Is there a Baby Boomer worthy of the name that hasn’t seen Rebel Without a Cause? Doubtful, James Dean in that red jacket has become an everlasting icon of teenage angst and ambivalence.
But here are a few things about that classic film you may not know:
The title comes from a 1944 book – Warner Brothers purchased the rights to a book about a juvenile delinquent named Harold who wound up in the federal pen in Pennsylvania, For years, they tried to work into an acceptable screenplay. In fact, one of the first writers to try was a guy named Theodore Geisel – or as we know him better – Dr. Seuss.
None of the screenplays proved acceptable. Then, in 1954, director Nicholas Ray brought Warner Brothers his idea for a film about affluent juvenile delinquents called The Blind Run. Warners liked Ray’s ideas, but wanted him to combine it with the book they’d already purchased. By the time the final script was completed, about the only thing left from that 1944 book was the title: Rebel Without a Cause.
Marlon Brando almost played the lead – Back when Warners was trying to adapt the original book, they thought they were close to be ready to start shooting. So, in 1949, they began the process of casting the film and approached Marlon Brando to play the lead. Ultimately, that version of the film fell through and Brando had to wait until 1953’s The Wild One before he’d be given his chance to play an iconic bad boy.
Natalie Wood was romantically involved with both Dennis Hopper & Nicholas Ray while the movie was filming – Natalie came into the film when she was dating Hopper. However, she soon began an affair with Nicholas Ray, the film’s director, as well. Hopper found out and challenged Ray to a fist fight. Ray declined the fight, but retaliated by reducing Hopper’s role in the film to a non-speaking one.
There was an actual gang member in the cast – The part of gang member Crunch was played by Frank Mazzola, who was a member of a real “social club” called the Athenians at Hollywood High School. Mazzola told director Ray that many of the elements of the script as well as costumes and cars were phony. He even took Dean and Ray to an actual gang meeting where members of the gang roughed up the director and star a bit. After that, Ray gave Mazzola an office at the studio and had him doing double duty as a consultant on all the gang-related aspects of the film. It was Mazzola who picked out Dean’s 1949 Mercury for the drag race scene.
Is the script more Shakespeare or fairy tale? – Director Ray often told people he based his vision of the story on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. But the guy who did the final version of the script, Stewart Stern, said he was basing his version of James Barrie’s Peter Pan with Dean as Peter, Natalie as Wendy and Sal Mineo standing in for all the Lost Boys.
The film was supposed to be in black & white – Both the director and screenwriter thought the movie would work best in black and white, just as Blackboard Jungle and The Wild One had been shot. But Warners wanted the film be shot in Cinemascope and there was a clause in Cinemascope’s contract with the studio that demanded all Cinemascope features be shot in color. So that was that.
Nicholas Ray virtually handed over the director’s chair to James Dean – All of the principals involved in the shoot said that Ray pretty much let James Dean call his own shots on the scenes he appeared in. That included giving Dean plenty of room to improvise and to give instructions to the other actors appearing in scenes with him. Dean once flew into a rage when Ray yelled “Cut” during a scene, telling the director that Dean would be the one to decide when the cameras should cut.
All 3 of the film’s stars met tragic, untimely deaths – Of course, the most famous one was Dean’s himself, who was killed when he lost control of his car just two weeks before the film opened. But Sal Mineo was also murdered outside his home at the age of 37 and Natalie Wood drowned in what are still mysterious circumstances at the age of 43.