By Rory Colburn, VI Form
Analysis of Rebel Without a Cause and the Cold War
The 1950’s was an era of extremism marked by xenophobia, misogyny, and ageism. The population was warped and manipulated by yellow journalism and a few outspoken individuals, who urged America towards conformity. These stories and people preached the external dangers of foreign influence, especially concerning Communism, and the internal dangers, concerning teenage rebellion, and subversive women. This ideology was captured by Hollywood in the film Rebel Without a Cause, which features scenes, characters, and compositions that address these concerns, sometimes using metaphor or allegory.
America’s population was terrified by the Cold War with Russia. Joseph McCarthy was the primary purveyor of “atomic anxiety,” which bolstered America’s fear of major Communist nations, such as Russia and China. Another major concern for Americans, in this era, was the rise in teenage delinquency. Americans actually placed this concern above that of nuclear testing or racial tensions and often placed the blame for delinquency on inadequacies within the domestic setting. This ideology, concerning domestic inadequacies, lead to another extremist opinion that was emphasized in the 1950’s. This was the marginalization of women, especially mothers, as the source of America’s domestic issues. “Delinquency and communism were symbolic of a genuine concern about social disintegration” and some misogynists were convinced that America was “deep in a predicted nightmare… and mom sits on it decaying throne”(Cycle of Outrage 76)(Generation of Vipers 196).
The film creates metaphors in key scenes that indirectly express concern for nuclear fallout. The most prominent of these are set on the school trip to the Planetarium. Here the viewers both in the Planetarium and those watching the film are presented with large explosive noises and visuals that detail the end of the universe. This is a very clear metaphor for the potential effects of a nuclear war and is accurately is portraying the atomic anxiety that gripped America in the 1950’s. In the very next Jim the protagonist, and Buzz the, antagonist, get into a knife fight on the edge of a cliff. They only make small jabs at each other, which is dangerous, but not drastic. This is a metaphor for the relationship between America and Soviet Russia. The mercurial nature of teenagers is being used to describe tensions between these two nations and the ideologies they prescribe to respectively.
There is also a very clear and outright message to this film, wdeals with teenage delinquency and its source in the unstable home. The main characters, Jim, Judy, and Plato, all have had trouble with the law and are considered delinquents to that era’s standards. The movie focuses a lot of the blame for the bad behavior on bad parenting. Plato’s parents are gone, so this lack of support in the home led to psychopathic tendencies. Trudy has an abusive father, which leads her to break curfew and run away. Finally, Jim struggles to understand his role as a man because he views his father as inadequate in this aspect. This leads to his public intoxication and participation in the chicken test, as he struggles to understand manhood. Jim’s relationship with his parents is a source of his misbehavior, however, it is also an interesting look at gender roles in the 1950’s.
Certain outspoken individuals, such as Philip Wylie, expressed their concern about the detrimental effect women were putting on society. Rebel Without a Cause voices some of these in a less extreme, but still apparent manner. The movie portrays Jim’s mother as the decision maker, while the father caters to her whims. The dad, who one would assume is the patriarch of the family, is emasculated in many scenes. Once Jim assumes his mother is dressed in her apron and calls up to her, but he finds his father instead. The father also often failed to voice an opinion and to argue against his wife’s opinion. “Mom still commands. Moms more in charge than ever”(Generation of Vipers 196). Jim, for these reasons, struggles to understand his role as a male, and the movie cites these issues as the source of delinquency.
Rebel Without a Cause also wants the viewer to see the benefit of a positive domestic setting because it has displayed such negative image of American families. It does this by creating a familial relationship between Jim, Judy. This film uses these characters and allegory to renaissance art to create stability. The earliest reference is the painting “Arnolfini Wedding” by Van Eyck in 1434. This painting epitomizes the loyalty between a couple with color, setting, and composition. The outreached hands and the dog in the foreground represent the allegiance between the couple. The red in the background is indicative of emotional connection, and the couple is placed in a bedroom, which is a very intimate setting. The movie captures this moment in the costumes of the Judy and Jim, when they first meet. It establishes an innate trust between the characters, which will develop into a more intimate one. Later in the story, another composition between Judy and Jim is created in the image of the “Pieta” by Michelangelo. In the “Pieta” Mary is holding Jesus, who is already dead. There is tenderness in this connection that is shown both in Mary’s youthful visage, and Jesus’ weathered complexion. It is a portrayal of a mother, who is not a source of evil, but instead, a caring and stable individual. In the movie, Jim lies in the position of Jesus on Judy’s lap. In the movie, Jim and Judy need stability within their families. It is also a comforting concept to understand that everyone suffers, even God.
Rebel Without a Cause is a commentary on the extremism that manifested in the 1950’s. It portrays America’s concerns about women, the communist threat, and teenage delinquency. Americans in the 1950’s believed in normalizing themselves to avoid the suspicion of others. This movie captures these fears, concerns, and ideologies and creates a story that eventually leads to conformity and a safe domestic setting between Jim and Judy. Conformity, in the case of Jim and Judy’s relationship, arose out of the chaos as the solution to many of many of these concerns. The movie successfully aligns itself with American ideology in the 1950’s, by using certain references to artistic compositions.
Rory Colburn is a VI Former from Boston. His favorite classes are history and Latin, and he plays squash and golf.
Where history and movies meet
Rebel Without a Cause Dir: Nicholas Ray (1955)
Rebel Without a Cause: the background
Many of the claims about Rebel as innovatory are nonsense. It was not the first movie about troubled teens, nor was it the first to examine teenager-parent clashes. These had been movie staples since at least the 1930s. Seven years earlier Knock On Any Door and City Across the River had examined the phenomenon of teenage crime and violence within the context of the big-city working class environment. Knock On Any Door was directed by Nicholas Ray, and it argued that the roots of juvenile crime lay in the deprived slum environments in which many youths lived. Even Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock relied heavily on the youth versus older generation theme. Nor was it new in depicting teenage violence and bravado in the form of fights and car races - these were features of the cheap 'teenager' movies of the early and mid-1950s, more sensationalised but often more vigorously and concisely presented than in Rebel.
Nicholas Ray's 1949 movie looked at juvenile delinquency as a product of socio-economic deprivation, not as middle-class angst
Rebel Without a Cause follows Linder's argument: the teenager was an innocent victim of familial and psychological forces, but one capable of redemption. But although one feels sympathy for the problems of the Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo characters, Dean's character tends to self-pity, and a not particularly justified sense of victimhood.He has a privileged middle class suburban lifestyle. Ray emphasises he is torn by the conflict between the parents but that conflict onscreen is stereotyped and unconvincing. The teenage hero in Knock on an Door, and the school students in Blackboard Jungle, by contrast, have bigger problems - social and economic deprivation, a school system that ignores their needs, ingrained racism -problems that will not be solved by psychological analysis or a return to traditional parenting roles.
The movie was astutely marketed to take advantage of several currently controversial issues. The 1953 movie The Wild One, which featured Marlon Brando giving one of his most mannered performances and which relied heavily on the theme of a disgruntled younger generation (but not teenagers) set against a background of motorbike gangs and conflict with the law had been the focus of a media and political furore. Another alleged form of youthful rebellion, namely rock 'n' roll music, had also become newsworthy during the 1955-56 period. And just a few months earlier, Blackboard Jungle - a much better film than Rebel - had become a great critical and box-office success, with its convincing portrayal of youthful delinquency in New York city's public school system and that system's failure to deal with the needs of working class youth. Furthermore, the topics of juvenile delinquency and teenage culture had become politically and intellectually fashionable. Mass culture in the form of 'comics', music and movies was supposedly corrupting American youth. Senator Estes Kefauver, campaigning for the 1956 Democratic Party presidential nomination, used his leadership of a Congressional sub-committee on comics and pulp fiction, to publicise his candidature and provide him with a winnable election issue.
Although Rebel Without a Cause is usually cited as a ground-breaking, even subversive movie in its approach to juvenile deliquency and youth, in fact it is very much a middle-class movie. The Stark family are comfortably middle class, well-housed, the son uses a late-model expensive car, his new school peers are obviously comfortably off, their school provides visits to a planetarium. This is a privileged, affluent, indulged group, lazy and bored. Stark himself has a well-developed sense of victimhood that he uses to justify his behaviour. Compared with the working-class backgrounds of the teens in Blackboard Jungle and City Across the River, and even Ray's earlier Knock on Any Door, Stark and his friends have got it easy - no slums, no rundown schools, no racism, no poverty, no violent gangs.
The problems faced by Jim Stark and his friends are essentially familial and psycholological, not societal or economic. The weakest feature of the movie is its portrayal of the Stark parents, reduced to clumsy caricatures: dominant, forceful mother and weak, passive, submissive father - a reversal of supposedly conventional parental roles. As Peter Biskind argues, the movie is essentially conservative: restore the 'traditional' parental roles and the troubled teenager will be cured.
After Rebel: more movies about juvenile delinquency
Although most of these post-Rebel and post-Blackboard Jungle movies were exploitive, sensationalist, suffered from clumsy scripts, bad acting, and clumsy directing, they had two significant features. Unlike Rebel, most were set in a non middle-class background, with characters having working-class occupations (or no occupations at all). Indeed, crime was sometimes their occupation and a key motif was whether or not key characters would succumb to the temptation of easy money achieved illegally. The films were often set in squalid, run-down areas. Psychological problems were not an issue, but revenge and sex were. More importantly, some of these movies gave females an important role. They were sometimes crucially involved in activities supposedly the domain males e.g. motor-cars, drag-racing, gang activities. And these girls act forcefully: they scheme, plot, bully and initiate criminal activities. They order males around. Some are portrayed as fearless and capable drivers or troublemakers.
Siegel's 1956 Crime in the Streets is an interesting exception. This noirish movie combines elements of Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle and City Across the River. Its setting is an urban ghetto, its story is based on youthful street gang crime, it has an adult mentor figure (a social worker) trying to save the 18 year-old hero from falling into a life of crime and violence.
Ray tries to locate "Knock On Any Door" within a working-class context as seen by the middle-class lawyer played by Humphrey Bogart in one of his best performances.
Cornered teen, police, rooftop setting - a climactic scenario repeated seven years later in "Rebel Without a Cause".
Humphrey Bogart as a sympathetic and humane lawyer who defends a youthful suspect. This is one of Bogart's finest performances.
High school students burning books, Binghamton, NY, 1948. An example of postwar paranoia about the influence of mass media.Although publicity focused on the teenagers doing the burning, the hysteria was stirred up by adult moral entrepreneurs and cultural guardians, determined to deny access to media and cultural forms they deemed unsuitable.
Evidence presented to Kefauver committee about how comics and pulp fiction were endangering American youth. In the USA, such endangerment was presented as part of a Communist plot. In the UK, France, Australia and New Zealand this same cultural threat to youth was blamed by USSR-funded sources on American capitalist media.
Fredric Wertham, a psychologist who played a major part in the anti-comics campaign -and who helped panic gullible parents - with his unsubstantiated claims about the pernicious effects of comics on adolescent behaviour.
Nice composition within frame but inane dialogue and stereotyped parental roles.
James Dean's Jim Stark character hasa privileged and affluent background, as well as an ability to present himself as a victim.
This 1958 movie featured a girls' gang creating havoc at a high school and blatantly copied "Rebel Without a Cause"' in having a sensitive teenager(female) with family problems trying to seek acceptance from peers.
The focus of this movie is on a rebellious teenage girl who torments her middle-class parents by her relationship with a dragstrip racer.
This 1957 movie uses juvenile delinquency as a source of comedy. The thirty year old Jerry Lewis plays a teenage delinquent who is taken in hand by a kindly, gruff police officer and steered away from gang life.