It might seem strange to celebrate the 80th birthday of an individual who never lived to be 25, but such is the fascination the American public has with James Dean. Born on February 8, 1931, Dean remains a 1950’s cultural icon, despite appearing in only three films, and living to just the decade’s midpoint. James Dean’s second film, “Rebel Without a Cause,” (1955) will air Saturday, July 2, at 12:30 pm on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Nicholas Ray, “Rebel Without a Cause” features James Dean in his signature role as the trouble teenager Jim Stark, along with co-stars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Although the title was taken from a 1944 book written by Robert M. Lindner, “Rebel Without a Cause” is not based on the book.
Jim Stark (Dean), a 17 year old who has recently moved to Los Angeles with his parents, is having problems adjusting to his new environment, as he struggles with the conflict of conforming with his peers or rebelling. As he becomes increasingly alienated from his folks, Jim gravitates towards a couple of new friends, who are undergoing similar problems. Plato (Mineo) is a 15 year old boy who idolizes Jim, almost seeing him as a father figure, and Judy (Wood), who is trying to find some meaning to her life. Unfortunately, Jim has also attracted the attention of a gang of bullies, led by Buzz, who engages Jim in a knife fight, and later goads Jim into participating in a “Chicken Run”, an activity that involves driving stolen cars towards a cliff, the winner being the driver who stays in his car the longest. When this game results in Buzz’s death, Jim realizes that telling his parents or the police will bring problems.
“Rebel Without a Cause” has been called Hollywood’s first teenager movie, as the film was among the first to explore teenage angst. As good as James Dean’s performance was, it was his death one month before the picture’s release that instantly gave “Rebel Without a Cause” its lifelong cult status. Although Dean did not live to enjoy the success of the film, several of his co-stars also received praise for their work in the picture, including Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams. Reportedly, Natalie Wood was not director Nicholas Ray’s choice to play the part of Judy, as she wasn’t Ray’s idea of a wild teenager. While the film was being cast, Wood was in a car accident, and when Ray went to visit her in the hospital, a doctor was overheard referring to Natalie as a “juvenile delinquent.” “Did you hear what he called me Nick,” Wood asked Ray…”Now do I get the part?”
Notes: According to Forbes Magazine, James Dean’s estate still earns over $5 million a year. Dean was originally slated to star as boxer Rocky Graziano in the film “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), but his death resulted in the role going to Paul Newman. There originally was an overlap in the shooting schedules of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant”, but Elizabeth Taylor’s pregnancy caused a delay in the production of “Giant,” allowing Dean to appear in both films.