WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Rebel Without a Cause’
James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause. The title of Nicholas Ray’s iconic teen movie is misleading because the movie’s central character is a rebel, whose cause could not be more clear. 17-year-old Jim Stark (James Dean) wants his parents to stop lying.
When Jim starts a new school in a new town, his troubled past catches up with him and his home life deteriorates. Jim looks at the respectability of his mother and his weak, ineffectual father and sees nothing but hypocrisy and failure. “You’ll learn when you’re older,” his father tells him. But Jim rejects his parents’ life lessons; he gets into knife fights at school and races cars in a game of ‘chicken’ to prove he hasn’t inherited their cowardice.
Rebel Without a Cause spawned numerous imitations—teen movies noisy with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But the loudest noise in Ray’s movie is the howl of anguish. He does not exploit his young characters, he sympathies, coaxing a powerful performance from Dean, who came to symbolise teen angst for a whole generation.
Warner Brothers had bought the rights to Lindner’s book, intending to use the title for a film. Attempts to create a film version in the late 1940s eventually ended without a film or even a full script being produced. When Marlon Brando did a five-minute screen test for the studio in 1947, he was given fragments of one of the partial scripts. However, Brando was not auditioning for Rebel Without a Cause, and there was no offer of any part made by the studio. The film, as it later appeared, was the result of a totally new script written in the 1950s that had nothing to do with the Brando test. The screen test is included on a 2006 special edition DVD of the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire.
According to a biography of Natalie Wood, she almost did not get the role of Judy because Nicholas Ray thought that she did not fit the role of the wild teen character. While on a night out with friends, she got into a car accident. Upon hearing this, Ray rushed to the hospital. While in delirium, Wood overheard the doctor murmuring and calling her a “goddamn juvenile delinquent“; she soon yelled to Ray, “Did you hear what he called me, Nick?! He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now, do I get the part?!”
Irving Shulman, who adapted Nicholas Ray’s initial film story into the screenplay, had considered changing the name of James Dean’s character to Herman Deville, according to Jurgen Muller’s ‘Movies of the ’50s’. He had also originally written a number of scenes that were shot and later cut from the final version of the film. According to an AFI interview with Stewart Stern, with whom Shulman worked on the screenplay, one of the scenes was thought to be too emotionally provocative to be included in the final print of the film. It portrayed the character of Jim Stark inebriated to the point of belligerence screaming at a car in the parking lot, “It’s a little jeep! Little jeep, jeep!” The scene was considered unproductive to the story’s progression by head editor William H. Ziegler and ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor. In 2006, members of the Lincoln Film Society petitioned to have the scene printed and archived for historical preservation.
The film was in production from March 28 to May 25, 1955. When production began, Warner Bros. considered it a B-movie project, and Ray used black and white film stock. When Jack L. Warner realised James Dean was a rising star and a hot property, filming was switched to colour stock, and many scenes had to be reshot in colour. It was shot in the widescreen CinemaScope format, which had been introduced two years previously. With its densely expressive images, the film has been called “a landmark … a quantum leap forward in the artistic and technical evolution of a format.”
Fact: The 1949 Mercury Coupe James Dean drove in the movie is part of the permanent collection at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.