The Tytell Timeloop: Rebel Without a Cause

Welcome to the Tytell Timeloop, a column where I (Tytell) look at old teen movies from different decades in chronological order (a Timeloop) to see what different times have to say about the teenage experience.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—Angstus teenagus variety: gang violence

In “Rebel Without a Cause,” 17-year-old Jim Stark (James Dean) moves to a new city where he immediately gets into trouble (the police find him drunk on the street before the opening credits). He makes new friends, like orphan Plato (Sal Mineo) and Mandatory Love Interest Judy (Natalie Wood), but he makes even more enemies. They drag him into a gauntlet of risky decisions that put his life and the lives of his companions at risk.

Social critique: What is the ideal form of masculinity?
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a coming-of-age film about a teenage boy focuses so heavily on masculinity, but it’s still fascinating to see what the 1950s had to say about the subject. Jim toys with some truly outrageous and disturbing ideas of how to be a good man. For example, a lot of Jim’s angst comes from him feeling like his dad isn’t acting masculine enough to put his wife in her place like he should (yikes).

Luckily, over the course of the stupid stuff he does eventually realizes that being a good man isn’t just about being macho and honoring hazardous duels but also about being considerate and protecting the people you care about.

Modern perspective:
The nuanced take on toxic masculinity keeps “Rebel Without a Cause” from aging too much. There are still quite a lot of dated comments and actions in this movie—it was the ‘50s, after all—but none are extreme enough to spoil the message entirely.

There’s something unique about this movie showing its protagonist being this (realistically) toxically masculine, since Hollywood no longer gives this level of recklessness and machismo to people the audience is supposed to root for. For better or for worse, it allows the movie to show Jim progress past his misguided ideals and become a better man to the point of being truly heroic by the end.
Also, I can’t not mention the fact that Jim has noticeably more chemistry with Plato than Judy; it’s a bit disconcerting at times. I’m sure someone has already written a very interesting and detailed queer analysis of this movie, so go search that up if you’re interested in that sort of thing (after you’re done reading, of course!).

Teenage Take: What did the 1950s have to say about being a teen?
Being a teenager is about understanding your place in the world by testing the boundaries of what you can and can’t control and learning from the decisions you make along the way.

Expect lots of:
Chicken (the insult), underage smoking, offscreen puppy murder, apron imasculation, chicken (the game), knifefights, gunfights, abandonment issues, daddy issues, mommy issues, mood swings, chicken (the animal) and jacket donation.

Should you watch it?
Honestly, the biggest struggle for me watching this movie was how slow-paced it is. The scenes are strong and impactful, but I spent an obscene amount of time impatiently waiting for something to happen while dramatic music played loudly in the background.

That and the humor that doesn’t quite land anymore drag the experience down a bit, but it could be far worse. If you’re in the mood for an old movie and you’re patient enough to pay attention then it’s certainly interesting to see for film history’s sake at least.

But watch at your own risk: I get the feeling that the movie is cursed since none of the leads lived past 45 and Dean didn’t even make it to the movie’s premiere…