In college, I took a course in the history of rock and roll. While studying the music and musical influence of Elvis Presley, the professor brought up an interesting theory that was Elvis passed away at the right time to be well-remembered and regarded. We never got to see Elvis get too far past his prime and a shadow of his former self, relegated to the back pages of the tabloids.
This same theory applies to actor James Dean, who only made three films during his short career in Hollywood. Each of those three films is fairly well-regarded by scholars and critics, though it can be argued this his most iconic film was his last, Rebel Without A Cause.
I first saw it years ago on VHS and while it started an entirely new subgenre of film, I’m not necessarily sure this is a film that holds up all that well or is really as good as its iconic status would have you believe. Watching it again this time, I was fascinated by the performance of Dean as Jim Stark and seeing actor Jim Backus in a role other Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island. But I couldn’t help but think the film seemed awfully melodramatic in parts and like it was trying too hard.
Part of that could be a bit of familiarity with teen films and seeing how they’ve grown and changed since this initial entry.
Jim Stark’s family keeps moving in order to give him a new chance. Jim’s already put his new change in jeopardy when he’s hauled into the police station for drunken and disorderly conduct. There he encounters Judy, a rebellious girl who is being spurned her father’s affection now that she’s older, and Plato, a young man whose parents are absent leaving him the care of a nanny (for lack of a better term). Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, this trio will face trials, tribulations, and become a sort of pseudo-family — the type of family they wish they had, but don’t.
Rebel Without a Cause is a film that finds its characters dealing with a lot of father-issues. It’s like compressing the entire catalog of Steven Spielberg in the 80’s into just under two hours. Judy, Jim, and Plato feel abandoned by their fathers in some way — whether it’s literally so by Plato, emotionally so by Judy, or Jim’s father who is a withering violet to his wife and her mother. In one famous scene, Jim takes out his anger at his father on a conveniently placed portrait of his mother and it’s interesting that when Jim and his father cross paths again after this that his dad finally begins to act like the type of father Jim has been yearning for.
Seeing how concerned Jim is with doing the right thing borders on an almost Klingon-like devotion to his honor. Challenged to a “chickee-run” at the local cliffs, Jim goes this dad to ask for some guidance but gets none. In fact, Jim’s dad is pretty much at his most emaciated at this point, wearing an apron over his suit as he cleans up a mess in the house under the withering gaze of his wife. He fails to understand what Jim is asking of him or the real issues being raised for Jim, sending Jim to the pivotal race.
Watching Rebel Without a Cause and seeing Jim’s concern about being thought of as a chicken made me wonder if this is where Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis took this character-trait for Marty McFly in the second two segments of the Back to the Future trilogy — possibly as an homage to this movie.
I think a large part of what took me out of the movie this time around was that the events depicted in the film take place over the course of twenty-four hours. I defy anyone outside of Jack Bauer to have as interesting and packed a day as Jim, Judy, and Plato. It may be why the Jim/Judy romance doesn’t necessarily ring entirely true — especially when you factor in that her first boyfriend dies a scant few hours before she’s kissing Jim and pretending to be part of some type of typical family with Jim as the father and Plato as their son.
If you do a bit of Googling, you will find all kinds of interesting commentary on the subtext between Jim and Plato and how Judy fits into it.