13 Wild Facts About Rebel Without a Cause
In 1955, director Nicholas Ray had a vision of a film about juvenile delinquents unlike any other in the subgenre. Rather than focusing on poor kids from an inner city, he envisioned a Romeo and Juliet-style tale about affluent teenagers who couldn’t relate to the lives of their parents, and who were looking for any outlet to release their disillusionment and anger. To achieve this vision, he consulted with experts, pushed for realism at every turn, and found a collaborator in a rising young actor named James Dean.
More than six decades after its release, Rebel Without a Cause remains the quintessential film about juvenile delinquents, fueled by Dean’s intense performance and Ray’s bold direction and given further mystique by the young star’s premature death just weeks before the film was released. Dean’s death made the film a must-see, but the making of the film made it a classic that endures today. So, from real fights among cast members to switchblades that really cut, here are 13 facts about the making of this landmark film.
1. IT’S BASED ON A REAL TEEN CRIMINAL.
The story of the making of Rebel Without a Cause actually goes back nearly a decade before it arrived in theaters in 1955, to a book of the same name by Dr. Robert Lindner. Published in 1944, the book was a case study of a young man named Harold who was then an inmate at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Sensing the topical appeal of the story, Warner Bros. purchased the rights to the book in early 1946, and it went through several writers (more on that in a moment) before going dormant. Then, in the 1950s, black and white films about rebellious teens—including The Wild One (1953) and The Blackboard Jungle (1955)—spiked in popularity. Director Nicholas Ray noticed this trend, and became interested in the idea of a film about juvenile delinquents.
In 1954 Ray brought his idea, in the form of a treatment called The Blind Run, to Warner Bros., who bought the idea and ultimately asked Ray to merge it with their existing ownership of the Rebel Without a Cause book. Ray ultimately took plenty of liberties with the story, and veered away from other hit delinquent films of the time, and their stories of teen criminals who only came from lower income areas. Ray wanted to focus on disillusionment and anger among even teens from seemingly comfortable, stable homes. With that goal in mind, work on what would become Rebel Without a Cause began.
2. AN EARLY DRAFT WAS WRITTEN BY DR. SEUSS.
In the years before Ray came aboard with his own pitch for The Blind Run, Rebel Without a Cause went through Warner Bros.’ development process, which included several writers taking a crack at adapting Lindner’s nonfiction book into an acceptable screenplay. Shortly after Warner Bros. bought the rights to Lindner’s book, Jacques Le Mareschal produced a treatment, and over the next several years writers Peter Viertel, H.L. Fishel, and Lindner himself would try their hand at producing a script. The most noteworthy name to emerge from these early stages of the writing process, though, comes in the Warner Bros. script archive listing of who did the first draft: Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known today as Dr. Seuss.
3. IT WAS ALMOST A MARLON BRANDO VEHICLE.
Warner Bros. went through several drafts of this early version of Rebel Without a Cause between from 1946 through 1949, and while the film never got off the ground during that period, the studio did at one point feel they were far enough along in the development process to consider a star for the project. In 1947, they took a chance and screen tested a young New York theater actor to play the rebel at the heart of the story, then envisioned as a much more psychopathic criminal than the disillusioned teen that Jim Stark ultimately became in Ray’s film. That actor was Marlon Brando, who was then enjoying Broadway success as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Of course, this version of Rebel never entered production, so Brando would have to wait for his big film break. It would come four years later, in the movie version of Streetcar, which earned him an Oscar nomination and made him into a rising icon. In 1953, he got the chance to play a rebellious young man after all, starring in The Wild One.
4. THE SCREENPLAY HAS AN INTERESTING MIX OF INFLUENCES.
As the writing process for the Rebel Without a Cause screenplay (the studio ultimately insisted on that title instead of Ray’s preferred The Blind Run) got underway, Ray and Warner Bros. butted heads over who should collaborate with him on the project. Ray wanted Clifford Odets to work on the script, but he was unavailable, and the studio instead hired Leon Uris, whose take on the project never quite meshed with what Ray was hoping for. Irving Shulman, who received a credit for the adaptation on the film, stepped into replace Uris, adding the Southern California setting, the first scene at the planetarium, and the “chickie run” car sequence based on real incidents he and Ray had read about. Then Stewart Stern came in, and though he may have initially been hired to collaborate with Shulman, later drafts became Stern’s alone as his sensibility and Ray’s merged.
With Stern on board, the film’s key influences emerged. Ray, hoping for a classic, timeless tone to his story, claimed Romeo and Juliet—“the best play written about juvenile delinquents”—as an inspiration, while Stern would later recall that he considered the film to be in some ways a new take on Peter Pan, with the crumbling mansion standing in for Neverland, Jim standing in for Peter, Judy for Wendy, and Plato for The Lost Boys. Perhaps most importantly, though, both Ray and Stern drew on their own lives, and Stern in particular took inspiration from his own relationship with his parents.
“[Ray] had terrible pangs of conscience about himself as a father, and I had terrible fury about myself as a son, and we both knew that that was a stream that was both shared in different ways,” Stern recalled.
5. NATALIE WOOD HAD TO FIGHT TO PLAY JUDY.
When it came to begin casting, Ray struggled to find an actress to play Judy, the girlfriend of a gang member who finds Jim and his disillusionment alluring and relatable. Among the top contenders at the time were Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Lois Smith (one of the studio’s choices), and Jayne Mansfield, who Ray reportedly actively resisted casting. One actress who was not a contender at first was Natalie Wood, who Ray was hesitant to consider because of her early career, and thus public reputation, as an innocent child star.
Wood finally won the role after she was involved in a car crash that also included future Rebel Without a Cause co-star Dennis Hopper, with whom she was romantically involved. When she was in the police station after the crash, Wood called Ray to pick her up, and when he arrived she informed him that one of the officers had referred to her as a juvenile delinquent.
"Now do I get the part?" Wood asked.
Ray relented, and Wood was ultimately nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
6. JAMES DEAN GOT THE PART BECAUSE ELIZABETH TAYLOR GOT PREGNANT.
Though the studio apparently considered Tab Hunter for the role of Jim at one point, Ray was intrigued by James Dean, who had yet to make his mark on Hollywood but had already shot his role as Caleb in East of Eden, which Ray saw early screenings of. Impressed with Dean, Ray wanted to cast him as the lead in Rebel, but another of Dean’s soon-to-be-legendary films was standing in the way: Giant, which was all set to start shooting at a time that would conflict with Rebel’s production. Then, a fortuitous development in the life of another of Giant’s stars changed everything: Elizabeth Taylor was pregnant, which meant the film had to be delayed until June of 1955. That freed Dean up to take another iconic role, the one that would define his legend more than any other.
7. RAY MADE THE SUPPORTING CAST GET INTO A REAL FIGHT AS AN AUDITION.
The pursuit of realism continued to the supporting cast, which was chosen from somewhere between 300 and 500 young actors who came to the Warner Bros. backlot with their own cars in an attempt to earn a spot in the film. Eventually, once that number was whittled down to a few dozen, Ray pushed the authenticity even further, and asked the actors to start a fight as if they were really in a gang.
“So we fought and some cars were smashed, some people were really hurt, and then Nick said cut, and that was that,” Jack Grinnage, who played Moose, recalled.
Later during production, Grinnage remarked to a co-star that he’d really love to see the footage Ray had gotten of the fight that day, and his co-star replied that there had never been any film in the camera.
8. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE SHOT IN BLACK AND WHITE.
It’s hard to imagine Rebel Without a Cause in anything but color now, in part because it’s hard to imagine seeing Dean without that striking red jacket he’s wearing on the film’s posters, but that wasn’t always the plan. Ray and Stern both believed that the film should be shot like a B movie, with a grittier style that was perfectly suited to black-and-white, and Ray even began production by shooting this way. Rebel Without a Cause was also being shot in the widescreen format CinemaScope, though (which frustrated Ray, who couldn’t figure out how to fill the frame), and it turned out there was a clause in the CinemaScope licensing agreement which said all CinemaScope films must also be color films. That, plus Warner Bros.'s desire to invest more in the film as juvenile delinquent pictures became even trendier, led to the switch.
9. A CO-STAR CONSULTED ON ALL OF THE GANG SCENES.
Ray and Dean’s drive for realism led them to various places, including police and psychiatric professionals, for consulting assistance on the film, but perhaps their most valuable resources came in the form of Frank Mazzola, who played the gang member Crunch. Mazzola, a graduate of Hollywood High School, was also a member of The Athenians, a gang that Mazzola himself referred to as a “social club” that was nonetheless very tough and territorial. After he joined the cast, Mazzola began remarking upon various “phony” elements of the script, as well as the wardrobe, the cars used, and more. Ray asked him if he could provide an example of real gang life, and Mazzola knew just where to look.
“So what I did is I called an Athenian meeting,” Mazzola recalled.
Mazzola gathered his friends and had them actually hassle Ray and Dean (who was not yet famous) as if they were really making a move on Athenian turf. Ray got the point rather quickly, and gave Mazzola an office next to his during production. From then on, Mazzola consulted on the script, the wardrobe, the cars (Dean’s 1949 Mercury was his idea), and the lingo. He even helped choreograph the knife fight based on a real encounter he had with another gang member.
10. RAY ENCOURAGED DEAN TO IMPROVISE.
By the time filming on Rebel Without a Cause began, Ray and Dean had more than a typical director/star relationship. Ray worked hard to get to know his young lead, hanging out with Dean in New York, getting drunk and smoking pot together, and then ultimately holding lengthy rehearsal sessions at Ray’s Chateau Marmont bungalow. As production began, Dean’s passion for Method acting led Ray to give him an extremely large share of creative control over each scene, to the point that it was often Dean who would dictate that pace and tone of a scene to the other actors.
"Jimmy did most of the directing. He gave us our lines; he dominated the entire thing,” Ann Doran, who played Jim’s mother, later recalled.
11. DEAN WAS INJURED MORE THAN ONCE DURING FILMING.
Ray and Dean both placed a lot of emphasis on the realism of each moment in Rebel Without a Cause, and Dean’s Method acting meant he wanted to place himself in the most authentic situations possible. Because the film is sometimes violent, that meant Dean often engaged in real physical violence for the part, and sometimes didn’t make it out unscathed. For the scene in which Jim drunkenly pounds on the desk in the police station, Dean apparently actually got drunk and then pounded the desk as hard as he could, breaking bones in his hand and leaving Ray forced to shoot around the bandages.
Then there was the switchblade fight between Jim and Buzz (Corey Allen), which was done with real blades, though certain precautions were taken (Dean can be seen in production stills placing padding under his shirt). At one point while shooting the fight, Allen reached out and actually cut Dean. Ray, alarmed that his star had been injured, called cut, and Dean was furious.
“Jimmy gets furious and grabs Nick and says ‘Don’t ever, ever say cut. Don’t ever, ever say cut to me. I’ll say cut if something’s wrong. Don’t you ever cut the scene,’” co-star Dennis Hopper later recalled, and noted that Dean wanted to preserve the realism of his injury for the camera. Dean was apparently so angry over Ray’s decision to stop the scene that he walked off the set in a rage and had to be coaxed back to filming.
12. DENNIS HOPPER AND NICHOLAS RAY NEARLY FOUGHT OVER NATALIE WOOD.
At the time she was cast in Rebel Without a Cause, Wood was romantically involved with Hopper, who was also set to co-star in the film. During the production, though, Wood also struck up an affair with Ray, and one day Hopper apparently discovered them together. The young actor challenged the director to a fist fight, and Ray’s preference was to simply fire Hopper and keep him away from the set. Warner Bros. wanted the young star to stick around, though, and so Ray settled for giving Hopper a smaller role, with no lines. That, the story goes, is why Hopper played Goon instead of Crunch (Mazzola’s eventual role) in the film.
13. ALL THREE LEADS MET TRAGIC EARLY DEATHS.
Thanks to East of Eden’s success that spring and early screenings of Rebel Without a Cause, by September of 1955 James Dean was on the verge of mega-stardom. The former film earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and the latter was good enough to convince Warner Bros. to offer him a long-term contract to lock his star power down. Then, on September 30, Dean tragically died in a car crash at the age of 24, less than a month before Rebel Without a Cause arrived in theaters.
Sadly, Dean was not the only member of the film’s cast to suffer a tragic early death. On February 12, 1976, Sal Mineo was murdered outside his Los Angeles apartment at the age of 37, and Natalie Wood famously and mysteriously drowned in the waters off Santa Catalina Island on November 29, 1981, at the age of 43.
Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents (2005)