In the penultimate role of his short acting career, James Dean portrays Jim Stark, a teenage outsider, in the 1955 melodrama Rebel Without A Cause. Jim is struggling to find himself in the Los Angeles suburbs of the affluent post-war Eisenhower years. His upper-middle-class “good family” has been moving from town to town. His parents’ excuse is that Jim gets in so much trouble in each new place that they have to move and start over. The reality of the situation is something different.
Jim is hungry for a male role model. His father, Frank (Jim Backus, Gilligan’s Island [the 1960s]) won’t (or can’t) “man up” and confront his wife Carol (Ann Doran, Rio Grande ) and his mother-in-law (Virginia Brissac, in her last role). So he tries to make friends and identify with the “bad boys” at school. But he never quite fits in.
The film opens with Jim lying drunk in the middle of a downtown street in his latest new town. Before the police arrest him for “plain drunkenness,” he plays with a “Musical Jolly Chimp” toy (a future horror prop). Putting the “monster” to bed here is symbolic of his internal conflict. In the next sequence of scenes at the police station, we see both sides of Jim: wannabe antisocial rebel and potentially kind and earnest young man.
Despite the leniency and guidance of juvenile officer Ray Fremick (Edward Platt, Get Smart [1965-1970]), Jim ends up entering the world of Judy (Natalie Wood, Splendor in the Grass ), who’s also at the police station due to a curfew violation. The insinuation is that the police thought that she looked like a prostitute (N.B., by today’s standards, her look is so “square” that it’s retro). Judy craves the affection of her rejecting father (William Hopper, Perry Mason [1957-1966]).
Finally, there’s Plato (Sal Mineo, Exodus ), who’s in custody for shooting a litter of puppies with his mother’s pistol (a flag for psychopathic potential, by the way). The product of a “broken home,” Plato lives off a trust fund in a large house where the only adult present is the family maid (Marietta Canty, Father of the Bride ). His father left his mother (who’s rarely at home) when he was very young. Plato craves male attention and soon latches onto Jim, who becomes his idol. The insinuation here is that Plato is gay. Mineo (who eventually came out as bisexual) played more overtly LGBT roles as his career progressed.
If it hasn’t hit you yet, this film is a critique of middle-class American parenting in the 1950s. According to the movie (written by Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman and based on a story by director Nicholas Ray [Johnny Guitar, 1954]), men’s failure to be assertive fathers causes everything from juvenile delinquency to prostitution to homosexuality (how attitudes have changed!). Officer Fremick (who acts more like a social worker than a cop) comes across as the lost father ideal.
Rebel Without A Cause is well-known for its iconic “Chickie Run” scene. Playing “chicken” with stolen cars is an example of Jim’s attempts to be manly. It’s another instance of defending his “honor” when others call him a “chicken.” Clearly, he also wants to identify with his rebel opponent, Buzz (Corey Allen, who became a prolific television director). But Buzz disappears from his life, like most of his other potential male role models. An interesting detail about Buzz’ gang is the character of Goon, which was a bit part for the as-yet unknown Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969; Blue Velvet, 1986).
It’s ironic that Hopper, a future countercultural icon, got his start in film acting in Rebel Without a Cause. Despite its content (which was banned in New Zealand and given an “X” rating in Britain even after cuts were made), the movie did well at the U.S. box office, got rave reviews, and garnered three Academy Award nominations. These three achievements are indications that its message was seen at the time as conservative.