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"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," Noel Coward famously and acutely remarked as author and star of the 1930 Private Lives. Coward was making a little joke about himself, since the strains wafting over the balcony he shares with Gertrude Lawrence is his own romantic ballad, Somewhere I'll Find You. He might have said the same about old images. Watching an antique film clip can have the identical lure and ache as flipping through a dusty family album. The figures are pinned like butterflies in a snapshot moment of awkward poses or an innocent radiance, innocent because they were too young to be aware of their beauty. The decades that intervened between the taking of the picture and our looking at it lend an inevitable, indelible poignancy, because they don't know they will age, fatten, wither, and we do. After all, we have.
Some of the new films acknowledge the ancient magic. There's a scene in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, where Bill Murray, as a character named Don Johnston who's been a lifetime Don Juan, sits in his living-room mausoleum watching Douglas Fairbanks and Merle Oberon in the 1934 The Private Life of Don Juan. Fairbanks then is about Murray's age now, mid-50s, but Oberon is in the first bloom of beauty; her youth intoxicates and reproaches both men the one she shares the screen with and the one watching her.
The amazing thing about many of these films is that they are still around, or have been rediscovered and restored. (The tragedy is that so many others 80% of all silent features, for example are lost.) The Dean documentary is a pedestrian effort with sententious narration delivered by Martin Sheen. But those are small faults, considering Sheridan's heroic and successful diamond-mining of Dean's television career, where he did most of his work.
Seen in salvaged kinescopes from such drama series as Kraft Playhouse and Studio One, Dean just 20 when he started on TVis as new and raw as the fledgling medium. In dialogue he doesn't always emphasize the proper word, and his gaze sometimes wanders pleadingly, as if he needs CPR from the director. But even in his acting infancy, Dean was a magnet to the camera eye and, of course, a creature with a blond beauty and a bruised soul. "I wish somebody would love me," he moues to Martin Milner on a 1950 episode of Life With Father. "Somebody will," says Milner, with an eerie prescience. "It takes all kinds of women to make a world."
Gradually, the TV footage reveals, Dean matured. He honed a few mannerisms: massaging his thigh, flipping his hands as if to shake off invisible water and, in one show where he plays an angel, scratching his styrofoam wings> (Did they itch?) He holds his own with veteran actors old (Ronald Reagan) and young (Natalie Wood) a year before they co-starred in Rebel). By the time he is cast in his first starring role, as Cal in Elia Kazan's East of Eden, he is a pro. He has learned how to use his attractiveness to mesmerizing effect.
There's a clip in the documentary showing a screen test of Dean, who had already been cast as Cal, and Paul Newman, who auditioned for but did not get the part of Dean's brother. As they banter, Newman is jocular and nervous, somehow not yet beautiful. Dean is in charge, the seasoned pro who is playing with Newman and the character, seemingly open but not revealing too much. Seeing the test today, we know the exemplary career that Newman carved into his own iconic status and stature. Dean was dead the following year. One young man got to fulfill his promise; the other didn't, and became a legend. Movie people who love the past know that, for stars on Sunset Blvd. or the Cannes Croisette, death is the ultimate glamorizer.