Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
- Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause reflects the youth-obsession of the American public in the 1950s. It also shows the ways in which many Americans viewed the family as a social institution in the Cold War years. James Gilbert has argued that "From the 1940s to the 1960s, Americans looked at the family with double vision: with optimism and despair." While they celebrated the family as the central institution of American life, they feared for its future, worried about its delinquent youth, and wondered why the divorce rate was so high.
- At the center of the family crisis, many Americans believed, were children who had been abandoned by their parents. Research into the causes of juvenile delinquency blamed parents and their inability to maintain a traditional pattern of family life in the face of the massive social changes wrought by World War II. Children read prurient comic books and pulp fiction, listened to rock & roll, and generally ruined their minds by running wild, drinking Coke, and necking. Rebel Without a Cause is at once a depiction of these children's problems and an indictment of the parents who caused them.
- Questions to Think About:
- 1) How does Rebel Without a Cause address the relationships between adults and children?
- 2) Although many parents feared that their children would become juvenile delinquents if they watched it, Rebel Without a Cause is in actuality a call for a return to a more "traditional" family structure. Discuss the ways in which the children in this film attempt to remake the world in a pre-World War II mold.
- 3) Despite the title, the rebels in this film do have causes. Plato, Judy, and Jim come from dysfunctional families, and this results in their particular "causes" for rebellion. Trace the patterns of "dysfunction" in each character's family. To what might these dysfunctions have been attributed in the 1950s? What is the relationship between the ways in which each character's rebellion manifests itself (e.g., Plato's puppy-killing, Judy's makeup-wearing, Jim's pathological fear of being called "chicken") and the patterns of family dysfunction in each case?
- 4) In the film, several characters undergo transformations (Jim and Judy become "grown-ups," Jim's father reestablishes his masculinity) while others do not; the lack of resolution in several of the situations is important. What is the film saying about the possibility of resolving the "causes" of teenage rebellion? To what extent are these situations located in the historical moment (and the circumstances of that historical moment) and to what extent are they the same sorts of teenage problems that young people faced, say, in the 1850s?
- 5) In what ways do Judy and Jim change? Are these changes condoned by the film?
- 6) What is the view of The State (as represented by the various police presences throughout the film) presented in the film? Contextualize this view within the historical moment of the film.
- 7) Rebel Without a Cause was distinctive among juvenile delinquency films, because it dealt with the delinquency of middle class kids, rather than of working class kids as in The Wild One (1953) or Blackboard Jungle (1956). Discuss the class issues that came out in Rebel Without a Cause. Why would the rebellion of middle class youth be so threatening?
- Moments to watch for:
- Jim imitates Mr. Magoo (a cartoon character famously voiced by Jim Bachus, who plays Jim's father) when discussing what to do with children: "Heh heh, drown them like puppies, heh heh!" (which also connects back to Plato's original crime).
- The line, "You read to many comic books," thrown out by Jim when the gang is molesting his car, is a reference to stories in the headlines: Congressional hearings about the negative effects of comic books on juveniles, which resulted in the review code present even today (look for the little seal on the cover of comic books), and Fredric Wertham's sensational expose, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which blamed comic books for the erosion of youth morality and behavior.
Further resources and readings:
- Tim Dirks's Review of the film, with dialogue (excellent resource).
- IMDB resources for the film.
- James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (1986) and Another Chance: Postwar America, 1945-1985 (1986)
- Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988)
- Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (1983)
- Mark Thomas McGee and R.J. Robertson, The J. D. Films: Juvenile Delinquency in the Movies (1982)
- Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War (1982)
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for HST 622 (Cold War America), at The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York, Summer Semester 2000. Send email to email@example.com
Last modified: Tuesday 13 June 2000.