James Dean at High Speed Video Cover

Central to the life and legend of James Dean was his love of fast cars, fast motorcycles, and racing. Two of the most wide-spread (and erroneous) views of Dean's love of speed have been that Dean had a death wish and that his participation in car racing was that of a dilettante who liked to dabble in many activities (learning photography, playing the bongo drums, sculpting). The excellent documentary "James Dean at High Speed" convincingly shows that Dean's obsession with speed (which he called his "first and real love") and love of racing began in earnest during his boyhood in Indiana, and stayed with him until the day he died.

The documentary, which includes never-before-seen footage of Dean driving in races as well as film of racing events shot by Dean himself, takes the viewer on a journey back to Fairmount, Indiana, to visit Carter's Motorcycle Shop where a 15-year-old Jimmy Dean purchased his first motor bike. In interviews with family members, friends, and neighbors from Fairmount, we learn that young Dean's nickname was "one-speed Dean -- one speed: fast." We are reminded, too, of the proximity of Fairmount to Indianapolis, and of the importance of machines and engines in the life of any farm boy. As his star (and bank account) rose, Dean graduated from his little Czech-made motorcycle to faster and more powerful machines : the Triumph motorcycles he raced around the streets of New York and Los Angeles, a red MG TD sports car, a Porsche 356 Speedster Roadster, and finally a Porsche 550 "Spyder."

One of the special delights of this documentary is that we hear not only from Dean's show business friends (including Julie Harris, Eartha Kitt, Dennis Hopper, and Liz Sheridan, many of whom shared white knuckle rides with Dean in Hollywood), but also from drivers who raced against Dean and others who were a part of the California racing community in the '50s. It was a community, we learn, that was enthusiastic and close-knit, and to whom James Dean the actor had to prove himself as a serious and talented racing driver. Although he participated in only three races, Dean's knowledge, talent , and tenacity on the course won over most of the racing crowd.

In this, as in other aspects of his life, Dean was nothing if not controversial, however. Most of those interviewed refer to Dean's natural aptitude for, and commitment to, the sport of racing. Others, however, claim that Dean was a careless driver, whose death car (the famous Porsche Spyder) was "too much car" for him. Porsche historian and race driver Lee Raskin offers much insight into Dean's ability and style as a racer and offers an interesting analysis of the events and circumstances of Dean's fatal crash on the road to Salinas, where he was scheduled to race in his new Spyder. Custom Car Builder George Barris (who customized Dean's Spyder), offers perhaps the most vivid -- and haunting -- pictures of Dean, the racer: "When you would watch Jimmy racing . . . you could see the expressions of his face and his body . . . and he was part of that car; you could have molded them all together and they would have been all one."

This fascinating documentary will appeal to fans of James Dean and racing enthusiasts alike. Highly recommended.
(Running Time 50 minutes)

-- Charlotte Younger
(About the Author: Charlotte Younger has a Ph.D from the University of Virginia and lives in New England)

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Page last updated: November 29, 2001 02:29 PM -0800