Between 1951 and 1955, James Dean acted in more than 30 TV dramas. Four of these shows–plucked from the networks’ vaults–have now been packaged as an omnibus meant to trace the rapid emergence of a cultural icon. Dean’s persona as a brooding romantic in blue jeans was, of course, largely forged by his big-screen roles in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, but the trademark mixture of vulnerability and bewilderment, of artlessness and grace, was evident in his TV work well before he became a movie star. Not coincidentally, in two of the stories the gawky bantam from rural Indiana was cast as a farm boy torn between heartland comforts and the excitement of the city. His country bumpkin in Sherwood Anderson’s I’m a Fool lies about his background to his date–a rich city girl played by the 16-year-old Natalie Wood in their first appearance together–and must face the ironic consequences of the deception. In Harvest, Dean joins the navy to escape the farm after being spurned by a debutante from Chicago, then returns for a Thanksgiving dinner straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Acting opposite two stage veterans (Dorothy Gish and Ed Begley as his parents), Dean more than holds his own with understated reactions and natural gestures. His portrayal of inner turmoil is even more striking in The Unlighted Road. In his final TV drama, made only a year before his death, Dean plays a rootless war vet whose job in a roadside cafe leads to a sinister predicament. The character is quintessential Dean: an edgy, fatalistic loner too gentle and decent for the madding world. Despite Dean’s luminous presence, all four dramas, schematically directed by hacks, suffer from varying degrees of sentimentality (worst in The Bells of Cockaigne), turgid melodramatics, and barely serviceable camera work. For those interested in sociocultural history, however, there are other rewards, from commercials touting the virtues of linoleum floors to Ronald Reagan’s brief eulogy of Dean. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, November 8 and 9, 7:00 and 9:15, and Sunday, November 10, 5:30 and 7:45, 773-281-4114.

–Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): James Dean.