Tag Archives: James Dean

The Bells of Cockaigne (1953, James Sheldon)

The Bells at Cockaigne plays it very safe. It’s an inspirational “play for television” about lovable old Irishman in the U.S. Gene Lockhart daydreaming about winning an apparently still legal in 1953 numbers racket the newspapers run. Lockhart’s going to use the money to go home to Ireland and his little village one last time.

Lockhart sounds like he’s doing an ad read for a leprechaun. He really goes crazy with the accent. It’s not good, but it’s also not offensively bad. It’s a tolerable bad accent.

Now, Lockhart’s top-billed but the Bells is actually all about young kid (kid meaning late teens, maybe early twenties) James Dean who’s got a sick baby daughter and no money. He and wife Donalee Marans need a miracle but they’re not getting any so Dean’s going to play poker with his coworkers after they get paid. Oh, right, it’s payday. Vaughn Taylor’s the paymaster. He talks to Lockhart a lot.

It’s all very predictable and very positive. There’s nothing to it. Except Dean. Dean’s performance has these transcendent moments, where for a minute it’s not obviously a nonsense bit of positivity to play to a Christian nation in 1953. Where it’s actually Dean playing this part. Young, naive, out of his depth. Bells finds some honesty, thanks to Dean, when it’s not even looking for it.

Lockhart’s fine. Taylor’s not as good as Lockhart but only bad a couple times. Marans isn’t good. You really don’t watch this one and think the director did very much to help his actors with their performances. For Marans, it matters. Probably for Taylor too. Not Lockhart. Definitely not Dean. Watching Dean at the poker game, where he’s got the nervous active style going opposite all the comparatively motionless stiffs… it’s something.

The Bells of Cockaigne succeeds, despite having no ambitions at such a thing, and it’s all thanks to Dean. And it not being particularly bad in any way.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by George Lowther; “Armstrong Circle Theatre” sponsored by Armstrong World Industries; music by Harold Levey; produced by Hudson Faucett; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Gene Lockhart (Pat), Vaughn Taylor (Jonesy), James Dean (Joey Frasier), Donalee Marans (Margie Frasier), John Dennis (Rivnock), and Karl Lukas (Kreuger).


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Giant (1956, George Stevens)

Giant has a fairly good pace for running three hours and twenty minutes. Even more so considering almost the entire second act is told in summary, with stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean gradually getting more and more old age makeup. At his “oldest,” Hudson has a bulk harness, which is simultaneously obvious and effective. Hudson’s performance always needed a little heft. The literal visual presence of it helps.

The first half of Giant is Taylor’s. The film starts in early twentieth century Maryland. Texas cattle rancher Hudson arrives to buy Taylor’s stallion. Again, literally. It’s not clear why Hudson wants the horse because once he gets it home, there’s clearly no need for it. But Taylor decides she wants to marry Hudson right after meeting him; she’s engaged to Rod(ney) Taylor, who gets like four lines.

Taylor is Taylor so Hudson marries her, even though she’s already challenged him. Well, not him, but Texas. She pointed out they stole it from Mexico. That conversation ends up being this lengthy subplot through the entire film. And really Hudson’s only complete one. Giant starts as his movie but it’s Taylor’s after her second scene.

When they get back to big empty, pre-oil Texas, Taylor immediately runs into trouble with Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge is Hudson’s (presumably older) sister who actually runs the ranch. Though Hudson doesn’t seem to understand it. At that point in the film, Giant becomes this glamorous yet discomforting look into the situation of intelligent women. They have to marry dim bulbs.

Besides realizing being a racist prick isn’t good, Hudson’s only arc for the three hours is worrying about who’s going to take over the family ranch. And it’s never dramatic because almost everyone in the second half–once the kids, who arrive about an hour in, grow up into teens then twentysomethings. Giant doesn’t dwell much on the years in between toddler and late teen because Pearl Harbor happens and young men need to be old enough to go off to war.

Taylor’s got a lot going on in the first half, before the aging makeup. She’s got to deal with McCambridge thinking she’s trying to take over the de facto matriarchy, Hudson being a chauvinist and a racist, her husband and his sister starving the Mexican-American workers on the ranch while intentionally depriving them of safe living conditions, problem ranch hand James Dean giving her the eye, and, soon, Hudson’s only parenting instinct to be to instill toxic masculinity.

And she’s great. The script’s always a little too scared to throw down about Hudson’s racism, almost like director Stevens knows it’s going to get too awkward afterwards so why not save it until the end. So Taylor’s got to navigate around that softness while still developing her character. It culminates in Taylor heading back for a “visit” in Maryland, taking the kids. Rodney Taylor gets another line. Real character development on the kids happens, which is cool. And the last time some of the three kids ever get any.

The second half, about when it’s the forties and oil has struck, eventually deals with youngest daughter Carroll Baker deciding to rebel by pursuing James Dean. Dean, in his old age makeup with an awesome pencil mustache, is, of course, old enough to be her father.

That the three kids, both as babies and then adults, look more like not just Taylor and Dean’s kids, but also Taylor and Taylor’s is sadly never a thing. Hudson whines at one point about a grandkid not looking like him but, come on, none of his kids ever have.

Giant’s not a soap. While Dean clearly has the hots for Taylor, her arc with him (in the first half, when she still gets arcs), is more about her coming to terms with her disappointment in Texas. Young Dean is a dreamer who wants to get far away. Old Dean is not a dreamer. The movie doesn’t really do the dreaming thing. Everyone’s too rich. It just happens.

Dean’s fantastic. He’s a villain, of sorts, but a supporting one. He’s not Hudson’s antagonist, at least not after the film’s done establishing the Texas ground situation on Taylor and Hudson’s arrival. But the thoughtfulness of the performance, which carries over (and gets even better, actually) into the aging makeup, is something to behold. There are some flashy scenes, but it’s also impressive in the quiet moments when the film’s still giving Dean an active subplot.

He loses it just before the film starts jumping ahead. He figures into the second half a lot, but he’s not an active presence. Third act, yes. Third act is when he gets to show-off what screen acting can actually be in old age makeup. But in the second he’s all background. He’s no longer in current contention for ranch heir.

Dennis Hopper plays the disappointing son–first he became a doctor and then he married a Hispanic girl (Elsa Cárdenas in the film’s most thankless role, which is saying a lot considering Sal Mineo’s “part”). He ends up figuring into the third act a lot. He’s all right. Better than Baker, who isn’t able to make the minx believable. Old man Dean is a creeper and he doesn’t hide it. It’s never believable Baker would think it was so hot.

Other than Dean being dreamy, apparently. And it’s no wonder. Taylor and Hudson’s old age makeup puts them in their, I don’t know, late sixties? They’re supposed to be fifty (at the most). Only Dean looks close to appropriate.

Screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat bring up the aging in dialogue once or twice, with one full conversation, but it doesn’t play into the rest of the film. It’s never subtext. It’s either obvious or absent. Hudson’s increased drinking, however, seems like it might be a thing, especially since he and Dean both become massive functioning alcoholics simultaneously but separately.

In the finish, the film decides it wants to be about Hudson and his racism, but without ever, of course, being too judgy about it. Giant’s not telling people not to be racist at home, just out in public when some of the good ones might be around. But it does go so far as to tell them it’s still not really okay to be racist at home. Mind who’s around, of course. Good old uncle Chill Wills is all right, wink, wink.

And it almost kind of sort of gets somewhere. Even though it ignores this subplot actually had everything to do with Taylor before the film took it away. Giant comes through for Dean at the end. It comes through for Hudson. Well, his character at least. But it never comes through for Taylor.

Like, Dean is perving on Baker because she’s Taylor’s kid. It’s a thing. And Taylor never gets to deal with it. Stevens really lacks confidence in the leads’ abilities in the oldest aging makeup. So much so he doesn’t even try. He steps back. It works for Dean. It works for Hudson.

It doesn’t work for Taylor. It’s a bummer.

Most of the acting is good. Besides Baker. Earl Holliman’s a little ineffectual as well. But Paul Fix and Judith Evelyn are good as Taylor’s parents. Wills is good. Jane Withers, playing a character who clearly had a lot more to do in the novel, is fine.

Excellent photography from William C. Mellor. Stevens’s direction is good. It’s just a lot of story and a lot of movie. They get through it, but they don’t excel with it. William Hornbeck’s editing is perfunctory, which really doesn’t help by the third act, when the film proves unable to be soapy even when it wants and needs to be.

Still, taking everything into account, Giant’s worth it for Dean’s performance. It’s worth it for some of Taylor’s. It’s a damn shame there isn’t more to hers. The film really needed to be more confident treating second-billed Hudson like he’s second-billed.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Harry Ginsberg and Stevens; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Benedict), Rock Hudson (Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr.), James Dean (Jett Rink), Mercedes McCambridge (Luz Benedict), Carroll Baker (Luz Benedict II), Dennis Hopper (Jordan Benedict III), Fran Bennett (Judy Benedict), Elsa Cárdenas (Juana Guerra Benedict), Earl Holliman (‘Bob’ Dace), Chill Wills (Uncle Bawley), Paul Fix (Dr. Horace Lynnton), Judith Evelyn (Mrs. Nancy Lynnton), Jane Withers (Vashti Snythe), Rod Taylor (Sir David Karfrey), Robert Nichols (Mort ‘Pinky’ Snythe), Carolyn Craig (Lacey Lynnton), Sal Mineo (Angel Obregón II), and Charles Watts (Judge Oliver Whiteside).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ELIZABETH TAYLOR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Harvest (1953, James Sheldon)

Dorothy Gish isn’t just top-billed in Harvest, host (and narrator) Robert Montgomery introduces the episode hyping her presence. So it’s a tad disappointing when it turns out Gish gets less and less to do throughout the hour-long television play. When she does get things to do, they happen off-screen. Instead of giving her an arc, writer Sandra Michael actually takes away from Gish in the third act, giving time to a newly introduced character.

It might be okay if there were something more interesting going on, but there’s really not. Most of Harvest has to do with nonagenarian Vaughn Taylor preparing for his one hundredth birthday. Mentally preparing, not party-planning. Taylor’s in a bunch of makeup and sort of dodders around, talking too loud about how grandson James Dean isn’t going to take over the family farm.

Dean gets a lot to do. He’s in love with city girl Rebecca Welles, who just can’t understand why he’d want to stay on that smelly old farm anyway. Dad Ed Begley doesn’t know Dean doesn’t want to be a farmer–writer Michael knows Begley and Dean ought to have some scenes together because the characters have things to talk about, but Harvest skips every single one of those conversations. Instead, Begley either tells Gish or Taylor he’s talked to Dean.

The action takes place around the house, specifically the kitchen, occasionally the front porch. Harvest takes some side trips–into the city, out into the field, 1,000 miles away to check in on Gish and Begley’s other sons–but it’s mostly just the kitchen. Where Gish prepares coffee, Begley sits silently, Dean sits jittery, and Taylor dodders.

Harvest doesn’t take any of its characters seriously enough. If it’s going to be about homesteader turned farmer Taylor turning one hundred and watching his family farm collapse, the writing needs to be better and a better actor needs to be playing the part. Director Sheldon doesn’t do much with his actors, but no one’s anywhere near as problematic as Taylor. While Begley is mostly scenery (which is almost better than when he gets lines because Michael writes them so poorly), he’s better than Taylor’s “best” scenes.

Dean’s okay. Harvest cuts away from his character development just as it gets interesting. Gish is okay. She really doesn’t have anything to do but make coffee in a percolator but she does it with a level of engagement far beyond anyone else. Begley looks lost.

Welles is pretty bad.

Montgomery’s narration is obnoxious, but no worse than the frequent choir singing reminding the viewer how blessed are the starving farmers and aren’t they quaint. Keep hope alive for tomorrow is Harvest’s motto (or some such thing). Instead, it seems like the television play just wants to avoid responsibility for its content.

Sheldon’s direction–outside his lack of interest in the performances–is fine. Harvest never feels cramped, one primary set or not.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by Sandra Michael; produced by Robert Montgomery; aired by the National Broadcast Company.

Starring Dorothy Gish (Ellen Zalinka), Ed Begley (Karl Zalinka), Vaughn Taylor (Gramps), James Dean (Paul Zalinka), Rebecca Welles (Arlene), John Connell (Chuck), John Dennis (Joe), Joseph Foley (Herb), Nancy Sheridan (Louise), Mary Lou Taylor (Fran), and Frank Tweddell (Mr. Franklin); narrated by Robert Montgomery.


A Long Time Till Dawn (1953, Richard Dunlap)

A Long Time Till Dawn is usually able to keep disbelief completely suspended. It’s a television play and Rod Serling’s teleplay is more ambitious than the budget or the constraints of the medium. Most of the sets are interiors and fine–a diner, a living room, a bedroom. They can even get away with a front porch, though it is where Dawn stretches its visible credulity the most.

The porch scenes are also a stretch due to Ted Osborne’s performance. Osborne is just a small town man. His daughter-in-law (Naomi Riordan) has suddenly come to live with him, running away from New York City, back to small town New Jersey. It just happens she leaves New York the day before her husband (James Dean) gets out of a six-month stint in prison.

Riordan’s timing never gets discussed. It’s apparently just narrative efficency, not her trying to hide from Dean. Though when Rudolf Weiss, playing Dean and Riordan’s kindly New York neighbor (a delicatessan owner), tells Dean about Riordan leaving it’s like a) she doesn’t want Dean to know where she went and b) she’s been gone a while.

Weiss tells Dean about Riordan’s departure just after copper Robert F. Simon has stopped by the diner to warn Dean not to become a repeat offender.

So of course Dean has to beat up Weiss to find out where Riordan has gone. Then he heads home to Osborne and Riordan’s dread and hope. Simon follows soon after to investigate Weiss’s assault. Because even though everyone can just drop everything and go to small town New Jersey, Dean and Riordan never did it before Dean’s small time crook phase.

From the dialogue, it seems like that phase was about a sixth of the three years Dean and Riordan spent in New York. Serling’s teleplay has very, very little logic going for it. Ditto Dunlap’s direction (the finale has Osborne talking about some character who was just onscreen but Dawn forgot to take notice).

At its best, Dunlap’s direction is utterly mediocre. More often it’s a problem. Dean’s excellent, Simon’s excellent, Weiss is excellent. Riordan is okay. Osborne is not. He gets these lengthy monologues and he clutches the melodrama heartstrings so tightly their effectiveness withers.

Up until the third act, though, it really seems like Dawn is going to make it. But it doesn’t. The third act set pieces are poorly executed–thanks to Dunlap and the budget–and Serling’s denouement, largely thanks to Osborne, is a fail.

It’s a shame. Dean’s phenomenal, even when the writing is a little weak. When it’s more than a little weak, not even he can do anything with it (not with Dunlap’s direction “aiding” him), but his performance is mostly great. Simon also makes a lot out of his part. Serling gives the characters a lot of texture–except Osborne, which is bad–and Simon takes advantage.

A Long Time Till Dawn needs a better director, a better performance in the Osborne part, and a few rewrites.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Dunlap; written by Rod Serling; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe Harris), Ted Osborne (Fred Harris), Naomi Riordan (Barbie), Robert F. Simon (Lt. Case), and Rudolf Weiss (Poppa Golden).


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