Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rebel Without A Father

Stewart Stern is full of stories of old Hollywood. He is the nephew of Adolf Zukor, one of the pioneers of Paramount pictures, and cousins with the Loews family that used to control MGM. He told one story about sitting down on a couch at a party in Los Angeles and chatting up a bored Marilyn Monroe then told us about how after "Jimmy" Dean died he (and others close to him) felt haunted by his ghost. He described the Tiffany arboretum that was a part of the Loews mansion in Long Island that also served as inspiration for the mansion at the end of Rebel Without a Cause. He spoke of how his house guest, Beatrice Lillie, was so funny that he had to fake taking a trip to Palm Springs to escape her company because her jokes were so distracting to his work. Where did end up? The Chateau Marmot where he hung out with Dennis Hopper and eventually wrote the script for Rebel after meeting director Nicholas Ray. At 88 he is one of the few people left with such strong ties to old Hollywood. So when I raised my hand to ask my one question at the Northwest Film Forum presentation of "An Afternoon with Stewart Stern" screening I just really hoped that he didn't hit me with his cane, because it would have been like Marlon Brando (who he traveled through Asia with) and the rest of old Hollywood popping me one for making trouble and that would have been a little hard to handle for this film buff.

In America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies the authors use Rebel Without a Cause as an example of how film in the 1950s was full of images of masculinity in crisis: "The lingering effects of World War II and the new corporate economics of the 1950s were changing the social understanding of masculinity" (274). I had heard other readings of this film, but never that it was about a crisis in masculinity that was spurned by the effects of World War II. So, when spending an afternoon with the writer of the film I had to ask the question: "Do you believe that Rebel Without A Cause represents a 'crisis in masculinity' that was culturally present in 1950s America?"

After taking a long pause he replied, "Well, before World War II you always brought women corsages if you were taking them out on a date. After the war you didn't do that any more."

I have never heard someone describe shifting gender roles in such an eloquent way.

Stern stated said that the fathers in the film were influenced by the monotony that the 1950s man encountered as working life and gender roles shifted in the wake of World War II. He said, "They felt like drones. They went to work. They might play cards once a week. But that was it." One audience member put the blame on the masculine crisis on the Rosie-the-Riveter women who, after working the factories while the men were off fighting, continued to challenge gender roles after the end of the war. However, Stern was not so quick to judge stating that after World War II, "Fathers were loosing ground." He also admitted that there was little emotional support for the men returning from combat and that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was a part of society, but not dealt with in a public forum. This undercurrent of emotion from wartime experiences were causing men to display feelings that, before the war, were traditionally "bottled up" and masculinity started to crack under the psychological pressure.

The display of masculinity in crisis embodied in Rebel in the character of Jim's father Frank Stark, played by Jim Backus. In one scene Frank drops a tray of food that he is taking his wife as Jim, James Dean's character, walks up the stairs. Frank is dressed in a gray suit with a flowery apron on which allegedly belongs to his wife. Jim is horrified to see his father on the floor and yells at him "Don't!" When Frank looks confused as to what Jim is referring to, Jim slinks off to his room upset at his father's emasculation at the hands of his overbearing mother. In fact, Stern hinted that the cold bottle of milk that Jim drinks throughout the film upon returning home is supposed to represent his mother - cold, ineffectual.

In fact, Jim's entire rebellion can be traced back to his feelings towards his "inadequate" father. Indeed, at the beginning of the film, Jim tells the juvenile detective that "She eats him alive and he just takes it." And later: "If he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy, and she'd stop picking on him." Hinting that want he wants out of his father is the traditional role model of violent patriarchy and, in fact, that his mother might like that. In fact, the detective puts Jim into his place after he takes a swing, asserting his own place as an appropriate male role model through physical combat. Towards the end of the film, since Jim does not respect his father as a role model, he returns to the police station to try and find the detective to share his problems with. However, he is let down when he finds out that the detective is not there.

Stern said that to do background research to write the film, he spent several months shadowing a real juvenile detective. Much of the background for the main characters - Jim, Judy, and Plato - came out of this experience. In fact, Stern actually noted in his journal that one of the real-life inspirations was "In his mind searching for a father image..." But it was something that he could not find. True, neither Jim, Judy, or Plato could find the type of father figure that they wanted so they created their own family briefly in the abandoned mansion. So while the film is called Rebel Without A Cause, the truth is that the characters are actually rebelling against the oldest reason in the book - their fathers - and the fear of changing masculinity that they represent to 1950s America.


  1. I found the way Rebel equated femininity with inadequacy to be especially shocking in context of the two other Nicholas Ray films I've seen - Bigger than Life and In a Lonely Place. In both of those films, Ray seems to side with the female lead as she faces the terrifying violence of masculinity run amok. Do you have any idea why this film is so different?

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