Rebel Without a Cause: Critical Vs. Popular Response

We now accept as given that the notion of the “teenager” as a powerful cultural identity and social force is inconceivable without the influence of “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Critical consensus holds that Nicholas Ray’s 1955 youth film created an enduring teenage myth, an archetype of teen rebellion, which is as applicable today as it was 50 years ago.

However, initially Warner didn’t know what to make of the film or how to market it. The studio underestimated the potential popularity of “Rebel” by a long shot, not knowing what to expect upon its release. Warner considered “Rebel” to be just a B-movie until the first audience feedback. It’s hard to believe, but at one point, Jane Mansfield was considered for the role of Judy, later cast with Natalie Wood.

Critics, too, were baffled by the movie. The middlebrow Bosley Crowther, then the dean of the New York Critics, described “Rebel” in the N.Y Times as “excessively graphic exercise, noting “Like “Blackboard Jungle,” it is a picture to make the hair stand on end.” A conservative critic, who used a social-realist perspective, Crowther raised doubts over the psychology and motivation of the trio of troubled youngsters, played by James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. He wrote: “Screenwriter Stewart Stern’s proposal that these youngsters would be the way they are for the skimpy reasons he shows us may be a little hard to believe. Dean, Stern says, is a mixed-up rebel because his father lacks decisiveness and strength.”

Once again, it was the French critics of “Cahiers du Cinema,” then edited by Andre Bazin and his coterie of aspiring directors (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Roehmer), who were the first to evaluate seriously the artistic merits of both the film and its director. In the process, Nicholas Ray became one of their cherished idols and an important figure in the evolution of auteur theory in France and later in the U.S.

An ardent admirer of “Rebel,” Truffaut was the first to place Dean rightfully within the top echelon of movie stars that included Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, and Ingrid Bergman. Explaining Dean’s appeal, Truffaut wrote: “In James Dean, today’s youth discovers itself. Less for the reasons that are usually advanced, violence, sadism, hysteria, pessimism, cruelty, and filth, than for others infinitely more simple and commonplace, modesty of feeling, continual fantasy life, moral purity.”

It took longer, though, for American critics to take the movie seriously as an art work. Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, the two leading critics of the 1960s and 1970s, who had seen the film upon its initial release but didn’t write about it until much later, had strong reservations about the narrative and “crappy” dialogue.

Sarris claimed that the French critics overestimated “Rebel,” because they didn’t speak English (they saw the film in translation) and thus couldn’t evaluate the social worker-psychobabble dialogue, instead focusing on Ray’s mise-en-scene and visuals. Kael came even stronger against the “terrible” script, though she acknowledged the film’s impact.

History, or the hand of fate, came to the rescue of Warner. Just three weeks after the death of Dean, on September 30, 1955, “Rebel” was released. Dean was on his way to a sports-car race in Salinas, California, when he ran his silver Porsche off the highway and into the mythology of popular culture. “Rebel” opened at New York City’s Astor Theatre on October 26 and in Los Angeles on November 9 to a fanatical response.

Eventually “Rebel” grossed $4,600,000, an amazing figure for a “B-movie.” Little did Warner realize that Rebel’s effect would prove to be much greater than that of Dean’s “A-movies,” “Giant” and “East of Eden.” “Rebel” would become one of the first films to be inducted into the National Film Register.

The influence of “Rebel” on Hollywood was great. The film served as a blueprint for all youth rebellion films in the future. In 1955, Hollywood released just two such youth films. In 1956, the year after “Rebel”‘s release, there were ten; in 1957, there were forty.

By the mid-1950s, teenagers accounted for more than half of the ticket buyers for Hollywood movies. “Rebel” was the first film to connect with teen audiences on their own terms. The teen market had been waiting to take off, and “Rebel” offered the catalyst for the market to explode.

The imitations of “Rebel” included several genre variations, such as the youth out-of-control films (“Crime in the Streets,” “Untamed Youth,” “Juvenile Jungle”) and the confused, mixed-up youth films (“Hot Rod Girl,” “Dragstrip Girl,” “Hot Car Girl,” “Dragstrip Riot”).

The film’s influence continues to this day, with such recent and well-known films as: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Last Picture Show,” “The Graduate,” “American Graffiti,” “Risky Business,” “The Outsiders,” Footloose,” and “Saturday Night Fever,” all of which contain strains of “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Moreover, entire films have been devoted to the mythic subject of James Dean, such as “September 30, 1955,” directed by James Bridges. Director Robert Altman has made two films: “The James Dean Story” and “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

One reason why “Rebel” continues to be a powerful film today is that many filmmakers grew up with it. James Bridges, who directed “September 30, 1955,” visited every “Rebel” location when he first moved to Hollywood as a young man. For years, Bridges proudly told how one night he and Dennis Hopper stood atop Laurel Canyon yelling, “Jimmy, Jimmy, which star are you”

Many actors who have crossed the screen over the past 50 years admit to being in the James Dean tradition. Dean’s acting style has had tremendous influence on American acting. The list of Dean disciples includes Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Dennis Hopper, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, and Nicholas Cage, among others.

These are all male stars, but Dean’s influence can also be seen in the work of certain actresses, such as Tuesday Weld, Natalie Wood, and later, Debra Winger and Rosanna Arquette, all women who have mastered Dean’s brand of female rebelliousness and even toughness.

Dean’s performance had a great influence on the young Elvis Presley, who wanted to play the Dean part in “The James Dean Story,” after Dean’s death. Nicholas Ray recalled: “I was sitting in the cafeteria at MGM one day, and Elvis came over. He knew I was a friend of Jimmy’s and had directed “Rebel,” so he got down on his knees before me and began to recite whole passages of dialogue from the script. Elvis must have seen “Rebel” a dozen times by then for he remembered every one of Jimmy’s lines.”

“I could do it easy,” Elvis said of Dean’s part, “I want to play that more than anything else.” When Elvis first arrived in Hollywood, he began his acting career by hanging out with Dean’s co-stars: Nick Adams, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Motion Picture Story: Nicholas Ray

Supporting Actor: Sal Mineo

Supporting Actress: Natalie Wood

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Motion Picture Story was Daniel Fuchs for “Love Me or Leave Me,” starring Cagney and Doris Day.

Jack Lemmon won the Supporting Actor Oscar for “Mister Roberts,” and Jo Van Fleet the Supporting Actress for “East of Eden.”