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On Oct. 27, 1955, Warner Bros. released a teenage drama, Rebel Without a Cause, just a month after star James Dean’s untimely death in an automobile accident. The film would go on to earn three Oscar nominations at the 28th Academy Awards, including the first for young actress Natalie Wood. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
The exhibitor can expect this story of juvenile delinquency to capture the Blackboard Jungle type of audience and be a real money picture. It contains some extraordinarily good acting by the late James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (who is coming up fast and reveals himself to be a real trouper in this one). The direction by Nicholas Ray is outstanding. Ray stages police station scenes with true realism and he catches the mood of the sub-world of teenage savagery in an attention-holding manner. There is a reckless, silly and (from an adult point of view) thoroughly unnecessary duel with switch blades that is chilling and a frenzied contest, in which two punks vie with each other to see who will be the last to throw himself out of a car that is racing toward a cliff, that is hair-raising. The dialogue of Stewart Stern’s screenplay and Irving Shulman’s adaptation catches the stumbling inarticulate voice of youth with singular accuracy.
The story opens in a Juvenile Hall, where a benevolent and efficient social worker (Edward Platt) interviews three principals. Dean has been picked up drunk and it soon develops that he is a misunderstood youth whose father (Jim Backus) is bullied by his wife (Ann Doran). The wife has kept the family moving from town to town in an apparent effort to keep her son out of trouble. She is also accused of refusing to “face” something, though what it is we never learn. Natalie is in trouble because her handsome father (William Hopper) rebuffs her. As these scenes are played, they seem to imply that he is resisting an incestuous interest in his pretty daughter. Mineo, the child of divorced parents, is being raised by a kindly Negro housekeeper (who has the patient lovable quality of Louise Beavers). On the first day of high school, Dean is picked on by a tough juvenile gang headed by Corey Allen (who gives a blandly truculent Marlon Brando type of performance). To prove he isn’t “chicken,” Dean engages in a knife fight and the car contest, in which Allen is killed. Fearing that Dean will squeal to the cops, a group of youthful terrorists beat up Mineo, who arms himself with a gun and joins Dean and Natalie in a deserted mansion to which they have fled when both found their parents unsympathetic. The frightened Mineo shoots one of the gang and is, in turn, shot by the police. The love of Dean for Natalie is at last viewed sympathetically by their parents.
Though it is nothing to worry the exhibitor, I find much to quarrel with in the underlying ideology of the film. It seems to imply that the function of the family in guiding youth could be much better handled by the political bureaucrat. This I doubt. Parents undoubtedly are responsible for some juvenile delinquency, but to say they are responsible for all of it reminds one of those newspaper horoscopes which advise everyone in Los Angeles, from archbishops to Abbott and Costello, to avoid dark men and to spend the morning putting up new draperies on the 23rd of September. You simply cannot generalize that much. To blame parents for sole responsibility for this perplexing problem is to resort to a convenient cliche, like saying everyone in Washington is a crook. And a writer certainly has to eat a lot of upside-down cake to arrive at the conclusion that the hard-working people who are staying out of trouble are worse than the idlers who are getting into it. If we accept this thesis, in regard to this picture, we must believe that the parents of the some 50 screwy kids involved are all bad.
Actually, for all the card-stacking and special pleading that goes into script, it is not the parents who get Dean into trouble but the other kids. And even this does not sufficiently explain things, for he is shown being picked up on a psychotic binge before school opens and he has a chance to meet his rowdy classmates. In every psychological drama, the principal characters go about with some secret thing in their mental pockets and the big moment comes when the audience finds out what it is. But this is a mental tale of empty pockets for we never really learn what is eating Dean or is driving his mother from place to place. If she’s merely trying to keep her boy out of bad company, it seems unfair to condemn her for it. I feel very deeply about this. In my teens, I too was afraid of being “chicken” and the juvenile gang I ran with was blasted to eternity by riot guns in an effort to rob a filling station. I’m quite sure that if my mother had not insisted on moving out of that neighborhood, some years before this happened, I would have wound up on a morgue slab with my companions. I cannot find it in my heart to blame her for saving me from this. So, in my opinion, this is a superficial treatment of a vital problem that has been staged brilliantly. — Jack Moffitt, originally published on Oct. 21, 1955
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