By Carter B. Horsley
A classic tale of the rebellion of youth and the difficulties of growing up, finding friends and romance, and beginning to question parental authority, "Rebel Without a Cause" is best known for its masterful, charismatic performance in the lead role of Jim Stark by James Dean, who would be killed in an auto accident a month after filming was completed and would go on nonetheless to become a leading, charismatic symbol world-wide of angst, anxiety and anger and the best-looking of a new crop of serious, young actors and hearthrobs that included Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman.
A non-so-simple story of a troubled youth, who has had trouble adjusting to several schools and new communities, "Rebel Without a Cause" is on the cusp of the rock'n'roll revolution, the slovenly dress code of the jeans people, the automobile obsessiveness of American youth not growing up in proximity to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the New York Yankees. These were yokels who knew not of Duke Snider, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, who made playing centerfield in New York City the equivalent of a national throne.
Some history books and cultural tomes have tried to portray the 1950's in America as a rather boring time with few challenges and values and overlook the terrible infringements of civil rights by the McCarthy Era, to say nothing about lunch-counter and bus segregation and a persistent and ingrained racism that at best was patronizing. The great 1950 movie, "Gentlemen's Agreement," starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire and John Garfield, tackled anti-Semitism head on, but "Home of the Brave," a very fine film examining racism in the American forces in the Korean War starring Frank Lovejoy and James Edwards, was nowhere near as popular and the more successful films were "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suite," starring Gregory Peck, "Death of a Salesman," starring Frederick March, and "The Best of Everything" starring Suzy Parker and Hope Lange, all poignant and memorable portraits of the pitfalls of American corporate life - a serious, good and proud brunch of "concerned" films that recognized that not all was right in "the best of all possible worlds," in opposition to the Pollyannaisms of such grand diverting entertainments as "The Band Wagon," "On the Town" and "Singin' In The Rain," great musicals that coupled with Robert Moses's and President Eisenhower's preoccupation with highway and suburbia building helped create the myth that the single-family home and cheap gas for the jalopy were man's best hope for happiness.
The horrors and great sacrifices of World War II were receding, of course, and America was enjoying a major era of prosperity. The Depression had been repressed the Great War, which left America relatively unscathed and world dominant. There would merge briefly toward the end of the 1950's a period of great hope for new, democratic leadership in Africa but the American public was lulled into complacency by anti-Communist, Cold War pomposity of John Foster Dulles. The two great white hopes for liberalism and intelligence, Adlai E. Stevenson and Humbert Humphrey, would quickly be consumed by the good looks and charisma of John F. Kennedy and his scheming father. Although Kennedy hinted that he would likely follow a rather liberal agenda, as soon as he was elected he castrated Stevenson by appointing him to the lowly position of Ambassador to the Unted Nations and by naming the very conservative Dean Rusk and John McNamara to be Secretaries of State and Defense, respectively.
America was still largely rural but Elvis Presley would soon teach Americans about "Heartbreak Hotel." Other great minds of the era, Tennessee Williams. Arthur Miller, and Paddy Chavesky, would give us sophisticated and sensitive works that demonstrated pscyhological insight and pathos such as "Streetcar Named Desire," "Look Back in Anger, and "12 Angry Men," respectively.
In short, the country was not as unsophisticated as some apologists and historians might have you think, but it was rather folksy and naive. Just think of William Inge's fine play, Picnic, that was made into a better movie with William Holden and Rosalind Russell.
So "Rebel Without A Cause" opened and the world quickly discovered James Dean, a good looking, lean, athletic youth with curiosity and not too much tolerance for incomplete answers to what should be simple questions. He was not easily intimidated but he was not as macho as some of his peers. When challenged to a car race by a leading, good-looking, thuggish schoolmate, Buzz, played by the ruggedly handsome Corey Allen, he accepts and we sense it was in part because he was attracted to the brute's really cute girllfriend, played with coquettish pique and punch by the lovely Natalie Wood.
The race is thrilling but ends in tragedy when the brute is killed as his car goes over a cliff.
Dean's idolizing younger friend very nicely played by Sal Mineo goes a bit crazy and Dean and Wood try to talk him down, a difficult task even for adults and one made even harder by the fact that Mineo is Spanish.
Mineo helps bring Dean and Wood together, but the film's most memorable scenes involve his relationship with his apron-waring father, played wonderfully by Jim Backus, the voice of Mr. McGoo, the blind as a bat old man. Dean loves his father but wants him to stand up to his very difficult hen-picking mother, played with appropriate grostesquetery by Ann Doran. Dean's pleas to his father to react and rebel and searing, hurtful, loving and noble and fine and daring. One just didn't call one's father a coward or a bum, after all.
The movie doesn't provide a lot of answers but it presents the problems quite clearly and forthrightly especially for the time and especially because of the magnetic and very compelling acting of James Dean, who clearly was going to be major competition to Brando and Clift. Brando was rather gruff and surly albeit very powerful and Clift was sweet and romantic. Dean, on other hand, was decisive and a man of action with a kind heart, a sense of nobility and a raw naturalness that was immensely applearing.
Dean's two other films, "East of Eden" and "Giant," offered him almost similiar roles. In the former, he is the younger son of a stern father and tries to please him with a money-making scheme that the father disapproves of, driving him to his "lost" mother, played with great gusto by Jo Van Fleet, who runs a whore house. Dean wants to win his father's affection but only gets his scorn. In "Giant," he is a poor ranch hand in Texas who finds oil and becomes bigger than his bosses, especiall by the one played by Rock Hudson who is married to the very beautiful and sympathetic Elizabeth Taylor. How can Dean one-up Hudson. It's an old-fashioned epic drama covering decades and Dean's great scene is a drunken speech at a banquet in his honor. It is well done, but it is outdone by a rousing fight in which Hudson, something of a bigot, decides to defend the honor of one of his half-breed grandchildren. The calm, cock-eyed wisdom old geezer, Chill Wills, of course, is the glue that holds everything finely together and Taylor, Hudson and Dean are fine scenery and not bad actors.
"The screenplay (by Steward Stern from an adaptation by Irving Schulman of an original story line synopsis by director Nicholas Ray) was based on a factual case study (contained in Dr. Robert Lindner's 1944 factual book titled Rebel Without a Cause: The Story of a CriminalPsychopath) of a delinquent, imprisoned teenage psychopath in the post-war years. The film was originally titled "Blind Run," according to Tim Dirks's marvelous, long, review at filmsite.org/rebel.html.
Mr. Dirks also notes that in 2005 the book "Life Fast Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without A Cause" by authors Lawrence Frascella and Al Wiesel, documented many of the gossipy rumors and truths about the film's making and its principals, including such facts as: 43-year-old director Nicholas Ray and youthful upcoming actor Dennis Hopper were both sleeping with 16-year-old Natalie Wood, the choreographed on-screen knife fight (with real knives) drew actual blood, NatialieWood was replaced by an extra for the long-shot of her signaling the start of the chickie-run, and all three iconic red jackets used by James Dean in the film have disappeared."
Another strong film opened in 1955 dealing with juvenile delinquency, "Blackboard Jungle," which starred Glenn Ford in one of his better roles. That film presented a blunt, ugly picture of the difficulties of teaching rowdies in a poor urban school district. In comparison, "Rebel Without a Cause" deals with well-to-do, suburban Los Angeles and is in, as they say, glorious technicolor.
This film ranks 78th in Carter B. Horsley's list of the Top 500 Sound Films
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