James Dean and Ronald Reagan Clash in Newly Discovered Video

Recent­ly a friend of John Meroney at The Atlantic dis­cov­ered this 1954 episode of Gen­er­al Elec­tric The­ater fea­tur­ing Ronald Rea­gan and James Dean.

Dean’s per­for­mance is superb, and the episode (edit­ed to 6 min­utes) is a para­ble of the cul­tur­al ten­sions of the time — with drugged up, beat­nik delin­quents invad­ing the home of a decent cou­ple to sub­ject them at gun­point to jazz and slang: “man,” “fake it, Dad,” “you dig me,” “that’s crazy,” “don’t goof on me now.” It’s a quite fit­ting scene, espe­cial­ly giv­en that Rea­gan went on to be the icon of the con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment, while Dean became emblem­at­ic of the rebel­lious youth cul­ture to which Rea­gan’s move­ment was a reac­tion. But while the overt moral les­son of this episode is anti-rebel, there’s no doubt that pow­er­ful depic­tions like these–in which Dean’s expres­sive­ness is as charis­mat­ic as it is frightening–only con­tributed to mak­ing rebel­lion cool.

Wes Alwan lives in Boston, Mass­a­chu­setts, where he works as a writer and researcher and attends the Insti­tute for the Study of Psy­cho­analy­sis and Cul­ture. He also par­tic­i­pates in The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life, a pod­cast con­sist­ing of infor­mal dis­cus­sions about philo­soph­i­cal texts by three phi­los­o­phy grad­u­ate school dropouts.


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