Rebel Without A Cause and Stewart Stern – Storyteller
As part of the current Stewart Stern – Storyteller series at the SIFF Cinema, I attended a screening of one of the classics, “Rebel Without a Cause“.
The screen writer Stewart Stern is currently a northwest native and a regular speaker over the years at the Seattle International Film Festival. His credits include “Sybil” (yes, the multiple personalities one with Sally Field in it), “Rachel Rachel”, and “The Ugly American” amongst others. At 88 years old, he’s one of the few people still around who has stories about the royalty of Hollywood’s Golden Age. This guy has first hand accounts from the McCarthy Blacklist Hearings for God’s sake! What a treasure trove!
Introducing the evening’s fare, he spoke for about half an hour. First, we were to see “Benjy” (not the one about the dog). This was a short film narrated by Henry Fonda that won the Best Documentary Oscar of 1951. Mr. Stern explained that this wouldn’t even be considered a documentary nowadays since it was scripted and used a mixture of professional and non-actors. The film follows a boy of the film’s namesake who has a crooked back, and profiles a children’s hospital that treated special needs children. The writer spent 10 days “undercover” in this hospital to get a sense of what went on there while doing research. The most elightening part of the film is seeing how far treatment of crippling ailments has come in almost 60 years, as well as how attitudes have changed about it. Mr. Stern seemed particularly proud of the production. It was good he was on hand to provide some context for that film.
Next, he covered what I am guessing was his thousandth introduction of “Rebel Without A Cause“. He still had some rather harsh words to say about the director, Nicholas Ray. I wasn’t aware that Ray had an affair with Natalie Wood during filming (she was only 16 at the time), as well as other females on the production staff. Apparently Ray was also a drinker and a credit hog. But the one positive that was mentioned was that Mr. Ray had the instinct to get out of James Dean’s way. There were a few instances in the film where Dean had an idea, and Ray let him make it happen, all to the film’s benefit. Very interesting stuff.
Mr. Stern also brought up some of the interesting tenets of writing. He mentioned a good use of unity of time (the whole movie takes place in 1 day), unity of place (all of the locations occur in the shadow of the planetarium which is prominent throughout the film), and creating a single defining image for the movie.
Now, on to the main event. When you first think of “Rebel Without A Cause“, most people usually have the indelible image of James Dean leaning up against his convertible in that red zip-up jacket, then they think of the classic Chicken-run Drag-race scene, then chuckle at how impossibly young Dennis Hopper seemed back then.
While audiences nowadays may try to excuse this film as a tame portrayal of disaffected youth with it’s switchblade knife fight and Natalie Wood’s poodle skirts, I’ve always thought it became a classic precisely because it shows that the 50’s weren’t so wholesome after all. The running theme of the disconnect between teenagers and their parents, summarized early on in the movie when Dean’s character screams “You, you say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again! “, still rings true today. All teenagers feel restless, pent-up frustration. They all feel their parents don’t understand or listen. And the parents in this movie ARE clueless and struggling. Regardless of the fashions and slang, those are universal truths.
Mr. Stern pointed out a few moments of iconography that proved interesting. In the opening, James Dean improvised the moment where he plays with the toy monkey and then lies in a fetal position next to it. He used that as an example of being able to reduce the theme of the film into one image. Dean’s character Jim is both the caregiver and the child in that moment. That encapsulates the confusion he experiences throughout the film. Oddly, the studio didn’t know what to do with it and ended up putting the title credits over the scene.
Also, the scene where Dean is drinking ice cold milk straight from the glass bottle and then rolls it around his face to cool himself off works as a symbol as well. The drink works as a substitute for his mother’s milk and also symbolizes her coldness. Truly interesting psychology taking place there.
A fascinating evening with a classic film and an interesting fixture from classic Hollywood…