Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews

Videophiled: James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition

James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner, Blu-ray)

Before the 1950s, there were no teenagers in the movies, at least not as such. There were adults and children, and that awkward age in between was largely seen as, well, that awkward period in between. You had kids on the cusp, troubled young adults, and juvenile delinquents but the teenager, with his / her hormonal surges and anxieties and identity crises, was pretty much ignored.

In many ways, James Dean was the first American teenager, the screen embodiment of the strangled cry of inarticulate kids to old be considered children but unready for the adult world. James Dean had knocked around in small film parts and television plays for a few years before he was case as Cal in East of Eden (1955), Eliza Kazan’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel (or rather, a small portion of it), and he became an overnight star. He’s basically a frustrated Cain to the Abel of Richard Davalos’ good son Aron and his performance is raw, tense, a combustible mix of ambition and frustration and desperation as the “bad” brother vying for the attention of his father (Raymond Massey), a hard, driven Salinas Valley farming magnate.

Dean wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for the role – he wanted to cast Brando – but screenwriter Paul Osborne suggested Dean for the part after seeing him on Broadway. Dean came from the Actor’s Studio, where Kazan himself had been active and found Marlon Brando, and Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for at least some of his leads and instead cast out of the Actor’s Studio, notably Davalos, making his feature debut as the “good” brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron’s girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor’s Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the craggy madam of the local brothel in Monterey who holds a dark secret to the family past, and she took home the film’s sole Academy Award (out of four nominations) for Best Supporting Actress.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD: ‘Something to Live For’

Ray Milland earned an Oscar playing an alcoholic desperately seeking a drink while facing a very bad night of the DTs in Billy Wilder’s 1945 The Lost Weekend, one of the first Hollywood films to seriously confront alcoholism as a disease. George Stevens’ 1952 Something to Live For is in no way a sequel but The Lost Weekend can’t help but inform Ray Milland’s character Alan Taylor, an advertising copywriter and recovering alcoholic who, at 18 months sober, has volunteered to go on calls for problem drinkers.

Joan Fontaine looking 'disheveled'

Joan Fontaine takes top billing as Jenny Carey, a no-longer-fresh young actress whose career is finally gaining traction, or at least was until she started lubricating her anxieties and emotion wounds in alcohol. She’s almost unrecognizable in her first scenes, sprawled across her hotel bed in slacks and blouse, more Katherine Hepburn modern woman than the usual Fontaine shy beauty or vulnerable sophisticate, and she doesn’t overwork the drunk act. She’s more wary and suspicious of Alan, who was called by the hotel’s worried elevator operator (Harry Bellaver) and proceeds to use the wily tricks of a veteran drunk to steer her clear of another drink (the inevitable echoes of The Lost Weekend reverberate through this scene). It looks like the beginning of a possible romance, until Alan returns home to his wife and children.

“Only a drunk can stop a drunk,” he explains to his supportive wife Edna (Teresa Wright) the next morning, but he came home with more than duty on his mind. Alan and Jenny continue to see one another, meetings that are as ecstatic as they are painful when reminders of his marriage and family responsibilities never fail to intrude on every reunion. Between their mostly chaste trysts, we follow their struggles in their respective worlds of corporate advertising (where Alan loses faith in his talent as a young hotshot takes the prime accounts) and New York theater (where Jenny’s confidence is undercut by the subtly cruel gestures of a jealous ex-lover). Even when they are apart, however, director George Stevens unites them in the many long, slow lap dissolves that connect them through their thoughts.

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