Even if you haven’t actually watched Rebel Without a Cause, most know the iconic image of actor James Dean. The young actor wears a red jacket, his pout and pompadour are the very image of a brooding 1950s masculinity. In fact, along with Marlon Brando’s performance in The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause is one of the films to most clearly define the societal rebellion percolating in the 1950s. While it isn’t progressive in terms of gender and sexuality, Rebel Without a Cause presents a fascinating depiction of the cultural clash happening after the Second World War. The movie paints the 1950s as a decade in flux.
Rebel Without a Cause follows Jim Stark (James Dean). He’s the new kid in town. He struggles to fit in after his family moved quickly in order to save him from some “trouble”. The young man eventually finds himself on the wrong side of a local teenage gang, but soon befriends Judy (Natalie Wood), the girlfriend of the leader. The two share a strong bond in their angst. Eventually, 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 can’t find at home.
Wood was at a tumultuous time in her life when she signed on to Rebel Without a Cause. The film is widely considered to be one of her first adult roles, earning the young actress an Academy Award nomination. Despite being a seasoned Hollywood veteran (she made her screen debut at age five), the group of new wave actors making up the cast (led by Dean) dropped the studio-system raised Wood into brand new territory.
Rebel Without a Cause is the first feature which sees Natalie Wood delve into thematic territory which would recur often throughout this stage in her career. In the movie, Judy struggles with her relationship with her Father (William Hopper). While they fight constantly, she’s desperately seeking his approval. Unfortunately, no one (including Judy’s Father) seems to quite know how to treat the young girl. She’s no longer a child, but he can’t quite accept her as a woman. Early in the story, he slaps her when she tries to kiss him, “Girl’s your age just don’t do that sort of thing”. She tearfully recounts how he once scrubbed off all her lipstick with his bare hands. While there are very few scenes to analyze between the two characters, her story implies he’s imprinting a sexuality on his daughter which even 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, Natalie Wood plays women who reflect the strain of societal expectations placed on them during this period. Wood’s portrayals are smart, sensitive and real. While this era doesn’t see her burning her bra (a la second wave feminism), the awareness and depth of her characters allow us to trace the path of women in popular-culture, bridging Rosie the Riveter to Gloria Steinem.
A large problem within the narrative of Rebel Without a Cause is the not-so-subtle continuation of a trope of “aggressive femininity”. While Rebel makes a very interesting use of its’ talented teenage cast, ultimately the problems of the delinquents return to their upbringing. During this period, the issues don’t stem from fathers; rather, the blame is often heaped squarely on mother. Most notably, Rebel target’s Jim’s mother Carol (Ann Doran) as the clear source of conflict within the Stark family. Early in the film, Jim’s family picks him up after the young man is arrested for drunkenness. Jim watches through the window as Carol berates his father Frank (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 rears its ugly head when Jim returns home from the planetarium. As he mentally prepares for the chicken run, he hears a crash upstairs. Investigating 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 everything becomes too much for Jim. He sneers at Frank, “Let her see it”. Jim finally storms off, leaving his father on his knees in the hallway. Ultimately, Jim’s mother has apparently emasculated Frank to such an extent that it’s a struggle for the elder man to provide Jim with the support he desperately needs.
A hostility towards mothers (particularly working women) is a common cultural issue, especially in the decade following World War II. The wave of juvenile delinquent pictures during the 1950s (of which Rebel Without a Cause is one of the best), often places the problems of the troubled youth squarely on the shoulders of working and absentee mothers.
As has been detailed in previous articles, when the troops returned home at the conclusion of World War II, a generation of women had been forced to go to work. When they were suddenly expected to give all that up, some weren’t sure it was what they wanted. This societal transition is at the forefront of the cultural shift occuring into the 1950s and 1960s. The scope of World War II upset the status quo in a way which nothing had before that, and the shockwave lasted for decades.
Rebel Without a Cause is a well-known classic. Parts of the drama have become iconic, permanently etched in the minds of viewers, even decades after the film’s release. When diving into the film on a deeper level, Rebel Without a Cause provides a fascinating look into an under-examined part of 1950s culture. The conservative and seemingly placid decade was actually one of tremendous flux. Rebel Without a Cause shows tension simmering just below the surface, which would eventually lead to the drastic societal shift of the 1960s.