Rebel Without a Cause: James Dean and a Host of Misfits
In early 1955, as the accountants at the Warner Brothers studio in Los Angeles were analyzing the budgets for several of the upcoming feature films that were in pre-production, studio boss Jack Warner noticed that one of the grade B flicks, tentatively entitled Rebel Without a Cause, would be giving top billing to a young actor named James Dean.
The studio had recently released East of Eden, a very loosely based adaptation of a John Steinbeck novel of the same name, in which Dean had played Cal Trask, his first significant role. Warner had been so impressed by Dean’s performance in that role that he immediately revised the studio financing for Rebel Without a Cause, originally slated to be filmed in black and white on a shoestring budget.
“We gotta up the ante and make that one in Technicolor,” boss Warner decreed. “That Jimmy kid’s gonna be a big, big star someday!”
And so it was done. The budget for the formerly low-budget flick was increased to $1.5 million, a large amount for a film in the mid 1950’s. And because of Jimmy’s presence, the role of Judy, his main squeeze, became a hot commodity.
Sixteen year-old Natalie Wood, who had been a child star for more than a decade, took a fancy to the role and decided it would be the perfect vehicle to usher her into adult stardom. She approached 43-year old director Nicholas Ray, made her young fresh body immediately available to him, and prayed for success.
But despite her services to him in the bedroom, Ray still did not believe Wood was capable of portraying a teen delinquent. This changed, however, when a drunken and gussied-up Wood, out with her friends one evening, was involved in a car wreck and taken to a Los Angeles hospital.
Her lover and father figure immediately rushed to the hospital to check on her condition. While Wood was evidently sedated, a doctor, unaware of her relationship with Ray, mumbled under his breath to another doctor that she was a “goddamn juvenile delinquent.”
Wood was actually conscious enough to hear the comment and when she and her paramour were alone she decided to use it to her advantage. “Did you hear what he called me, Nick? He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?”
Of course he then gave her the role immediately, though their affair, not surprisingly, did not outlast the filming.
Ray himself, a bisexual and notorious alcohol and drug user, would years later depend on another actor in Rebel Without a Cause, Dennis Hopper, who played the part of one of the teen gangsters out to torture Dean, to revive his career.
In the early 1970’s, after recurring binges had made Ray unemployable in Hollywood (a condition Hopper himself would later face), Hopper pulled strings to have Ray hired as a film studies teacher at Binghamton University in New York State. But when school administrators later saw Ray smoking marijuana with his students in a group film project he lost this position too.
Sixteen year-old Sal Mineo, signed to play the troubled “Plato” Crawford, just below Dean and Wood in the billing, would immediately become a teen heartthrob. But he too would have a tortured future. Conflicted by homosexuality during an era when it was strictly taboo, Mineo suffered from prejudice, endured a career eclipse in the 1960’s and was later stabbed to death by a pizza deliveryman in 1976.
Above all the Bohemianism and controversy of Wood (who drowned to death in 1981), Ray, Mineo, and Dennis Hopper was, of course, the star of Rebel Without a Cause. Indiana native James Dean, age 24, would die of a car wreck in central California four months after filming completed. Another film in production at the same time, Giant (1956), would be released after his death, leaving the total number of his starring film roles at three.
Young Jim Stark (James Dean), a Los Angeles teenager from a middle class background, is arrested by police for drunkenness and brought into a local police station, where he meets John “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo), who has been arrested for shooting puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood), who has been arrested for prostitution.
The three high school kids, all from the middle class, have arrived at their current state of delinquency for various reasons.
Jim has been alienated by a weak-willed father who is constantly under the thumb of a snobbish mother and old-fashioned live-in grandmother.
Plato’s father abandoned him in his youth, his mother rarely pays any attention to him at all, and his only supervision comes from the family maid.
Judy’s father, a widower, is over-protective of her and treats her like a little girl, refusing to allow her to wear makeup and enjoy social situations with her friends.
The threesome become close after they are released from juvenile detention and begin class at Dawson High School. Jim’s romantic interest in Judy, at first repulsed, gains momentum when her jealous boyfriend, Buzz, and members of his gang cut the tires of Jim’s car and call him a “chicken”.
Stung by the insult, Jim tries to talk Judy out of her interest in Buzz and encounters Buzz again in a knife fight, which ends in a draw. Buzz wants another fight with Jim, but settles instead on a “Chickie Run”, a race of two cars toward a precipice over the ocean, with the loser the driver who jumps out of his car first.
Jim has doubts about the silly stunt and asks his father, Frank Stark (Jim Backus), for advice about what to do when other boys call him “chicken”. His father, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, urges Jim to accept insults and avoid fighting back. Disappointed by his father’s spinelessness, Jim sneaks off to participate with Buzz in the Chickie Run.
In the meantime, impressed by Jim’s depth and moody sensitivity, both Judy and Plato begin to fall in love with him. Fearing for his life, they worry about the results of the dueling car race.
Buzz and his gangsters steal two cars for the duel and several Dawson High students gather to watch the race. Jim and Buzz both fearlessly drive toward the edge of the cliff and Jim jumps out at the last possible instant while Buzz’s sleeve is caught on the door handle and he plunges to his death.
Jim looks in horror at the death and wreckage and the other shocked teens flee the scene. Jim drives Judy and Plato home and then returns to his parents to confess his involvement in the accident which has now made the news.
Jim grabs his father and threatens him when his father advises him not to admit his involvement in the fatal car crash. He leaves home and soon finds Judy, who agrees to go live with him in a nearby large abandoned house that Plato has told them about.
Police release Buzz’s gang members, Moose, Crunch, and Goon (Dennis Hopper), who soon track down Plato, accuse him of ratting to the police, and then extract Jim’s address from him. The gang then goes and strings a live chicken above Jim’s front door, attempts to find his whereabouts from Frank, and are refused.
Plato finds Jim and Judy in the large old house and fantasizes about living with the two of them as a family. He brings his mother’s gun with him for protection. When Moose, Crunch and Goon track down the three of them and threaten them, Plato shoots Moose and flees to a nearby observatory.
Police are called to the scene and corner Plato. Jim urges them not to molest Plato, and gives him his red jacket in exchange for the gun. He secretly removes the bullets from the gun and returns to the police who, unaware that Plato’s gun has no ammunition, fatally shoot him when he bolts out of the observatory and charges at them.
Jim’s father arrives on the scene and promises to be a man for his son. Judy and Jim, now a couple, grieve over the loss of Plato.
While Rebel Without a Cause seems tame by contemporary standards, both as a realistic view of juvenile delinquency as we know and see it today and as a study in violence and family conflict, it was revolutionary for its time and was actually censored and given an X-rating in the UK and New Zealand.
When we see the neatly groomed “goons” with slicked back hair and ties and jackets we are apt to think of the 50’s as the golden age of delinquency, particularly in comparison with such later artistic expressions as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and any hip hop video, lyrics and song of today.
But what the far more realistic violence, pornography, crudity and vulgarity of today’s films and music gain in credibility they lose in artistry. Which one among them has given us a character like James Dean, who, through a combination of personal charisma, the mysterious cult of androgynous sexuality, and the martyrdom of an early death, gives Rebel Without a Cause the status of an irreplaceable time capsule?
For when we watch this particular movie today, more than any other ever made, we are seeing an instant in time captured, a moment in history when we, our parents or our grandparents experienced the first ever incarnation of “cool”.
The heroes of our modern dramas can never be “cool” in the way that Dean was. He invented, most spectacularly in the role of the Jim Stark, but equally as Jet Rink in Giant, and Cal Trask in East of Eden, the angst-ridden, troubled, often-inarticulate modern youth who somehow maintains a sense of dignity and resolution despite the violence, arrogance and cruelty of the society around him.
The Dean persona has become one of the trademarks of that brief moment in time when the three movies that featured him were produced. No one else talked or moved like him, but as a result of the impression he made on those he left behind, we who were not alive during his era are likely to think he personified it.
Some would argue that Dean was like Clark Gable, who once described himself as a “lucky slob” who “happened to be in the right place at the right time”. Dean was lucky in the sense that he was given perfect material for his peculiar talent and personality and surrounded by skilled colleagues who helped him harness his energies to their full potential.
But luck and circumstances alone didn’t make him what he was. If so, another one like him might have come along, and no one ever did.