Even if you haven’t watched Rebel Without a Cause, most have seen the iconic image of actor James Dean, wearing his red jacket. Along with Marlon Brando’s performance in The Wild One, this is one of the films to ultimately define the societal rebellion which started to percolate in the 1950s. Rebel Without a Cause is an interesting and layered movie. While it isn’t progressive in terms of gender and sexuality, the film provides a fascinating breakdown of the cultural clash happening after the Second World War. It paints a picture of a decade in flux.
The film follows Jim Stark (James Dean). He’s the new kid in town, after his family uprooted to save him from some “trouble”. Jim quickly gets on the wrong side of a local teenage gang, but immediately befriends Judy (Natalie Wood), the girlfriend of the leader. The two share a strong bond in their teenage angst. Finally, they both take in Plato (Sal Mineo) a younger boy from a broken home. Together, they form a family unit, doing everything they can to replace the affection they don’t feel at home.
Natalie Wood: A Legend in the Making
Rebel Without a Cause is commonly considered to be Natalie Wood’s first adult role. It has been mentioned in previous columns that the young actress was a Hollywood mainstay, appearing in her first film at the age of five.
Wood was at a tumultuous time in her life when she signed on to Rebel Without a Cause. Perhaps it is a result of her personal drama, and also her desire to be accepted by the more method group of actors surrounding her (James Dean, Dennis Hopper, Nick Adams), but Wood brings her A-game to the film.
In fact, Rebel Without a Cause is the first feature which sees Natalie Wood in a caricature which would recur throughout her career. In the movie, she struggles with her relationship with her Father (William Hopper), who’s approval she desperately seeks. However, Judy is a girl quickly developing into a woman. Unfortunately, no one seems to quite know how to treat her. Her Father slaps her when she tries to kiss him, “Girl’s your age just don’t do that sort of thing”. She also recounts early in the movie how he scrubbed off all her lipstick with his bare hands. While there are very few scenes to analyze between the two characters, it can be read that he’s imprinting a sexuality on his daughter which she isn’t ready for. As a result, Judy runs squarely into the more gentle arms of Jim Stark.
In later films like Splendor in the Grass and Marjorie Morningstar, Natalie Wood often reflects the strain of societal expectations placed on women. Wood’s characters are smart, sensitive and real. She’s the perfect actress to shepherd in the early years of second wave feminism.
A large problem with the narrative of Rebel Without a Cause is the subtle continuation of a trope of aggressive femininity. While Rebel Without a Cause makes very interesting use of its’ talented teenage cast, ultimately the problems of the delinquents result from their upbringing. And usually, the issues don’t stem from their father; rather, the problem is their mother. Most notably, the narrative target’s Jim’s mother Carol (Ann Doran) as the source of conflict within the Stark family. Early in the film, Jim’s family picks him up after he is arrested for drunkenness. Jim watches through the window as Carol lays into his Father (Jim Backus). As Jim talks, his anger at his emasculated Father bubbles to the surface. He even tells the police officer (Edward Platt) that he wishes his father would hit his mother. Maybe then she would ease up.
The issue once again raises it’s ugly head later in the film when Jim returns home from the planetarium. As he mentally prepares for the chicken run, he hears a crash upstairs. Going to investigate the noise, he comes upon Frank, clad in Carol’s frilly apron. He is on his hands and knees, frantically scrubbing at the food he’s just spilt. Frank says, “I’d better clean this up, before she sees it…”. This is where it becomes too much for Jim, “Let her see it”. Jim finally storms off, leaving his father on his knees in the hallway. This is a continual source of conflict between the two men. Ultimately, Jim’s mother has so emasculated his Father that it’s a struggle for the man to provide his son with the support he desperately needs.
Working Mothers and Historical Context:
A hostility towards mothers (especially working women) is a common cultural issue, especially in the decade following World War II. In fact, in the wave of juvenile delinquent pictures during the 1950s (of which Rebel Without a Cause is one of the best), the problem’s of the troubled youth are typically blamed on working and absentee mothers.
As has been detailed in previous articles, when the troops returned from the front at the conclusion of World War II, a generation of women had been forced to go to work. When they were suddenly expected to return to the home, some weren’t sure this is what they wanted. This societal transition is at the forefront of the cultural shift which occurred in the middle of the twentieth century. The scope of World War II upset the status quo in a way which nothing had previously. As such, it sent the home front into a transition which would last decades.
Rebel Without a Cause is a well-known classic, of which parts have become iconic in cinema history. The film is difficult to classify as feminist or anti-feminist. In fact, there are a number of elements at play which classifies it in both categories. However, Rebel Without a Cause provides a fascinating lens into an under examined part of 1950s culture. While the decade has long been defined by images we’ve seen on television in shows like The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best, there is another side to the 1950s. The decade was in actuality one of evolution. There’s a tension simmering just below the surface, which would eventually lead to the drastic societal shift which came to prominence in the 1960s.
Keep an Eye Out:
A young Dennis Hopper can often be seen in the background of the teenage gang. The actor reportedly had a majority of his lines cut. A commonly accepted rumor (verified by Hopper as well as in books on co-star Natalie Wood) is that director Nicholas Ray cut Hopper’s lines out of jealousy. Both men were reportedly involved with Natalie Wood, and Hopper bore the brunt of the director’s frustration.