James Dean --- Part Two
I thought I’d come to the wrong place when Rebel Without A Cause started and those three neatly dressed teenagers filed into police headquarters. Now granted this movie was there to demonstrate how delinquency was a blight upon middle and upper-class neighborhoods as well as the ghettos, but honestly, how could Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and James Dean have represented any kind of real challenge to the status quo, even in 1955? Natalie’s adorable in a Warnercolor Teen Vogue outfit that suggests anything but a troublemaker, while Sal looks ready to crawl into a bassinet. Imagine an officer’s relief today if juvenile cases could be so benign and non-threatening as these! Sal and Jim are even wearing coat and tie --- but then so were other Rebel Without A Cause cast members when Warners arranged a field trip for them down to the local station house. It’s only a glimpse on one of the DVD extras, but there they all are, dressed as if for Sunday school and showing proper respect for L.A.’s law enforcement community. It really was an idyllic world back then. Jim Stark’s high school is an orderly environment where all the kids wear neat outfits (Natalie’s scarf!) and even the gang members lean toward natty sport shirts and leather jackets any of us oldsters would be thrilled to own. There’s also Cinemascope and color to put a candy-coated gloss on this picture postcard of Southern California before the real cultural breakdowns got underway. Rebel Without A Cause depicts the Sunny Cal that Herb Vigron imagined during that train ride in The Bandwagon --- pure sunlight, breathtaking views from nostalgic locations (especially the Griffith Park Observatory) and "troubled" kids who just needed a hug from Daddy.
I can fully appreciate James Dean’s popularity, and ongoing cult status, after watching Rebel Without A Cause. He plays his part like a star. If this guy’s an outsider, we should have all been Jim Stark on our first day at high school. It's clear he’ll succeed Buzz as leader of the pack, probably within days of the incidents dramatized here. After East Of Eden, there’s no way Dean was really going to play a geek. The perhaps unintended leadership qualities Jim Stark displays may have been the natural consequence of James Dean’s dominance over his fellow cast members, with much of the dialogue emphasizing his feelings of inadequacy being continually undercut by Dean’s studied application of movie star charisma during what was said to have been oft-improvised exchanges. He and Natalie and Sal are no more authentic teen-agers than any contract player Warners might have cast. They’re auditioning here for the transitional leap into adult stardom, and Dean in particular cunningly plays the attractively confused teen we’d all like to have been.
Wouldn’t it be great to go back and experience Rebel Without A Cause with first-run audiences during that fall and winter of 1955? No matter the quality of today’s presentation (and Warner’s DVD is superb), none of us will ever really comprehend the seismic effect this one had when it was new. We can appreciate how brilliantly calculated Rebel was in flattering its youthful audience with personalities and situations designed to make them feel good (or better) about themselves. Hollywood today could use a Nicholas Ray (and his writers) to teach them a thing or two about manufacturing teen product. My only complaint was the contrivance in Act Three. The stuff in the old mansion was fine, but all that chasing around with the gang and the extended police standoff got things a little crowded toward the end. Still, this is my favorite J.D. movie. It isn’t nasty or unpleasant like The Blackboard Jungle (I could just kill that Vic Morrow) and it has all the gloss and big studio money denied to AIP cheapies along the lines of High School Caesar, Runaway Daughters, and the like. Certainly they didn’t get this kind of coin --- $3.9 million in domestic rentals for Rebel Without A Cause (as opposed to the $334,000 Runaway Daughters brought back). Rebel scored overseas as well, with an additional $3.2 million in foreign rentals, for a worldwide $7.1. Final profit was a stunning $3.9 against a negative cost of $1.4 million (good as this was, it couldn’t touch the fantastic $9.0 earned by The Blackboard Jungle, easily the king dog of all the juve dramas, with an eventual profit of $4.9 million).
You think Dean’s cool? Well, after comparing Gig Young interview segments from the old Warner Brothers Presents series (included on the DVD), I’ve adopted Jim Backus as my role model for a suave and self-assured middle-age. The Dean footage we’ve known from a hundred documentaries and compilations --- he shuffles around in the Jett Rink outfit and mumbles something about road safety (and ironically, within weeks, he … no, I’ll spare you that). Backus I’d not seen before. His piece had been buried in Warner vaults since pterodactyls flew (or at least since the ABC 1955 broadcast date), so I had no idea what a cool, unflappable pro he was off-screen. Dean looks pathetic compared with this more than seasoned trouper. Could Jimmy have ever measured up to senior Jim’s level of relaxed professionalism? Imagine an alternate mid-sixties universe where James Dean not only lives, but winds up competing with Russell Johnson for the "Professor" role on Gilligan’s Island. I can imagine Sherwood Schwartz consulting with Jim Backus --- Hey Jim, you worked with this guy once when it looked like he’d be big; should we use him for this? Then Backus’ thoughtful reply, Yeah, why not? Maybe he’s learned a little something since then. Let’s give him a chance. After all, he was fairly good in that episode of Hawaiian Eye …