The Books: “James Dean: The Mutant King” (David Dalton)

Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:

James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography, by David Dalton

I described my obsessive-compulsive response to seeing East of Eden here in this post about Carroll Baker. James Dean was the first. He was the first time I went off the edge into obsession – at least in a way that I now recognize. I had been obsessed with things before … but with James Dean, I went to work learning about him. That was a first. I could not believe my eyes. I had to know more. I had to know everything! The Mutant King was in the library where I worked, and I devoured it. Much of it went over my head, but not a hell of a lot. It’s quite a good book, and THE book I would recommend for anyone who wants to know more about James Dean. It does not take a cynical eye towards his talent, it is not trying to turn him into a gay icon, it does not have an axe to grind – it does not fall into any of those traps of biographies … But it does attempt to explain the “myth” of Dean, and where that all came from (besides his dying at the age of 24, I mean). David Dalton is not afraid to speak about that myth in a serious way, and there are sections of the book that almost feel like literary criticism, or film theory, or an art-critic’s in-depth analysis of one particular image. Dalton “goes there”. There’s a whole chapter about James Dean’s face and how he, as a young unknown actor in New York, learned how to be photographed. It was a process with him – and you can see the stilted good-boy smile results of his early photos, as compared to the iconic images of him in the ripped sweater (taken before he was famous):


Dalton analyses the transformation, taking an objective eye – trying to see what exactly it was that had changed in James Dean, in terms of him allowing his soul, his interior, to be showed by the camera. This is not a surface “he was born on a cold dark day” type of book. This is analytical.

Dalton also delves into each one of James Dean’s films, and puts together as full a picture as is possible of each experience. First of all, he interviews everyone. You get to know people who were in Rebel Without a Cause who barely had lines – but they were in crowd scenes and have good stories to tell. So you learn about the shooting of each film, on an almost day-to-day basis. But Dalton also analyzes the films themselves. He calls out certain moments, and speaks of their symbolism – but also speaks of how such a moment (Dean with the milk bottle in Rebel, for example) added, later on, to the Dean myth. Dalton looks for the small gesture that reveals psychology, and points it out. It was QUITE an education for me, as a 13 year old kid … to look at movies in this way. I had seen East of Eden and it blew me away. From Dean’s first entrance on the railroad tracks, I could not look away. I didn’t know what I was seeing, I couldn’t analyze it – I just knew that every moment just killed me. I wrote about it extensively in my diary. (Here, here, here … that’s just the tip of the iceberg!) I remember tears streaming down my face the first time I saw the scene when James Dean tries to give his father all the money – it is such an unexpected moment … The father (played by Raymond Massey) rejects the gift. He doesn’t just reject the gift, he rejects the son. (You know. The ol’ Cain and Abel story). And Dean’s response … It could have been conventional, a regular old scene of betrayal that we have seen a thousand times … but Dean, always a master, even at a young age, at gesture … takes it to the next level. He picks up all the money and tries to give it to his father, his father rejects, Dean starts to fall apart, he’s moaning and whimpering … his father is even more embarrassed … and Dean sort of gently falls into his father’s chest, pushing the bills at him, as they fall to the floor … It is a deep swoon of grief, truly mortifying to watch … and apparently Massey was horrified by the scene. It works. His embarrassment is real, Dean’s Greek-tragedy level of betrayal is real … I just couldn’t believe it when I first saw it.


David Dalton picks apart each film methodically. He backs up his theories with quotes from the actual players. For example: the red jacket in Rebel, and what it meant … and how deliberate that was on Nicholas Ray’s part. Here’s how Dalton writes, it’s a good example of the feel of the book:

Color plays an important thematic role in Rebel, as it does in all of Ray’s films: the purple and gold in Party Girl, the red and green in Johnny Guitar and the red and blue in Rebel – the blazing red of rage, passion and fire, and the cool blue of space and isolation. The tones are raw and the combination as abrasive as adolescence itself.

Ray’s use of color has been described as apocalyptic, “une palette en feu” as a French critic called it. The colors in Rebel change like banners, symbolizing the evolution of the characters.

“I started Jimmy in this neutral brown and he graduated to the blue jeans and red jacket,” said Ray. “And Natalie graduated from the gauche red in the beginning to a soft, pink sweater. When you first see Jimmy in his red jacket against his black Merc, it’s not just a pose. It’s a warning. It’s a sign.”


Often, biographers focus on the details of the life. That is all well and good. But they neglect to look at the work, and how it adds up, and how it explains why we need yet another biography of, say, Cary Grant. It’s interesting, Cary Grant’s business acumen, his seriousness about money, his ability to negotiate for himself … but without understanding what it was that made him such a giant movie star … or without attempting to understand, the book can feel tepid. (There are a couple of Cary Grant biographies that short-shrift the acting. I know it’s difficult to talk about acting. It’s difficult to describe why something is good, or why a performance lasts. But it seems to me an essential job of anyone taking on a subject such as Grant, or Bogart, or Dean.) David Dalton works on multiple levels. He digs into the details of Dean’s short life, he analyzes what it was that was striking in him as an actor, he looks at what it was in the performances that added to the myth that came up later on … and then, he just flat out analyzes the films themselves. The Rebel Without a Cause chapter is as good as any “director’s commentary” track on a DVD. It is its own “special feature”. Any fan of the film (or anyone who’s interested in film analysis) should check it out. It’s one of those things where you think, “Yeah, yeah, I did notice that in the film … but I wasn’t aware how much THOUGHT went into it …”

Dalton doesn’t just keep his focus on the details of Dean’s life. He analyzes, and you only realize how rare that is when you read a lot of other actor biographies, which tend to focus on the off-screen shenanigans. I’ve never been interested in that stuff … only in how all of that impacts the work. The Mutant King stands alone, in my opinion. It could be taught in any film appreciation class. It makes you see things. It was a revelation to me as a teenager. It changed how I looked at films. It helped make me serious about them.


My thoughts about James Dean have changed over the years. The impact he had on me did not last past adolescence, although I still love those movies. Elia Kazan, who directed Dean in East of Eden, said that he always felt that Dean was a “sick kid”. There was something wrong with him. Self-destructive, yes, but also manic, depressive, wild highs, crushing lows … His friends sensed this in him too. He was not developed as a person. He was competitive as an actor, much of what he did was attention-getting (and that’s not a bad quality in an actor, it’s actually a job requirement!) – and because of a mixture of lucky breaks, chemistry with a camera (which cannot be taught), and innate ability – Dean surged ahead of the pack. He wasn’t well-liked. Lots of people found him annoying, childish, and nearly impossible to have a conversation with. Who knows who he would have developed into, had he lived. I would have been VERY interested to see. I think he had something innate, a true gift … but was he in control of it? In the way that Marlon Brando (his arch rival) was in control of his? I’m not sure. We’ll never know, I guess.

One of Dean’s big breaks was in the Broadway play See the Jaguar in 1952, with Arthur Kennedy:


Dean played a boy who had been locked in an icehouse for the majority of his life, and finally emerged … a neophyte Mowgli-type, uncivilized, feral, unbearably sensitive … He apparently was magnificent, and I would have loved to have seen it.

Instead of choosing an excerpt about one of Dean’s three movies, I decided to choose an excerpt having to do with See the Jaguar.

EXCERPT FROM James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography, by David Dalton

See the Jaguar begins as a young boy about sixteen, who has been kept locked in an ice house all his life by his mother, wanders out for the first time and stumbles into town. His only connection with the outside world is a note his mother gave him before she died, addressed to the town’s good-hearted teacher: “Dear Davie Ricks: This is my son Walter that I hid from all the meanness of the world … Maybe I was wrong to hidden him this way – maybe I was right. But I loved him dear and didn’t want for hurt to come his way.”

Dave takes a look at this boy and says, “I’ve always wondered, if I could see it new what would it look like?” And Wally, says, stretching out one hand to the bigness, “You can’t touch nothin’.”

Director Michael Gordon said, “He can’t understand why everything is not within his grasp. To be someone who’s discovering that for the first time was what Jimmy could do. He was able to use that magical quality, that as if I were, and make it happen to himself.”

Jimmy had no trouble learning the part of Wally Wilkins. But since he was tone deaf, he found it practically impossible to sing the little song which Alec Wilder had composed for the show. “Rehearsals helped him with his acting, but nothing could help him with the singing,” Bill Bast said. Bill and Dizzy spent long torturous hours going over it with Jimmy and would often hear him in the middle of the night moaning it over and over again, trying to get it right:

I won’t cry in the daytime.
I won’t think of Ma.
I’ll think of her at night time
And cry then.

Other than this, Jimmy seemed delighted with his role. He fit the part perfectly, and the producer and director were behind him. But during out-of-town tryouts a story circulated that Jimmy pulled a knife on someone during a rehearsal.

“In Hartford, the ruckus began during the rehearsal of the third act,” said Michael Gordon. “The tension during that scene was pretty high and Jimmy took out after a prop man. I was sitting down in the audience. I jumped up on stage because there was a commotion, but by the time I got there it was all over. I think Jimmy actually pulled a switchblade on the guy, but I never did find out.”

Arthur Kennedy, who played the benevolent Dave Ricks, later told writer Ed Corley that Jimmy had pulled a knife, the same switchblade Jimmy had bought with the money Nash had given him for glasses. “Kennedy supposedly took the knife out of Jimmy’s hand,” said Corley, “and broke the blade, with stern instructions ‘not to pull any of that crap in my show!’ Jimmy, who was impulsive rather than violent, may have been relieved the matter was taken out of his hands and his ‘number’ had a quick resolution.”

When See the Jaguar opened in New York, Jimmy felt as if it were the first Broadway opening night in history.

“His feet never touched the floor,” said Dizzy Sheridan, who went with Jimmy to Sardi’s for the opening-night party. “He just flew from table to table, talking, laughing. I watched people’s eyes pouring adulation all over him; they loved him.

“But it was a very crushing night for me. We left together, we wanted to be together, but he was staying at the Royalton that night and after we got upstairs they called and told him he couldn’t have a woman in his room. So we ordered something to drink and then he walked me downstairs and put me in a cab. I had the feeling that things were starting to move for Jimmy and I would never be able to catch up. I saw him two or three times after that and then I left for Trinidad.”

Reviewers found the play obscure and silly, “a contrivance of jejune symbolism.” The critic for the Daily Mirror said, “The advance notices spoke of this play as an allegorical western without a horse. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what was missing.” The reviewers pretty much agreed that the plot was torn between forthright story and lofty parable that it was completely unsuccessful in both.

But James Dean was recognized for his wraithlike portrayal of Wally Wilkins: “overwhelming as the boy from the ice house” … “played the part with sweetness and naivete that made his tortures singularly poignant” … “makes childish young fugitive believable” … “adds an extraordinary performance in an almost impossible role …”

It’s revealing to look at the photographs of him as Wally Wilkins. Although the character so closely matched the conditions of his own life, he has created an inner character who has his own face. It’s not just the way his hair is combed down, but his expression, the aperture of his eyes, his loose jaw and open mouth. Jimmy has regressed here some five years, just as he later aged himself over twenty years for the part of Jett Rink in Giant.

Jimmy’s growing restlessness, his taking things to the edge and his inherent sense of fatalism are expressed in an interview he did with Jack Shafer for a New York radio station the Sunday night before See the Jaguar opened.

Jimmy showed up at the interview with his glossy Golden Mentor paperback on the Aztecs and startled Shafer by talking about Aztec sacrificial dramas, a people who sang under torture, a culture where suicides were sacred beings and had their own heaven and patroness, Ixtab, goddess of the rope:

“Well,” he [Jimmy] somewhat reluctantly explained. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Aztec Indians. They were a very fatalistic people, and I sometimes share that feeling. They had such a weird sense of doom that when the warlike Spaniards arrived in Mexico, a lot of the Aztecs just gave up, fatalistically, to an event they believed couldn’t be avoided.

“Like the Arab philosophy of Kismet?” I [Shafer] asked, “what is written, is written?”

“And for them, the arrival of the Spaniards was written!” Dean went on, his enthusiasm bubbling to the surface. “They had a legend that their god Quetzalcoatl had predicted they would be conquered by strange visitors from another land.”

“Well, no wonder they were fatalistic about it then,” I [Shafer] said. “But what’s this about your being fatalistic, too?”

“In a certain sense I am,” Dean admitted. “I don’t exactly know how to explain it, but I have a hunch there are some things in life we just can’t avoid. They’ll happen to us, probably because we’re built that way – we simply attract our own fate … make our own destiny.”

“I think I’m like the Aztecs in that respect, too. With their sense of doom, they tried to get the most out of life while life was good; and I go along with them on that philosophy. I don’t mean the ‘eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die’ idea, but something a lot deeper and more valuable. I want to live as intensely as I can. Be as useful and helpful to others as possible, for one thing. But live for myself as well. I want to feel things and experiences right down to their roots … enjoy the good in life while it is good.”

In the Journal American, the reviewer ended his story with the advice that “if you want to ‘See the Jaguar’ – you had better hurry.” The play closed after five performances.

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6 Responses to The Books: “James Dean: The Mutant King” (David Dalton)

  1. nightfly says:

    Great post; as usual I only have a useless observation to add (heh) –

    The chessboard is set up incorrectly. That should be a white square at the lower right. It makes me wonder if the photo is staged: not because I think Dean couldn’t play, but because that’s usually what happens in chess photos – the picture looks better with a white rook on a black square in the corner facing the viewer. Even Chess Life magazine has been known to get this wrong (sometimes because a photo has been flipped to face the subject properly on the page, resulting in a correct board being shown incorrectly).

    In any case, Dean’s in a bit of trouble there – knight en prise, doubled rook’s pawns…

  2. Cara Ellison says:

    If you have a moment, could you explain the milk bottle in RWOAC? I am embarrassed to admit, I never thought to look for symbolism there.

  3. red says:

    Cara – Ack, you know what? I meant to link to your posts of the clips from Rebel – I had it in my mind to do so and then forgot! My bad!!

    Well, first of all: It was an improvised moment. Dean made that up. Nicholas Ray (director) had felt that that moment needed something … something to show his tiredness, and also his need for comfort. Nothing obvious. So Dean took out the milk bottle and rolled it around his face, and people were just riveted. In the film, he’s torn between his parents – his stiff mother and his emasculated father (there’s that great scene where he sees his dad in the apron, cleaning up a mess on the floor – and he is so upset by it …) … and milk has great symbolism for “mother” … You know, his need for a mother, a real mother, tenderness. When he and Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood go to the mansion, they set up a little nuclear family … to make up for their own lacks in that area … James Dean’s character got to be a loving take-care-of-it father to Sal Mineo, and also a tender husband to Natalie Wood … and the fact that Dean’s imagination would have led him to the milk bottle (as opposed to any other prop, which would have less symbolic significance) seemed to Nicholas Ray to be a little miracle.

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    It’s obvious now that you explained it! :)

    I just finished watching it again – since I filmed the little romantic bits – and I was so blown away by the whole dynamic of James Dean and his parents, and Natalie and hers. I think they have the inverse of parents. Natalie’s father is very formal and masculine. Of course, as you point out, Dean’s is emasculated. And Natalie’s mother is nurturing but ineffective. James’ is a wench – like Natalie’s father.

    Every time I watch it, I find new things to love.

  5. red says:

    Right! And Natalie’s father is pretty much disturbed by her burgeoning womanhood – right? Doesn’t he tell her to wipe off her lipstick? Like – he shames her, if I’m remembering correctly.

    And poor Sal Mineo’s parents … wealthy, but basically invisible.

  6. The Books: “Are You Anybody?: An Actor’s Life” (Bradford Dillman)

    Next book on my “entertainment biography” shelf: Are You Anybody?: An Actor’s Life, by Bradford Dillman One of the side effects of being obsessed with Dean Stockwell, is that you suddenly find yourself needing (yes, needing) to buy the autobiography…

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