Bag Girl Reviews: Rebel Without a Cause

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The Salem State chapter of MASSPIRG attempted to have a 1950s themed sock hop-fundraiser last Wednesday: no one but Jasmine and I and two or three of our MASSPIRG friends showed up, but that meant more pizza and popcorn for us. After about a half hour of waiting for people to arrive, we cut our losses and just decided to put on the movie Grease, the obvious if not cliche choice for a movie to put on during a 1950s themed party.  Our “sock hop” fizzled out around nine. When Jasmine and I returned to our dorm, I told her that I wanted to show her my favorite film from the 1950s, Rebel Without a Cause, the movie which made teen heart-throb James Dean into a Hollywood legend.

1955’s Rebel Without a Cause is a cautionary tale about the 50s social issue of juvenile delinquency. It focuses on a trio of troubled high school students, the rebellious but kindhearted Jim Stark (James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), the girlfriend of a local gang leader, and Plato (Sal Mineo), a disturbed outcast.  Jim (who in my headcanon is somehow related to Tony Stark AKA Iron Man) and his family move to the suburbs of Los Angeles after he got into unspecified trouble.  What gets Jim into trouble is a disdain for authority, stemming from his frustration with his henpecked and emasculated father (Jim Backus), who is unable to stand up to his controlling wife. During his rather eventful first day at his new school, Jim befriends Plato, the class weirdo and is antagonized by Buzz (Corey Allen), the header of a gang of delinquents whose girlfriend, Judy, Jim fancies. The antagonism of Buzz’s gang leads to a knife fight, a fatal chicken race, and Plato going on a suicidal rampage. 

Rebel Without a Cause examines the social and psychological reasons for juvenile delinquency: Jim is exasperated with his parents constantly bickering and his weak willed father’s failure to stand up for himself; Judy’s father has been distant since she hit adolescence, possibly, because he has insesteous feelings towards her; Plato’s parents are divorced, his father abandoned him, his mother is neglectful, and he is bullied at school. These three misfits deal with their feelings of alienation from their families and society by forming their own unconventional family unit with Jim as the father, Judy as the mother, and Plato as their child.  The character of Jim Stark, and by extension James Dean, is considered the archetype of the brooding 1950s bad boy but it is a surprize to the viewer to see how sensitive and noble Dean’s best known role is. In contrast to the trope that all girls in the 1950s liked abusive ass-holes, Jim’s essential goodness is what makes Judy attracted to him. Dean’s charisma makes it believable that she would fall in love with him and Plato would see him as a big brother/father figure/hero crush. It also really enjoy Sal Mineo as Plato. Mineo makes the character both psychotic and endearing and Plato is easily the most sympathetic character in the movie.  

The film shows that despite their flaws, its three main characters are good kids at heart. .  

It could not help but compare Rebel Without a Cause to Grease. While Grease both laughs at and revels in the cliches associated with the 1950s, Rebel Without a Cause is a deeper and more serious look at the decade, which is often seen through a fog of nostalgia and mockery.