Tonight: James Dean, with Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause.
The fascination with alienated youth in the ‘50s began with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye published in 1951.
Hollywood reflected this fascination in Marlon Brando’s The Wild One in 1954.
And in Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause made the following year.
But Warner Bros. had actually contemplated making Rebel Without a Cause right after the war.
In October, 1946, the studio purchased the film rights to a story by Dr. Robert Lindner titled The Blind Run.
And long before he became James Dean’s role model in The Wild One, a young Marlon Brando was tested for the role.
It was Brando’s first screen test, made in 1947, three years before he made his film debut in The Men in 1950.
But like many other projects in development, Rebel was shelved.
The film was revived in 1953 by Nicolas Ray, a director who specialized in alienation.
He had made Knock on any Door (1949) and In a Lonely Place (1950) with Bogart.
Warner Bros. approved a modest budget for a black and white film noir programmer.
In the title roles, studio executives wanted to cast—now wait for it, as Mel Torme used to say—Tab Hunter and Jayne Mansfield.
Yes, Tab Hunter and Playboy’s own Miss February, 1955.
As Dick Bann notes, Warner Bros. wanted them both!
And Tab Hunter, too.
Nicolas Ray wanted James Dean. Ray saw in Dean the very qualities he wanted to capture in the film.
He said of the actor, “The drama of his life, I thought, after seeing him in New York, was the drama of desiring to belong, and fearing to belong.
It was a conflict of violent eagerness and mistrust—created very young...
“The intensity of his desires, his fears, could make the search at times arrogant, egocentric.
“But behind it was such a desperate vulnerability that one was moved, even frightened.”
Ray trusted Dean’s input on further developing the script—which, by this time, bore little relation to the original literary property.
In this way, and through actual improvisation on the set, Dean created the disenchanted romantic which audiences continue to discover and love.
When Warner Bros. executives saw the black and white rushes of the first few days shooting, they were so pleased they halted production and ordered the film to be shot in full color with an expanded budget.
Some of the original black and white footage survives and, in those scenes, Dean is playing the role wearing glasses.
Dean’s character in Rebel is named “Jim Stark,” “Stark” is an anagram derived from the name of Dean’s character in East of Eden which was "Trask."
Child star Natalie Wood—of Miracle on 34th Street fame—plays James Dean’s girlfriend in the picture.
“It was a very important film for me personally,” she said in 1975.
“Until then, I had worked as a child and had always done as I was told. . . When my parents read the script of Rebel they said, ‘Oh, no. Not this one.’
“You know it shows parents in an unsympathetic light.
“And yet, I read it and for the first time in my life, I said, ‘Wait a minute. I have to do this.’”
“I felt an identification with the part. I guess I was going through my first rebellion.”
Natalie’s “first rebellion” had actually come prior to Rebel with Nick Adams (with whom she lost her virginity).
After Nick Adams, her rebellion included affairs with Tab Hunter, director Nicholas Ray, Dennis Hopper and, possibly, James Dean.
The only one excluded from the young cast was Sal Mineo, who preferred boys.
Sal Mineo was so confident of an Academy Award for his supporting role in Rebel that he held a party in celebration on the night of the Oscars.
He was devastated when he lost.
Many of the members of the cast including the three principals—were doomed to early, violent deaths.
Mineo was murdered near his West Hollywood apartment in 1968.
Nick Adams, who later played "The Rebel" on TV, died the same year of a drug overdose. An apparent suicide.
Natalie Wood drowned off Catalina Island under mysterious circumstances in 1981.
She’s buried in Westwood Cemetary. Along with Marilyn Monroe, Mel Torme and Dorothy Stratten.
And James Dean died before this picture even opened.
Filming began on March 28, 1955, and wrapped at the end of May.
They had filmed a scene in which James Dean survived a deadly auto race.
Then, on September 17, Dean shot a TV commercial for the National Highway Safety Committee cautioning young motorists to “drive safely.”
In an extreme irony, before the release of Rebel in October, James Dean was killed demonstrating the same kind of reckless abandon his character portrays in the film.
Driving his Porsche Spyder to Salinas, he collided with another car—two hours after being cited for speeding—doing 75 mph in a 45 mph zone.
He died instantly.
His legendary status assured.
Dick Bann asks us to imagine if Marlon Brando had played the part in Rebel as originally planned.
And then taken a deadly drive of his own.
Would James Dean have wound up playing the title role in The Godfather?
And rolling around, fat and foolish, at 400 pounds—full of angst and jelly doughnuts.
Still mumbling incoherently, like Marlon?
It was Humphrey Bogart who said, “If James Dean had lived, they’d have discovered he wasn’t a legend.”
But he died early—like Valentino and Marilyn Monroe—and his legend is secure.
Rebel Without a Cause opened at the Astor Theater in New York on October 22, 1955. It was a blockbuster!
The picture cost $1,424,000. In its initial release, it earned a whopping $7,197,000, to yield a net profit of $3,543,000.
A 248% return on its investment.
There were also three Oscar nominations.
For the screenplay (Nicholas Ray), Best Supporting Actress (Natalie Wood) and Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo).
James Dean was nominated for Best Actor, too—but for East of Eden—released the same year.
Tonight—As an added attraction before the feature: A look at what might have been.
Marlon Brando’s screen test made in 1947, at the age of 23.
And then—from 1955—James Dean in
Rebel Without a Cause