The Importance of Being Earnest: The Unusual Role of Kindness in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

(Originally written in 2005) After watching Rebel Without a Cause again, I was struck by how dated it seemed: the melodrama, the overacting, the fact that most of it was shot on a soundstage resembling a television show. Interestingly when I was younger and certainly more cynical and a helluva lot more critical about such things, I liked Rebel Without a Cause quite a bit. Growing up in the 80’s and cutting my teeth on the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, the sincerity of Dean rang true in spite of the hackneyed dialogue. It was a breath of fresh air in the midst of heroes who were sarcastic, indifferent, and invulnerable. An example of a subversive scene that illustrates the overall and affective tone of Rebel is near the end when Plato (Sal Mineo), Jim (James Dean), and Judy (Natalie Wood) are at the abandoned mansion and Plato falls asleep. Jim and Judy notice that Plato has on two different colored socks. They laugh, but then something really unique happens. Instead of deriding Plato or making fun of him, there is an identification that occurs when Dean says, ‘I’ve done that, haven’t you?” and Wood’s quickly nods saying she has. The two then go on to explore the house, but Dean does something else unique: he leaves a candle for Plato so he can see his way when he wakes up. Dean leaves one, takes one, and gives one to Wood’s character. These are simple and quiet gestures, but they are refreshing in the context of teenage drama’s that usually celebrate self indulgence and immediate gratification, not to mention humor that is almost always done at the expense of the other characters. Not so here. Instead, each identifies with the other, offering support and kindness. Small acts of kindness like this are so rare in teenage films that it really struck me as unique when I first saw it.

Another moment that seemed atypical was when Jim was going to school for the first day. He's walking in the door and accidentally steps on the school logo which is embedded in the sidewalk. When a guy yells at him and states what he did, Dean's character says, "I'm sorry, I'm new here, and I didn't know." Again, this seems like an insignificant scene, but it's actually quite radical. In a typical teenager film, Dean's character would have been defiant or at least sarcastic as he attempted to seem strong in a new and foreign environment. Dean doesn't do this at all but actually apologizes, presenting us with another subtle but subversive scene.
Watching the film again yesterday, it was also hard not to notice the overt misogyny. Dean says he wishes his father would just once belt his mother so she would know her place and stop bothering him. Dean’s main conflict with his father is not so much that he can’t offer him advice, but that his father is feminized, or more specifically, subservient to the feminine. When his father, Frank (Jim Backus) is cleaning up a tray he dropped “before mom sees it,” Jim (James Dean) says defiantly, “Let her see it!” To illustrate the gender confusion even more, we have Frank actually wearing an apron over his suit and tie.

On the other hand, while Jim is angry his dad won't assume his patriarchal position, we don’t see this strict role definition in his relationship with Judy. Both seem equal in a sense. He takes care of her and dotes on her to see if she is comfortable, etc., and he never demands she do anything. In fact, he talks to her much in the same way as he does with Plato, as a friend and equal.
In the end, in spite of seeming dated and melodramatic, we are left with a complicated and unique film. While the clothing and the one-liners have changed, the underlying themes seem still relevant to teenagers today.