The similarities are remarkable. Both were highly regarded young-turk Hollywood actors in the mid-1950’s. Both were young and handsome.
Both enjoyed breakout years at the same time in major studio productions. Both made less than a handful of movies. Both their burgeoning careers were cut short within a two-month period in 1955 when the vehicles in which they were being transported crashed and burned in California.
Dean died in a car crash, Francis in the crash of a small private plane he was piloting. They were just a year apart at the end — Francis was 25, Dean 24.
We’d bet, though, that while the name James Dean has an all-too-familiar ring today, the name of Robert Francis is something of a head scratcher.
Dean became the notoriously famous symbol of Fifties teen rebellion thanks to three films. His chew-the-scenery Actors Studio style contrasted sharply with Francis’ disciplined and controlled approaches in four pictures in which he was cast as military figures at odds with institutional surroundings.
The pictures that made Dean were three: director Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden,” Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without A Cause” with Natalie Wood (both in 1955) and George Stevens’ “Giant,” released after the actor’s death. Dean was nominated in the best actor Oscar category for the first and the third but didn’t win.
Francis portrayed a philosophically inclined enlisted man in his first outing, 1954’s prisoner of war drama The Bamboo Prison. He was upgraded to ensign in the same year’s The Caine Mutiny, very much holding his own amidst a powerhouse cast including Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Fred MacMurry and Van Johnson.
Francis’ final film, 1955’s The Long Gray Line, put him in the hands of no less than one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and opposite Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s strongly felt paen to West Point. A recent screening of the movie confirms Francis’ ability to convey strong emotion underneath a seemingly placid facade. His is a solid performance as an anguished cadet grappling with West Point’s honor system.
By contrast, a hard nosed look at “Eden” and “Rebel” today prompts the notion that dying early might have been a terrific career move. There is a self-indulgent, almost infantile aspect to Deans’s acting, particularly in “Rebel,” that’s off putting.
Some contemporary viewers might react by giving his character — and perhaps Dean himself — a swift kick in his pants with the admonition, Grow up! The characters played by Francis elicit no such reaction. They were fully grown up as performed.
Dean should be remembered for his short and spectacular career. Francis should also be remembered for his short, less spectacular but perhaps equally solid one.