Movie poster: "Rebel Without a Cause"

Today Reel Classics takes a look at the icon­ic James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.  This film has been described as a com­ing-of-age dra­ma about mid­dle-class teenagers strug­gling with issues of anger, iso­la­tion, aban­don­ment and dys­func­tion­al fam­i­lies.  It was released in 1955 and was James Dean’s sec­ond major film role.  He only appeared in three before his trag­ic death in a car wreck.  He had pre­vi­ous­ly filmed East Of Eden and went on to film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor fol­low­ing this film.  Though he appeared in a num­ber of tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tions it is these three films for which he is remem­bered.  I like all three, but Rebel Without A Cause is my favorite.  Co-stars includ­ed a young Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.  All three played char­ac­ters with very trou­bled backgrounds. 

James Dean plays Jim Stark, who has recent­ly moved with his fam­i­ly and is enter­ing a new high school.   Jim’s par­ents are con­stant­ly fight­ing and Jim feels no sup­port from his father.  Sal Mineo plays Plato, who has essen­tial­ly been aban­doned by his fam­i­ly and is being raised by a house­keep­er.  There are also hints that he may be gay and is social­ly iso­lat­ed at school.  Natalie Wood is Judy, who strug­gles in the rela­tion­ship with her father.  She believes he no longer cares for her as she is no longer a lit­tle girl.  She dress­es and acts in ways to draw atten­tion from the boys at school and her father calls her a “dirty tramp.” 

We are intro­duced to all three char­ac­ters at the begin­ning of the movie at the local police sta­tion where they have all been picked up for var­i­ous reasons. 

There are oth­er famil­iar faces in the cast as well.  Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo, Gilligan’s Island) plays Jim’s dad.  William Hopper (Perry Mason) plays Judy’s dad.  Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) is “Goon,”  one of the gang mem­bers harass­ing Jim and Plato.  Nick Adams (The Rebel) is “Chick.”

The film even­tu­al­ly devel­oped from a con­cept tak­en from a book pub­lished in 1944 by psy­chi­a­trist Robert M. Lindner enti­tled Rebel Without a Cause:  The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath.  Warner Brothers Studio had bought the rights to the book but efforts to bring a film to the screen nev­er came to pass. 

Interestingly, there was a screen test in 1947 by Marlon Brando using frag­ments of a pro­posed script but noth­ing ever came of it.  Though the title was used, the sto­ry line came from an out­line devel­oped by Nicholas Ray, who direct­ed the film.  The film was ini­tial­ly planned to be a black-and-white B‑movie, but the stu­dio real­ized that after East Of Eden that James Dean was a ris­ing star and decid­ed to go with col­or and widescreen CinemaScope. 

The film fol­lows our three trou­bled teens through a 24-hour peri­od of time in which there are knife fights, bul­ly­ing threats and a car race (also known as a “chick­ie run.”)  Don’t know what a “chick­ie run” is?  Let’s just say that  it has some­thing to do with see­ing who is the “chick­en” in the drag race toward a sea­side cliff.  The film also fea­tures a num­ber of scenes filmed in and out­side of the Griffith Observatory as the high school class attends a field trip there. 

The three main char­ac­ters in the film suf­fered emo­tion­al­ly from the fam­i­ly and peer issues they con­front­ed.  Ironically, all three actors died trag­i­cal­ly at an ear­ly age.  James Dean died in 1955 in a cat­a­stroph­ic car wreck at the age of twen­ty four.  The acci­dent occurred about a month before the release of this film and after the com­ple­tion of Giant.  Natalie Wood died from drown­ing while boat­ing (under sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances) and Sal Mineo was stabbed to death.  Though the film is set in 1955, the emo­tion­al and men­tal health issues these kids face are very appar­ent in our soci­ety today. 

Rebel Without a Cause had the sec­ond largest box office earn­ings for the Warner Bros. stu­dio that year.  However, there were mixed reviews, as some review­ers were not hap­py with the implied sex­u­al­i­ty and/or homo­sex­u­al­i­ty of the lead char­ac­ters.  Others were not pleased with how the mid­dle-class fam­i­lies were depict­ed.  Regardless of those opin­ions Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and direc­tor Nicholas Ray were all nom­i­nat­ed for Academy Awards. 

In 1988 a bronze bust of James Dean was placed out­side the Griffith Observatory to com­mem­o­rate him and the film.  In 1990 Rebel Without a Cause was select­ed for the Library Of Congress’ National Film Registry.  The Internet Movie Data Base (IMBD) rates the film at 7.7 of 10, and Rotten Tomatoes has scores of 93% for movie crit­ics and 88% for audi­ence ratings. 

Before I go, let me add the “what might have been” piece to this writ­ing.  Other actors/actresses report­ed­ly con­sid­ered for the roles include Debbie Reynolds, Margaret O’Brien and Jayne Mansfield for the role of Judy (Natalie Wood).  Paul Newman was a poten­tial for the role of Jim (James Dean).  Rod Cameron, Walter Matthau and Raymond Burr were report­ed­ly con­sid­ered for the role of Jim’s father (Jim Backus), and Dennis Hopper was con­sid­ered for the role of Plato (Sal Mineo).

This movie is one of the tru­ly clas­sic films of all time, in my opin­ion. The themes ring as true today as they did in 1955.  As usu­al, I checked to see if the film is avail­able for free on stream­ing sites.  Many sites have it but I found none that were free.  The Clark County Public Library has a copy of the DVD on the shelves. If you haven’t seen this film I encour­age you to check it out.  If you have, then now is a good time to watch it again. 

Keep watch­ing for the next Reel Classics. In the mean­time, enjoy the trail­er embed­ded below. 

  • Ron grew up in Southeast Baltimore, spent three and a half years liv­ing in the High Desert in California, and came to Winchester when his VW Beetle broke down here on a cross-coun­try dri­ve to Vermont. He has lived here and worked as a social work­er since 1973. Though he retired in 2013, he remains active as a com­mu­ni­ty vol­un­teer on var­i­ous boards, coali­tions, and com­mit­tees. His pas­sions include the woods and nature, music, books, and clas­sic movies (espe­cial­ly Laurel & Hardy).