It’s Classic for a Reason: Rebel Without a Cause

Written by Vanessa Vernick November 27, 2011

It’s Classic for a Reason: Rebel Without a Cause

The legendary 1955 film, Rebel Without a Cause, about teenage rebellion and high-school angst was both revolutionary and bold for its time. Rebel Without a Cause, starring the infamous James Dean and the beautiful Natalie Wood, was the first film to take an honest and hard look at the lives of a new ‘species’: the teenager.

Prior to the ‘50s, the teenager didn’t even exist. Before World War II young people were expected to live the life of an adult. They were expected to join the armed forces or get a job, to marry and have children. There was no such thing as freedom from responsibility.

Yet, the end of WWII along with the rise of the mandatory educational system (which before hand was reserved for the upper class but now lumped all of the youth together into one giant institution) turned the world, and thus the film industry, on its head. The economy was booming and affluent families were moving out of the city and into the suburbs. There was also an increase in the population of those within the teenage years. With parents who feared war and who coddled their children, indulging them with allowances and freedom, youth culture was born.

There were a handful of films made about youth culture prior to Rebel Without a Cause. However, the majority of them portrayed the views of society and the parents. Youth were being depicted as little monsters, more or less, and a panic swept across America as people grew more and more concerned about the decay of American youth. It was argued that this new generation of adolescents would serve as the demise of what was once an upstanding society.

Rebel Without a Cause started a trend in Hollywood that still continues to this day. It functioned as answer and response to all of the questions and criticisms that were looming. It was the first film to really stand up for the teenagers and tell their side of the story. It was marked for criticizing parenting styles and addressing the rocky relationship between the generations.

James Dean stars as Jim Stark, a boy who underneath his rebellion is actually kind and gentle. However, he is torn between an emasculated father and an overbearing mother. James Dean is tormented by a school bully, named Buzz, who is played by Corey Allen. His only friend is John, or Plato, a deeply troubled and mentally unstable young man whom we first meet in the police station. His crime? Shooting puppies; a scene that serves as obvious foreshadowing. Jim increasingly finds himself in more and more trouble, especially once his toxic relationship with Judy (Natalie Wood) begins to take off. The angst-ridden youth, James Dean, infamously screams “You’re tearing me apart!”; painfully revealing the brewing anger, pain and anguish that was hiding deep inside the youth of America’s Golden Age.


The title for the film, which was directed by Nicholas Ray, was taken from psychiatrist, Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress – and it won the BAFTA Award for Best Film. Unfortunately, one of the most memorable things about this film is the haunting legacy it leaves behind; James Dean’s death. The young actor died in a car crash at 24-years of age and he was never able to see the final release of the social masterpiece and arguably the best film of the 1950’s, Rebel Without a Cause.

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About Vanessa Vernick

Vanessa is a writer and editor for We Eat Films and, thus, has a love for film (especially classic FIlm Noir) and a passion for writing. She is currently in pursuit of an Honours Double Major in Criminology and Sociology at Western, giving her a unique edge, and tries to incorporate a bit of this into much of what she writes. She is hoping to pursue her Masters in Journalism. When she's not writing, you'll usually find her glued to her TV or enamoured by one of the great, classic Penguin novels.

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