It looks as though we will have the first important movie to be made about kids of this generation,” wrote director Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place) in a memo to producer David Weisbart before starting his 11th film. Ray was only half right. Rebel Without a Cause, which opened on Oct. 26, 1955, turned out to be one of the most important movies about kids of any generation—a touchstone of inarticulate yearning and anger to stand with The Catcher in the Rye in eternal adolescent appeal. Even in TV prints that lop off nearly half the movie’s emotion-drenched CinemaScope visuals, its central truth comes hurtling through—what Ray summed up as ”a boy wants to be a man, quick.”
It matters, of course, that the boy was played by James Dean. But while Rebel is the main panel in the Dean triptych, the filming itself was a collaboration between an alienated director who thought of Hollywood as an out-to-lunch dad and a star who worked as if he were an action painter and the role of Jim Stark his canvas. Ray gave Dean a latitude rare for the time. Dennis Hopper, then 20 years old and cast as Goon, remembers the director calling ”Cut!” after Dean was nicked during the filming of the famous switchblade fight. ”Don’t you ever say f—ing ‘Cut,’ man!” the bleeding star raged at the director. ”If I get that close, I want it on film!”
The sense of collaboration extended to the entire cast and crew; they all felt as if they were the rebels and the film their cause. In the crucible of filming, hormones went berserk: Costar Natalie Wood slept with Dean but was having an affair with Ray. Hopper was in love with Wood, so he hated Ray. And Dean, according to the director, carried an unconsummated torch for Sal Mineo. ”I didn’t stop it because I knew it was helping the film,” Ray said later.
Four days into filming, Jack Warner ordered the existing black-and-white footage scrapped and the entire film shot in wide-screen color. He had seen Dean in East of Eden and realized that his juvenile-delinquency B flick was now a star vehicle. By the time Rebel opened, however, it served as Dean’s tombstone. The actor died in a car crash on Sept. 30, four weeks before the premiere. His death ensured the film’s commercial success and merged him forever in the popular eye with the movies’ most beautiful, brooding rebel.