He'd be 74 now. But after three movies in just 16 months and a September 1955 car crash, James Dean has the advantage of seeming forever young.
In The Complete James Dean Collection, Warner Home Video is rereleasing Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, but East of Eden -- Elia Kazan's production of the final third of John Steinbeck's novel, which transposes the Cain and Abel story to World War I-era northern California -- is released here on DVD for the first time (on two discs, available both separately and in the collection).
The second disc's making-of documentary reveals Method directing at work: Since Raymond Massey, who plays Cal's father Adam, didn't like Dean's irreverence (for life, and for the script as written), Kazan incited more and more animosity between the two actors -- with a payoff in the scene when Adam orders Cal to read from the Bible.
Grainy footage of insincere interviews at the film's March '55 opening in Times Square features, alas, no Jimmy -- but there's John Steinbeck himself snapping off witticisms from behind his twitchy, burbling lips. There's also an '89 biographical doc that's notable for Julie Harris' reminiscences and for one explanation of Dean's obvious vulnerability: The haunting story of 9-year-old Jimmy traveling by train from L.A. to Indiana after his mother had died of cancer -- and of the boy getting off at every stop to make sure that the casket was safe.
The best of the added features -- master lessons in acting -- are dual versions of screen tests and deleted scenes (Dean and Harris, Dean and Richard Davalos as Aron) that are worth studying for glimpses of Dean's celebrated on-camera improvisations.
The movie itself is full of Dean's can't-take-your-eyes-off-him scenes: Cal peering through blocks of ice, jealous of his brother and Harris' character, Abra; Cal's smoldering disappointment in the Ferris wheel scene, when Abra tells him of her love for Aron; Cal screaming as he clings on for a chance -- just one chance -- to share words with his mother, played by the bitter, broken, masterful Jo Van Fleet.
James Dean raised Cain in all his movies. But in East of Eden -- the only one of his films released during his lifetime -- he makes us believe in his complexity.