by Doug Snauffer
Director Nicholas Ray’s classic ode to embittered, alienated teens, Rebel Without a Cause, was back in theaters last week as part of ‘Cinemark’s Winter Classic Series 2017.’
The weekly showcase of Hollywood’s most distinguished and time-honored films is sponsored by Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events, and often includes commentary reels featuring TCM TV-hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz.
Rebel Without a Cause first hit theater screens on October 29, 1955, and became a sensation, raking in $4.5 million against its $1.5 million budget. The film’s success was overshadowed, of course, by James Dean’s death in a road accident just a month before the movie’s release.
Rebel was only Dean’s second film. He’d made his big-screen debut just six-months earlier opposite Julie Harris in director Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, then signed on for George Stevens’ Giant with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Production was delayed, however, due to Taylor’s pregnancy, allowing time for Warner Bros. to cast Dean as the lead in Rebel. It proved to be the defining performance of the young man’s life and career—both of which were cut tragically short.
Despite the wild success of Rebel Without a Cause, Dean—unlike his co-stars Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood—failed to receive Oscar recognition. Mineo was nominated as best supporting actor and Wood for best supporting actress. Neither walked away with a win—but Dean was overlooked entirely.
I viewed Rebel Without a Cause on January 22, 2017, the first time I’d experienced it on a movie screen, and had mixed reactions to James Dean’s performance. There’s no denying that Dean had screen presence. But I tended to view his “method” acting style as more of an oddity.
A prime example occurs early in the movie after Dean’s character, Jim Stark, is arrested and his parents (portrayed by Jim Backus and Ann Doran) are summoned to the police station. There they spend as much time arguing with each other as they do admonishing their son, leading Dean to deliver his signature line, “You’re tearing me apart!”
But his “method” delivery, in my opinion, was all artifice, an overly theatrical tribute to Brando and other proponents of that particular acting approach. Dean’s facial expressions and animated hand gestures took away from his performance rather than enhanced it, making it seem forced instead of realistic.
Critic Bosley Crowther, in his New York Times review of East of Eden on March 10, 1955, commented of Dean’s performance:
“He scuffs his feet, he whirls, he pouts, he sputters, he leans against walls, he rolls his eyes, he swallows his words, he ambles slack-kneed—all like Marlon Brando used to do. Never have we seen a performer so clearly follow another’s style. Mr. Kazan should be spanked for permitting him to do such a sophomoric thing. Whatever there might be of reasonable torment in this youngster is buried beneath the clumsy display.”
Of course, after his death James Dean quickly became larger-than-life, and his acting style now defines the legend. In evaluating Rebel Without a Cause, I doubt it would’ve become the breakthrough hit it did without him. But whether Dean had the chops to sustain a long-term acting career we’ll never know.
Rebel wasn’t the only film about teen angst to hit theater screens that year. Director Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle beat Rebel into cinemas by seven months, bowing on March 25, 1955. It played from an adult perspective, that of a dedicated teacher, Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), hired to teach at a rough, inner-city high school. Vic Morrow, also a disciple of method acting, played a tough gang leader, and Sidney Poitier a young black student with the ability to succeed.
Blackboard Jungle was also a box-office hit; shot on a budget of $1.1 million, it earned $5.2 million in domestic ticket sales. It benefitted from a hit song, “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and His Comets. (The song had actually been released the previous year but hadn’t caught on. After playing over the opening titles of Blackboard Jungle, however, it raced to the top of the charts and remained at #1 for eight-weeks.)
Both movies were made in an attempt to focus attention on the soaring rates of juvenile delinquency in the early 1950s—or to capitalize on it perhaps. Rebel even took it a step further. Director Nicholas Ray, scriptwriter Stewart Stern, and co-stars James Dean and Sal Mineo made a deliberate effort to portray Mineo’s character, Plato, as being gay.
For instance, when Plato opens his locker at the beginning of the film, there’s a pinup of Alan Ladd inside where one might have expected a female centerfold. Then when he gets his first look at Jim, Plato is unquestionably swept away in a wave of wanton desires.
The Motion Picture Production Code at the time (http://productioncode.dhwritings.com) would not have permitted Plato to have been openly homosexual. To do so in 1955 would most likely have resulted in the film being banned, and could have ruined the careers of those involved. Even Mineo’s covert take was a risky move.
Blackboard Jungle courted controversy as well; Ford’s Mr. Dadier had to come to terms with his own bigoted feelings towards his black students, while another violent scene depicted the attempted rape of a teacher.
After the movie ended, I glanced around the theater and noticed that, of the 100 or so people who attended the screening of Rebel Without a Cause, a majority were middle-aged. It would be nice if Cinemark could get younger moviegoers into these classic films, even if it meant handing out free passes in advance to teens who show up for other movies.
Upcoming titles for Cinemark’s 2017 classic film series include An Affair to Remember (60th Anniversary Event), All About Eve, North by Northwest, The Graduate (50th Anniversary Screening), Smokey and the Bandit (can you believe it’s been 40 years!), The Godfather, Some Like It Hot, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bonnie and Clyde (another 50th anniversary), The Princess Bride, Casablanca, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
For more details, visit https://www.cinemark.com/theatres/.
Doug Snauffer is an Ohio-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in myriad publications and on SyFy Channel and includes several cult horror films and the books The Show Must Go On and Crime Television. Check him out on IMDB.