couldn't have. Whatever it was that Dean had, he hadn't yet learned to turn it on at will.

The most successful of these four is A Long Time Till Dawn. Working with a Rod Serling script that is built around his character, Dean plays an ex-con expecting to pick up his life where it left off, and unable to control his frustration when that doesn't happen.

As he would in the best moments of his films, Dean conveys eagerness, frustration, anger, panic and the sense of being trapped by his own character flaws in such rapid succession that the emotions seem simultaneous. And he also handles the quieter scenes that suggest the distant possibility of happiness in a way that makes them particularly wistful.

The Big Story is actually a 1957 repeat of a 1953 episode of this 'based on true stories' series, with a new frame turning it into a salute to Dean. Though the plot is similar to the Kraft show, it lets Dean play weakness and vulnerability of a different sort, as his character is a simple lad who can only handle one thought at a time.

Here it is that he must be loyal to his best friend, a fellow small-time crook, so Dean's character dooms himself by trying to break the buddy, played by fellow star-to-be John Kerr, out of jail.

Actually, Kerr's emotionless performance as the cold-blooded friend is almost as impressive as Dean's flashier one, and this program may be of more historical significance in dressing Dean in the white T-shirt and leather jacket that would become iconic.

Both Harvest and Sentence of Death relegate Dean to secondary roles that give him little opportunity to make an impression. The first is about a farm family beset by failed crops, a death, and the departure of sons looking for happier lives elsewhere.

It is a vehicle for the stars playing Mom and Pop, Dorothy Gish and Ed Begley, and as the last of the sons to leave, Dean is not much more than an extra, though he does have one good moment. Having dinner with his city girlfriend's family, Dean silently and sympathetically shows the boy's awareness of the class differences between them.

In Sentence Of Death Dean is another punk kid, this time falsely convicted of a robbery and murder until a witness and a sympathetic cop work to capture the actual killer. The show is really about those two, but given a couple of scenes in which a 'James Dean performance' would have fleshed out his character and made the injustice matter to us, Dean delivers nothing.

Everything that we think of as James Dean was there from the start, but with very tight limitations of what he could do beyond his narrow specialty, and not yet a consistency and reliability to deliver within it.

The 1950 Pepsi commercial may have been Dean's first paying job. You might have to play it twice to spot him.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of early James Dean performances  2021