Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rebel Without a Cause

Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Jim Backus

Recently I watched this movie with my mother for the third or fourth time--her first time. This is one of my favorite movies. Mother, however, did not like it. Anyway, I will come to that later.

The premise of this movie is the character Jim Stark's (James Dean) struggle to find friendship, understanding, and himself. His home life is described as a "zoo" and his father is made into "mush" by Jim's mother and grandmother. This makes Jim determined that he will not be a coward like his father...thus, he is very easy to provoke. All someone has to do to make him fight is call him "chicken", so he frequently gets in trouble and his mother has them move whenever he does so. The movie begins with Jim having moved into a new town and having just gotten drunk and hauled into a police station. At the police station, he sees Judy, a young girl deprived of her father's love, and Plato, a virtually abandoned child of divorced parents. At school the next day (technically, the same day), these three become friends and through their friendship, solve some of their problems, but not without experiencing pain and getting into very deep trouble.

The great thing about Rebel is the way it has so many moments where great acting and great lines come together. At the beginning, in the police station, Jim tells the policeman there to "get lost". This part illustrates how Jim appears to the grown-ups who just don't understand why he can't keep out of trouble. It's one of the only times, too, because after we get to know Jim, we see how he is trying to do the right thing as well as he can. The unsympathetic adults, however, don't see or understand this part of him, and can't figure out why he "shuts the door" in their faces. For less than a minute, before we know what is going on in his head, we see Jim as the belligerent rebel his outward appearance suggests. Of course, this is somewhat ruined because James Dean has our sympathy from the beginning; who could possibly not sympathize with someone so cute?

Like I said earlier, my mother probably did not sympathize with Mr. Dean, cute or not. For two days after watching Rebel, she was pointing out faults in it. First of all, the gang members looked far too old. And if that wasn't bad enough, the entire thing was beyond melodramatic. It was unrealistic for all that stuff to happen in one day. Jim Stark hardly ever ate, for Pete's sake. And everyone was messed up. Even when I pointed out snootily that having a tragedy take place in one day is an ancient Greek tradition, she failed to be impressed with the whole thing, saying it was not bad but she would not watch it again. This all comes from someone whose favorite movie is The Sound of Music, so it was obviously not something she would have enjoyed, but I thought she should see it anyway. I guess it's just part of my morbid personality.

A great part of this film is Natalie Wood. She's my favorite actress, so I'm biased, but this movie is one of the reasons she's said favorite. The fact that we see a Hollywood teenager onscreen as a teenager and not done up like an ice cream cone is a fabulous inspirition to teenage vintage fans like myself. Her hair is perfectly done but not elaborate, her make-up doesn't even look like it's there (excluding the opening scene), and her clothes are simple and young. Sometimes you can forget yourself and dress too old for your age if you use vintage actresses as style icons--the fact that Judy doesn't even have painted nails is a great reminder that teenagers existed back then too, even if Hollywood tended to age them or stick them in child parts. Check out Stage Door to see the results of the makeup men on thirteen or fourteen year-old Ann Miller.

There is so little to dislike about Rebel--I have managed to put aside my distress over Jim Stark's dietary habits and enjoy it anyway. Shocking, I know. The only bad part is that it makes it "cool" to be lonely and misunderstood. If you actually are lonely and misunderstood, it would probably cheer up, but otherwise it encourages rebellion a little. That's only a minor point. Another point is that in the Chickie Run scene, there is almost no way both people could have jumped from their cars. The person on the right would have been run over by the other's car. My mother also pointed this out. And whoever plays Jim's mother is a poor actress.

But things like the soundtrack, the lead players, and the themes more than make up for such minor faults. I give it 9/10.

And by the way, did anyone think Corey Allen (Buzz) looked like Marlon Brando? And was talking like him for some reason?


Sarah said...

Rebel is one of my favorite movies. I can sort of understand why your mom wouldn't like it though. It is a bit unrealistic, but I think it just adds to the whole dramatic aspect of it. Otherwise, Nat was perfectly cast and her look was very 50's teenager. Great post!

Merriam said...

Thank you Sarah! I agree it is somewhat unrealistic, but I don't watch movies to see things that could happen to me happen to other people. If I did, I would be watching very boring movies.

Sharon N. said...

Nice review Merriam! 'Rebel' was one of the first classic movies I fell in love with.

I wonder if Marty McFly's penchant for fighting when he is called chicken in 'Back to the Future' is a tribute to 'Rebel?'

This is LeadingLady from Miss Vintage, btw.