BOOTLEG FILES 304: “Hill Number One” (1951 made-for-TV film with James Dean in his first movie role).
LAST SEEN: Online at Archive.org.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: From plenty of public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope, it is in public domain hell forever.
James Dean occupies an unusual place in film history: his iconic status is limited to three films made in a two-year period. What many people don’t realize is that Dean had four years of steady television work prior to his starring debut in 1955’s “East of Eden.” Unfortunately, many of Dean’s performances on television are not easily accessible to his still-vibrant fan base.
Dean’s first significant role, however, can be seen: “Hill Number One,” a 1951 made-for-television film. Actually, the only reason anyone would seek out “Hill Number One” today is because of the elusive actor. But be aware: Dean’s role is strictly a supporting part – in fact, he doesn’t show up until the second half of the one-hour film – and his work is worlds removed from the causeless rebel persona of his big screen work.
“Hill Number One” was produced as part of “Family Theatre,” a syndicated program produced by Father Patrick Peyton’s Family Rosary Crusade. Despite being headquartered in the significantly non-glamorous Albany, N.Y., Father Peyton had an extraordinary reach into the show biz world. Beginning in radio and then expanding into television, he managed to create a series of programs that extolled Catholic religious values. Even more amazing, he was able to recruit a number of famous entertainers to work for scale in his productions.
For “Hill Number One,” Father Peyton brought forth a high number of well-known (if not exactly A-list) stars to appear in what was basically a low-budget, independently produced religious film: Ruth Hussey, Roddy McDowall, Leif Erickson, Gene Lockhart, Regis Toomey, Jeanne Cagney, Frank Wilcox, Henry Brandon and Michael Ansara. James Dean was literally brand new to the business – outside of an appearance in a 1950 Pepsi commercial as a partygoer, he had never been on camera before.
“Hill Number One” opens during wartime – it is not clear if it is the ongoing Korean War or World War II. A group of U.S. soldiers are complaining about the fatigue of battle and the number of hills they have to conquer as part of their work. A coffee wagon shows up with a Catholic chaplain at the wheel. “Padre” mentions that the men are fighting on Easter Sunday, and then he explains that the men should consider the victory that took place at Hill Number One – also known as Calvary.
The film abruptly flashes back to Jerusalem, right after the Crucifixion. Pontius Pilate is holding court – although his court is about the size of a garage and the only ones present are Pilate, an elderly advisor, a mute black man with no shirt who stands in the far corner with his arms folded across his chest, and the elaborately dressed and impressively bearded Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph is asking Pilate for the body of the just-crucified Jesus for entombment. After some hesitation, Pilate agrees.
Joseph, joined by his pal Nicodemus (who also has a fancy beard and elaborate clothing) turn up at the shop of Mara the Spice Woman. (Funny, I don’t remember reading about her in Sunday school.) Mara is besides herself about the death of Jesus, but she quickly guesses that Joseph and Nicodemus need her spices to anoint the body of the dead Jesus. Obviously, Joseph and Nicodemus didn’t need the spices in order to try one of Paula Deen’s recipes!
Meanwhile, Pilate is upset. It seems his wife Claudia has abruptly vanished, and he wonders whether any of Jesus’ friends will try to spread false stories that Jesus came back from the dead. He calls in the centurion Cassius, who not only witnessed the crucifixion, but also had a long-time ocular disease healed when Jesus’ blood splashed in his eyes.
Cassius and the Roman army (all five of them) show up at Joseph’s tomb, where a group of women were planning to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. He meets Mary, who is walking around in a wide-eyed stare that suggests she is practicing for the Judean road show production of “I Walked with a Zombie.” We also meet Mary Magdalene, whose painted eyebrows and suspiciously non-natural blonde hair suggest a bit of (dare we say?) naughty behavior. The centurions decide to seal and guard the tomb, thus preventing anyone from stealing the body and claiming a phony resurrection.
In another part of town, Jesus’ disciples are laying low in a secret hiding place. All of the disciples are burly, bearded, middle-aged men – with the exception of John, who looks like a moody kid from Indiana. Can you guess who plays John? Dean has very little to do in the scene – he says two lines, gets praised by the other apostles, and then sits around with a pensive look on his face.
Also hiding out in town is Claudia, Pilate’s wife. She decided to jettison the Roman approach to la dolce vita and follow the teachings of Jesus. “They’ll not think I’d seek shelter among Christians,” she announces, albeit anachronistically.
Of course, we all know that you can’t keep a good man down – and with the resurrection, everyone starts running around in various stages of joy and panic. Even young John is ecstatic, beaming a grand smile over the good news. Pilate, who is awaken from a silk pajama-clad sleep, frowns at the news.
Suddenly, we return to the soldiers (remember them?). Word comes that they won the battle. The chaplain urges them to thank the rosary.
At this point, without any warning, Father Peyton comes on screen and urges people (in his thick Irish brogue) to say their rosary prayer. “The family that prays together, stays together,” he insists.
“Hill Number One” made no special impact on the general public – religious programming was very common in the early 1950s – and even less on Dean’s career. Unhappy with his work in the film, he left Hollywood and headed to New York to find better opportunities in theater and live television. The rest, of course, is history.
However, Dean’s first film has resurfaced over the years through a number of public domain labels (there is no copyright on the film and the Family Rosary Crusade has never tried to squelch the dupes that are being sold). Many people will be disappointed that Dean has little to offer in this glorified Easter pageant. Still, it is a fascinating glimpse at the unlikely genesis of a meteoric career.
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