James Dean, Natalie Wood and juvenile delinquency. In the 1950’s, a recipe for a big hit, and it was. It has lived on as a classic film and an is part of the Dean legacy. This film has been reviewed hundreds of times through the years, what could I possibly add to the discussion? Let’s see.
This was a wide-screen, Technicolor release with big production values and a talented supporting cast. Originally, the film was being shot in black & white photography, but production halted, and it started over in deep, rich color. Good choice.
Delinquency was a big subject for films, but it really had not been told from the viewpoint of middle class kids. The kids in the film come from good backgrounds, not the slums often used to portray problem youths. The problems are not economic or opportunity related, you see the dysfunction in the home: absent parents, out of touch parents, fighting parents, fractured relationships between parents and youth. This isn’t a blame the parent for delinquency, but parents seemed ill-prepared for changing youth culture and parents focused on their own lives.
The film begins showing the disconnection of the main characters from their parents, the acting-out behavior and confused relationships. Alcohol, violence, thrill-seeking and sex were the ways these characters embraced their dilemmas.
The various relationships in this film are fascinating, particularly those between the youth and their parents. Jim Stark (Dean) and his dad Frank (Jim Backus), are the classic father-son disconnection. The Stark family is a family in crisis, three generations and one marriage-go-round of hostility and resentment. Jim and his parents talk past each other, and their solution is running away from problems, alcohol and buying Jim what they think he needs, not what he wants. There is not one word of encouragement or love shown in that family unit. Jim acts-out and looks for validation elsewhere. He wishes his dad would put his mother in her place, so she would back off. Everything in life is about her; she mind them of nearly dying giving birth to Jim. He wants his dad to stand up for himself and maybe be a real father figure. At one point he finds his dad wearing an apron over his suit, on his hands and knees cleaning up a spilled tray of dinner for his wife who went to bed with a raging headache, and probably reduced her husband to a jelly with hostility. Jim needs to talk to his dad but he’s unavailable and is of no help.
Jim Backus gives an incredible performance as a broken man who can’t be an effective husband or father, but still won’t give up. After failing to get his father to literally stand up, Jim finally explodes and pins his father down on the floor, as his mother tries to pull him away. As the end of the film, Jim’s father asks Jim to stand up, helping him get to his feet and vowing to stand beside him and face problems ahead with him.
The film was inspired by a case study in the book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath by Dr. Robert Lindner.
This film was director Nicholas Ray’s high-water mark in Hollywood. In casting Rebel Without a Cause, many actors were in the mix for the main characters which settled on Dean, Wood and Mineo. Wood really wanted the role as she was transitioning from child actor to more adult roles. An affair with the much older Ray didn’t really help in her quest but as legend has it, after an automobile accident, she was referred to as a juvenile delinquent, which convinced Ray that she would handle the part. Wood was also involved with Dennis Hopper, who had a role as one of the gang members. Other actors were suggested for the role, including curiously, Jayne Mansfield. Wood brought a confusion to the role of a young woman moving difficultly into adulthood, excited by danger and the temptation of bad boys, while being rebuffed by her father for affection.
There’s a lot of subtext in the film, and from reviewers about the implied desire that Plato (Mineo) has for Jim. There are clues in the film that Plato has feelings for Jim, although in the deserted house with Wood’s character, Plato talks about them all being a family. For a 1950’s film, this was pretty heavy stuff, which underscores the complexity of these youthful relationships.
Buzz Gunderson, the bad boy gang leader, challenges Jim to a knife fight which he loses, then challenges Jim to a chicken run in order to save face. Buzz is killed in the chicken run but his gang is resigned to make Jim pay for it. This event drives the film, and these tattered relationships, to it’s conclusion.
A note of trivia. Corey Allen played Buzz and would transition from acting to directing and become of the busiest television directors in upcoming decades.
The film was released less than a month after Dean died in an automobile accident. It was Warner Bros. second highest grossing film of the year. Of Dean’s TV and film performances, for me, this is is best. At 23, Dean was playing a younger character, but he brought that air of confused and restless youth to the character. Dean played the right amount of anger and lashing out, with longing for his family to be normal, to be what he could rely on and stop running away from problems. Jim, the teenager, is the one who takes a parental role in crisis, it is his anguish that forces to see beyond their emotional bondage. Dean also balanced the crushing tectonic emotional plates of being an outcast with wanting to belong and be accepted. Ray allowed Dean the latitude to develop his character and you see it in the film’s opening, as a drunk Jim engages with a toy on the pavement as he curls up to pass-out. Right from the beginning, you know to pay attention to Dean, especially when he isn’t talking. There are those that still think of Dean as Brando-lite (Brando was considered for the role), considering Brando arrived a few years before Dean. I can’t see Brando bring the subtleties to the role or the vulnerability that Dean delivered. Nothing against Brando, but this was Dean’s film.
One more bit of trivia. A red windbreaker worn by Dean’s character in the film was up for auction last year. Read about the jacket below