This week on "Film Friday" I bring you one of the most groundbreaking and powerful portrayals of juvenile delinquency in cinema history. This is also film that forever immortalized James Dean as the ultimate rebel.
|Theatrical release poster|
Directed by Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) opens with teenager Jim Stark (James Dean) sprawled drunk on the sidewalk, playing with a toy monkey. He is then taken to the police station, where two other young people have also been brought in: sixteen-year-old Judy (Natalie Wood), who was found wandering the streets, and John 'Plato' Crawford (Sal Mineo), who was caught shooting puppies. On the first day of school, Jim learns that Judy is his neighbor and tries to befriend her by offering her a ride to school. She refuses and is then picked up by her boyfriend, Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) and their group of deliquent friends. Jim proceeds alone to school, where he is shunned by most of the student body, except Plato, who comes to idolize him as a father figure.
Later that day, following a field trip to the planetarium, Jim and Buzz get into a fight after the latter slashes one of Jim's tires and call him "chicken". After Jim subdues Buzz, he challenges him for a "chickie run", which will call for them to drive two cars towards the edge of a cliff until the first person jumps off. In the evening, they start the race, but Buzz gets trapped in the car and plummets to his death in the sea. Following the tragics events of the "chickie run", Jim, Judy and Plato grow closer and come to realize that all three of them are just trying to make sense of their inner angst and restlessness, made worse by their parents' indifference towards their problems and concerns. Soon, they form a strong bond and create their own unconventional and understanding family, which brings them love, acceptance and security. However, their fantasy of a happy family is short-lived when Buzz's gang goes after Jim with a desire for revenge.
Jim Stark: If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused and I didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace, you know?
In the early 1950s, the American public was in a state of high anxiety due to the media's frightening reports of teenage violence and juvenile crime throughout the country. At the time, all rebellious adolescent behavior was seen as evidence of a growing problem with juvenile delinquency. It was irrelevant whether teens were breaking laws or taboos, or simply bending household rules; the emerging youth culture of rock and roll music, fashion, "hip" slang, fast food, automobiles and open attitudes toward sex was regarded as threatening and incomprehensible. But in many ways, these teenagers that grew up in the prosperous 1950s were simply trying to expand their own boundaries by creating their own exciting culture separate from adults.
Perhaps due to his own strained relationship with his teenage son, director Nicholas Ray was inevitably attracted to was happening with kids all over America. Ray had already dealt with the subject of juvenile delinquency in the noir Knock on Any Door (1949), but he was dissatisfied with the film's approach. He wanted to avoid what he called "slum area rationalizations" and focus on middle-class teenagers, going beyond the notions of juvenile delinquency of the time and giving them a greater emotional depth. Ray wanted the film to be a romantic story too, and eventually drew from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which he considered "the best play ever written about juvenile delinquency", to construct the relationship between Jim and Judy.
|Ray and Dean on a break from filming|
During the earlier stages of Rebel Without a Cause, Ray had nobody specific in mind for the lead role of Jim Stark. Until his friend and mentor, Elia Kazan, invited him to watch a rough cut of his new picture, East of Eden (1955), starring a 23-year-old actor named James Dean. Ray was impressed by Dean's sexy and emotionally unrestrained performance in the film and immediately recognized him as the ideal protagonist for Rebel Without a Cause. Dean, however, was indecisive about taking on the role of Jim Stark, but after a few weeks of righteous courtship, Ray was finally able to convince him to accept his offer.
I didn't pick Jimmy for Rebel. We sniffed each other out, like a couple of Siamese cats. We went to New York together so I could see where he lived. You should have seen his room — a tiny place, cluttered with books and boxes. We hung out together for about a week — played basketball, went to the movies, got drunk with his friends. We were really close by the time we got back to start the picture.
When news of Ray's new project began spreading through Hollywood, it seemed as if every young actor in the business was campainging for a part in the film, but no one wanted it more than 16-year-old Natalie Wood. For nearly a decade, Wood had been one of the most successful and hardest-working child actresses in Hollywood, but as she began to move into her teens, it became more difficult for her to get parts. When she heard about Rebel Without a Cause, she was eager to get her hands on the script. Adding to the film's attractiveness was that fact that it starred James Dean, who had left a strong impression on her when they worked together in the television play I'm a Fool (1954), presented by CBS's anthology series General Electric Theater (1953-1962). Though Stewart Stern's screenplay was only two-thirds finished, Wood wept when she read it and immediately felt connected to the character of Judy.
|Dean and Wood behind the scenes|
I felt exactly the way the girl did in the picture toward her parents. It was about a high school girl rebelling, and it was very close to home. It was really about my own life.
Convinced that she was only actress that could play Judy, Wood went to the Warners casting office and begged to read for Nicholas Ray. The director, however, refused to cast her due to her previous fame as a child actress which had imposed upon her a "goody two-shoes" image, the complete opposite what Judy was supposed to be like. Willing to do anything to get the role, Wood, who was going through her own rebellious phase, began changing her looks and befriended some of Hollywood's resident juvenile deliquents, such as Dennis Hopper, who would later be cast as a gang member named Goon. But Ray was still unconvinced. When she was involved in a car accident while on a night out with some friends (including Hopper) and was called a "goddamn juvenile delinquent" by the doctor who assisted her, Ray finally changed his mind and gave her the part.
For the role of the fragile and troubled Plato, Ray chose the 15-year-old Sal Mineo, who had recently been expelled from his high school for running with a tough, rebellious crowd. Although it is never said, since any mention of homosexuality in films was strictly forbidden at the time, the character of Plato eventually became known as the first gay teenager in the history of cinema. Starting with a picture of Alan Ladd in his school locker, Plato continues to drop hints about his sexuality and fascination with Dean's character throughout the film. Dean was aware of this and at one point even asked Ray to tell Mineo "to look at him the way he looks at Natalie."
|Mineo, Dean and Wood as Plato, Jim and Judy|
Originally, Rebel Without a Cause was conceived as a black and white B picture. However, when East of Eden turned James Dean into a major star, Jack Warner decided to "upgrade" the film, budgeting it more money and ordering that it be filmed in color. Despite the setbacks, production on Rebel went along smoothly. Ray encouraged the younger actors to hang out together and Dean, Wood and Mineo eventually became inseparable during the four weeks they worked on the film. The director also encouraged the teenage cast to improvise, change dialogue and suggest scenes, even sacrificing some of his original ideas in an attempt to make the film more authentic and relevant to the adolescent audience.
On October 26, 1955, Rebel Without a Cause opened to mixed but generally positive reviews. Though some critics found the development of the parental characters weak or unfair, its three young leads were universally praised and both Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo went on to receive Academy Award nominations. Youthful audiences responded to the film enthusiastically, driving Rebel Without a Cause to number one at the box-office almost instantly. The three principal young stars became heroic teenage film icons, capturing the angst of an entire generation and serving as inspiration for the social and cultural upheaveal that would begin in the 1960s. James Dean, who had tragically been killed in a car accident just four weeks before the film's premiere, became a template for teen rebellion and a voice for every troubled teenager across America.
To this day, Rebel Without a Cause still remains one of the most powerful and groundbreaking portrayals of teenage rebellion and juvenile delinquency. By giving shape to the internal feelings of teenagers alienated from the restrictions and contradictions of the adult world around them, Rebel Without a Cause was able to transcend its time and be just as relevant today as it was sixty years ago.
Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel (2005) | James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography by David Dalton (2001) | Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstead (2002) | Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (2011) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes)