Set in suburban Los Angeles, Rebel without a Cause tells the story of an affluent family and their troubled son, Jim, who makes friends at the local high school with equally troubled teenagers, Judy and Plato. Jim is teased by a group of high school students, particularly their leader Buzz, and in order to prove his manhood agrees to race stolen cars to an abyss, a competition during with Buzz gets killed. Jim and Judy escape to an abandoned mansion, where Plato joins them. When they are found, Plato starts shooting randomly, escapes and hides in the Griffith Observatory where it comes to the final standoff.
Rebel without a Cause was symptomatic of the fifties as a transitional era. A WarnerColor Cinemascope production starring James Dean and Natalie Wood, borrowing its title from a 1944 non-fiction book, the film was part of a larger shift in Hollywood towards addressing a teenage audience, at a time when teenagers started to be seen as a distinct subculture in marketing terms. The film tapped into some of the era’s pertinent social issues: teenage angst and delinquency, family conflicts in white middle-class suburbia, social conformity, changing gender norms among both the parental generation and their children, the nuclear holocaust, and the violence all these tensions in social relations so easily engendered. In doing so, it anticipated the larger cultural revolution that was to rock society and Hollywood cinema in the 60s.
Not least because it was seen as targeting a teenage audience, the Production Code Administration (PCA), which enforced the Production Code, a lengthy document outlining what could not be shown on screen, adopted by the film industry in the thirties, voiced concerns about Rebel without a Cause. Juvenile delinquency especially was a hotly debated topic – The Saturday Evening Post had run a series on the subject under the title ‘The Shame of America’ (Simmons 1995: 58). Other films, such as The Wild One (László Benedek, 1953) and Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955) tackled similar themes, the former starring Marlon Brando as a biker, the latter Sidney Poitier as a teen in a racially troubled high school. Not least because the state of America’s youth was a hot-button topic, and because opinion as to the causes of juvenile delinquency was divided, the PCA objected to any ‘derisive gesture’ toward police officers, to what they (erroneously) took be the smoking of marijuana, to the implications of incest, to teenage sexuality, and to violence (the film originally started with Buzz’s gang senselessly assaulting and beating a young man at night). These concerns were partially voiced from the increasingly important foreign market. The British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), which had banned both The Wild One and Blackboard Jungle, ordered cuts in Rebel without a Cause and limited its exhibition to those over 15 years old (Simmons 1995).
The tensions and contradictions that caused censorship concern were made visible on the level of acting – specifically James Dean’s method acting – which exemplified ‘a daily psychic tug of war between personal identity and social identity, or, … individualism and conformity, alienation and patriotism’ (Braudy, 1996: 193). Going back to the Group Theatre in New York City in the 1930s, and developed by Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in the 1940s and 1950s, Method acting was an ‘art based on the armature of the body’, producing ‘models of being’ and ‘models of social behaviour in postwar America’ (Braudy 1996: 196, 195). In that sense it was part of a larger discourse about the performance of the body, which can also be found, for instance, in the fiction of Jack Kerouac or the poetry of Allen Ginsberg (Braudy 1996: 194). Such acting produced a ‘layered self’, depths of feeling in which the repressed became visible. Its ascendancy coincided with the rise of rebellious new male stars – Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean (Braudy 1996: 191–204).
Jim’s anxiety has everything to do with the troubled nature of the postwar, white, suburban family. The film gestures towards postwar affluence – ‘Don’t I buy you everything you want?’ Jim’s father asks, and Plato’s dad’s contact with his son consists of his generous alimony checks. But money and consumerism cannot sustain families. Moreover, Jim’s family is torn by gender conflicts, many of which centre on the father’s emasculation. After having seen his father wearing a flowery apron over his grey-flannel suit, Jim becomes increasingly disillusioned about the possibility of getting help from his father, and assertively kicks in his mother’s portrait when he storms out of the house after an argument in a later scene. Rebel without a Cause can thus easily be called a paternal melodrama – where what is at stake is the ability of fathers to become role models. And we might add that the context of and anxieties about the Cold War does not help stabilise paternal authority. ‘It’s just the age’, Judy’s mother says; ‘the atomic age’, Judy’s little brother exclaims and shoots his toy rifle at the dinner table. Likewise, the otherwise so cockily performing teenagers look up in fascination and terror as they witness a cosmic explosion and the end of Earth at the Planetarium (the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles): ‘Man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence. That’s all’, the lecturer finishes. No wonder that the film perceives the authority of the father and the post-war patriarchal family structures as being besieged on all fronts. It mourns the loss of fatherly authority while simultaneously criticising its continued existence, most notably in the case of Judy’s stern father.
The film’s concern about the contradictions within the nuclear family was part of a larger postwar discourse about the effects of suburbanisation. In 1950 sociologist David Riesman published The Lonely Crowd, in which he suggested that the suburbs changed people’s psychic life: equipped with internal ‘radar’, they constantly scan those around them and adjust their behaviour accordingly, thus becoming ‘other-directed’. Riesman’s work was part of a larger interest in – and anxiety about – how the post-war suburban economy affected especially male psyches. In 1955, the same year Rebel without a Cause came out, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was published, Sloan Wilson’s novel about a Second World War veteran with domestic troubles working for an oppressive and conformist mental-health network. The following year, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was made into a film, and William Whyte’s bestselling book, The Organization Man, was published, suggesting that corporate planning affected employees’ inner lives, and ending with a chapter on suburbia – the ‘organization man at home’. In these contexts, suburban men are successful, but other-directed businessmen who struggle with conformity, oppression and emasculation. Above all, more valiant forms of masculinity, more likely to be found outdoors (or in Western films) than in the suburbs, no longer seemed possible. The suit under Jim’s father’s apron did not suggest a masculine alternative.
Rebel without a Cause’s trouble, however, extends beyond the family and beyond the suburbs. Already the PCA was concerned with the implications of a homosexual relationship between Jim and Plato, 446 Rebel without a Cause (1955) though it remained unable to determine what part of the script contained that inference, so that they dropped the issue (Simmons 1995: 59). From the opening scene at the police station, Jim is drawn in two different directions: Judy and Plato. The latter keeps a picture of actor Alan Ladd in his school locker, and competes with Judy for Jim’s love and attention. Not unimportantly, in line with Hollywood’s homophobia, Plato is also marked as the most disturbed character; and his potential queerness is deflated by an effort to stage the scene at the abandoned mansion – quite possibly the most utopian moment in the film – as a possible alternative nuclear family, with Jim as father, Judy as mother, and Plato as son. ‘If only you could have been my father’, Plato says to Jim.
Nonetheless, the film’s gender and sexual politics are ambiguous and contradictory enough to be read in multiple ways. Judy longs for Jim’s ‘different’ and ‘sincere’ masculinity: ‘a man who can be gentle and sweet, like you are’, she tells Jim. Of course, this longing itself may speak to changing notions of masculinity in the post-war era. But critics have also read it differently, as suggesting, for instance, Jim’s ‘butch’ identity. In this context, Rebel without a Cause becomes a film about ambiguous gender identity, a film that can be read in lesbian terms, with Jim in the role of the butch and Judy in the role of the femme. As Kelly Hankin has wittily observed, Jim ‘suffers from bathroom trouble’, walking towards the women’s bathroom in his new high school (1998: 7). Ray had directed gender-troubled films before, maybe most famously Johnny Guitar (1954), a Western where the final shootout occurs between two women. Dean’s ambivalent sexuality – he appears to have had relationships with both men and women – also facilitates such a reading through extratexual knowledge about the film’s star. Of course, a queer reading of Rebel without a Cause has become easier in subsequent decades, not least because in 1955 homosexuality was illegal, classified as a mental disease, so that lesbians made up part of the incarcerated or institutionalised youth (Cartier 2003: 447).
Rebel without a Cause is remarkable for how it mobilises cinematic style to emphasise and draw out the instability of gender and social conventions. Filmed in widescreen and brilliant colour, Rebel without a Cause was one of these films Hollywood thought could compete with television, which had emerged as a major force in entertainment, but which still remained constrained in terms of its aspect ratio and black and white image. In Rebel without a Cause, Ray uses the widescreen format effectively in terms of suggesting the tensions among the characters. In the early scene at the police station, for instance, he first films Jim, his father mother and grandmother in one frame, with the two women standing between the two men (literally and figuratively), and then follows up with a shot-reverse-shot pattern between Jim on the one hand and his father, mother and grandmother on the other. The three adults share the frame, with the grandmother intervening between the parents, in a way that suggests both their conflicts as well as their combined overpowering force. Another memorable scene occurs later in the film, when Ray films a conflict between Jim and his parents on the stairs in their suburban home, making use of the wide frame, the mise en scène (particularly the difference in height due to the stairs) as well as lighting. The film’s conflicts, that is, are very much worked out and suggested on the stylistic level.
As a film that addressed both social problems and a teenage audience, Rebel without a Cause can be placed within a larger group of widely diverging films, ranging from George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), to the teen comedies of John Hughes, and the more politically charged Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999), based on the actual murder of a transgender man in Nebraska. That Rebel without a Cause is connected to such widely different films suggests how it can be read in different ways, how, in the guise of popular entertainment, it lay bare the contradictions within American social conventions.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: Nicholas Ray. Screenwriter: Stewart Stern. Producer: David Weisbart. Music: Leonard Rosenman. Cinematographer: Ernest Haller. Editor: William H. Ziegler. Cast: James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (John ‘Plato’ Crawford), Corey Allen (Buzz Gunderson), Edward Platt (Ray Fremick), Jim Backus (Frank Stark), Ann Doran (Carol Stark), William Hopper (Judy’s Father), Rochelle Hudson (Judy’s Mother), Virginia Brissac (Jim’s Grandmother), Marietta Canty (Crawford’s Maid), Dennis Hopper (Goon), Jimmy Baird (Beau).]
Leo Braudy, ‘“No Body’s Perfect”: Method Acting and 50s Culture’, Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 191–215.
Marie Cartier, ‘The Butch Woman Inside James Dean or “What Kind of Person Do You Think a Girl Wants?”’ Sexualities, Vol. 6, No. 3–4, 2003, pp. 443–58.
Thomas Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s, revised and expanded edition, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2002.
Kelly Hankin, ‘A Rebel without a Choice?: Femme Spectatorship in Hollywood Cinema’, The Velvet Light Trap, Vol. 41, Spring 1998, pp. 3–18.
David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1950.
Jerold Simmons, ‘The Censoring of Rebel without a Cause’, Journal of Popular Film, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 56–63.
J. David Slocum (ed.), Rebel Without a Cause: Approaches to a Maverick Masterwork, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2005.
Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1955.
William H. Whyte, The Organization Man, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1956.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.