Surprising Facts About the 1955 Movie Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause marked the pinnacle of James Dean’s career, but it also marked the end of it. The brightest star in Hollywood passed away just one month before Nicholas Ray’s vision was released. Despite being released over 60 years ago, Warner Bros. poignant drama remains one of the most iconic movies to ever grace our screens.

Join us as we take a look at the little-known facts surrounding the movie, from production problems to illicit affairs. You’ll be surprised to learn how much free reign Dean had on set…

The Movie is Based on a Real Character

James Dean Side Eye
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It’s easy to assume that Rebel Without a Cause was the brainchild of a cigar-smoking Golden Age Hollywood executive. After all, James Dean needed a role like this, so they could’ve plucked something from thin air to accommodate him. However, the movie is actually based on a book by Dr. Robert Lindner.

The 1944 work wasn’t fiction, but a case study on a young man called Harold. At the time the book was written, Harold was an inmate at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. It didn’t take Warner Bros. long to stumble across the story and see that it would fit in well with the ’50s market.

The Final Result Was a Culmination of Two Ideas

Dean, Wood and Ray
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The material for the film wasn’t all pulled directly from the book. Although Warner Bros. bought the film rights to the literary work, it wasn’t until director Nicholas Ray approached them that something tangible was born. Ray wanted to make a movie about wayward teens, so the studio asked him to merge it with Rebel Without a Cause.

Ray took parts of the book and created a story that focused on disillusionment and anger in privileged adolescents. With his guidance, the tale became something far greater than anyone had expected. Wanting to produce something that stood out from the rest, Ray took great care with every element of production, from storyboarding to shooting.

Dr. Seuss Wrote an Early Script

Dr Seuss
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The studio had been trying to figure out a concept for the movie for some years before Ray introduced his vision. Plenty of writers were commissioned to create a screenplay, but nothing ever quite clicked. Dr. Lindner himself gave it a shot, but it was no use.

Many tried, but the most interesting of all was the unlikeliest of all. Children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, wrote the very first draft of the script. Unbeknownst to many, Geisel could do more than write tales about a cat in a hat. He was a poet, a screenwriter, and an avid filmmaker.

The Supporting Cast had to Fight for a Spot (Literally)

Rebel Without a Cause set
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It’s not unusual to have to fight to stand out from the rest in an audition, but it’s not often that actors have to get physical. Warner Bros. opened up the backlot to a few hundred hopeful supporting cast members. As they arrived in their cars, Ray narrowed it down to a few dozen.

To find the last shining few, Ray told those who remained to initiate a gang fight. Jack Grinnage, who landed the role of Moose, later recalled the unique audition. “So we fought and some cars were smashed, some people were really hurt, and then Nick said cut, and that was that.”

Marlon Brando Almost Starred

Marlon Brando Streetcar
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In the late ’40s, the legend that would become Marlon Brando was still an unknown actor. In the early stages of development in the pre-Ray years, the studio began to consider who they would cast as Jim Stark. At the time Marlon Brando was starring in the Broadway version of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

While the play was a hit, Brando had yet to reach the silver screen. Warner Bros. screen tested the actor, but it would never go further from there. Brando would later gain recognition for his role in the movie version of Streetcar which earned him an Oscar nomination.

There Were a Lot of Staff Changes

Set Rebel without a Cause
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ray and Warner Bros. had several disagreements over who he should be working with to create the screenplay. The studio introduced Leon Uris, but Ray didn’t like his approach. Then came Irving Shulman, who fared better and received an adaptation credit for his efforts. Finally, Stewart Stern settled in nicely.

“[Ray] had terrible pangs of conscience about himself as a father, and I had terrible fury about myself as a son,” Stern later explained. “And we both knew that that was a stream that was both shared in different ways.” The coupling proved to be a true meeting on the minds.

Natalie Wood Was Cast After a Car Crash

Natalie Wood Casting
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Natalie Wood fiercely wanted the part of Judy, but Ray couldn’t see past her child star image. Other actresses were considered, including Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Bake, and Jayne Mansfield. In the beginning, Woods had no chance at all.

It wasn’t until she was involved in a car crash with Dennis Hopper (who would also go on to star in the movie) that Ray saw her in a different light. Wood wisely called Ray to pick her up from the police station, telling him that an officer had called her a juvenile delinquent. Indignantly, she asked the director, “Now do I get the part?”

Elizabeth Taylor’s Pregnancy Got James Dean the Part

James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, Giant
Photo by Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

There was a host of young Hollywood heart-throbs out there to choose from, but Ray had noticed James Dean in an early screening of East of Eden. Impressed with the young actor, Ray wanted him for the role of Jim Stark. However, there was one problem: Dean’s career was already hotting up, and he was due to start work on Giant.

It looked like it wasn’t meant to be… until fate stepped in. Elizabeth Taylor, Dean’s co-star on Giant, fell pregnant. This forced the production of their movie to be moved forward to June of 1955, leaving Dean free to work on Rebel.

A Licensing Clause is the Reason the Film is in Color

Rebel Without a Cause Poster
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In the ’50s, color movies were still relatively new. A lot of pictures were still being made in black and white. Ray and Stern starting shooting Rebel in black and white to purposely create a grittier look. It wasn’t until a little while later that someone noticed this was a problem.

As they were using the widescreen shooting format CinemaScope, they weren’t legally allowed to shoot in black and white. A clause in the licensing agreement stipulated that anyone using CinemaScope must shoot it in color. While Ray and Stern were slightly disappointed, it ultimately paid off, thanks in part to Dean’s iconic red jacket.

The Actor Who Played Crunch was a Real Gang Member

Crunch
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ray and even Dean wanted to create a picture that was as realistic as possible, so they gathered as much information as they could from professionals. However, it wasn’t until Frank Mazzola came on-board as Crunch that they realized how far off the mark they were.

Mazzola attended Hollywood High School and was a member of a real gang called The Athenians. The actor wasted no time in calling out parts of the script and production that he saw as “phony”. He soon became a wealth of information for Ray, who gave him an office next to his own. Everything was run past him, from costumes to cars.

Ray and Dean were Hassled by a Gang

Dean and Gang
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As part of Frank Mazzola’s teachings on the authenticity of gang life, he decided to set up an Athenian meeting. Eager for Ray and Dean to get a real taste of what gang life was like, he got his gang member friends together to hassle the movie men. The Athenian’s intimidated the two stars so aggressively that they soon understood Mazzola’s point.

With Mazzola’s input, Rebel could’ve been an entirely different animal altogether. Continuity and believability were two essential elements that Ray knew he needed to pull the movie off. He lapped up every ounce of Mazzola’s help.

James Dean Had a Huge Influence on Set

Dean, Wood and Sal Mineo
Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images

By the time shooting on the movie began, Ray had great faith in Dean’s ability as an actor. In fact, he gave Dean a lot of free reign over the set, often allowing him to control certain aspects of the scene. Ann Doran, who played Mrs. Stark, later said, “Jimmy did most of the directing. He gave us our lines; he dominated the entire thing.”

Ray trusted Dean’s instincts so much that he often took the lead from him, and not the other way around. For an actor just starting out in his early twenties, this was a huge privilege.

Jim Stark was Supposed to be a Nerd

James Dean Brown Jacket
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It’s hard to imagine it now, but Ray and Stern originally wanted Jim Stark to come across as a bit of a nerd. They intended for him to wear glasses and a brown jacket, but after changing to color, this changed too. Warner Bros. wanted to shake up Stark’s image, as did costume designer Moss Mabry.

Ultimately, it was Mabry’s decision to have Stark wearing red. The red jacket became synonymous with James Dean after his death and the movie’s release. In fact, most images you see of the actor are of him wearing his light denim jeans and trademark jacket, which wasn’t his at all.

James Dean Injured Himself Multiple Times During Filming

Switchblade Scene
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As a method actor, Dean wanted to do as much as he possibly could. Given the movie’s violent nature, he often found himself in precariously violent situations. In the scene where Jim repeatedly hits the desk in the police station when he’s drunk, Dean really was drunk. And, he broke his hand.

In the switchblade fight scene between Jim and Buzz, Dean was accidentally slashed. Concerned, Ray called cut, which infuriated Dean. Dennis Hopper recalled, “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.’”

Ray Had an Affair with Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood on Swing
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Doe-eyed Natalie would may have had to fight for her role, but Ray soon became enchanted by her. The 44-year-old soon started an affair with Wood, who was just 16 at the time – and dating her co-star, Dennis Hopper.

Hopper allegedly discovered the two together and flew into a rage, challenging the director to a fight. Instead, Ray fired Hopper. The studio intervened as they favored the young actor, and a compromise was made. Instead of the bigger part of Crunch, Hopper played Goon, a gang member rarely seen and with no lines. As for Wood and Hopper’s relationship, they called cut on that, too.

Dean’s Death Helped Rebel Become a Success

James Dean Headstone
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During the production of Rebel, Dean’s fame was steadily on the rise. East of Eden had been a huge hit, earning him an Oscar nomination, and he was signed to Warner Bros. Sadly, on September 30, 1955, Dean perished in a car crash at the tender age of 24.

Rebel Without a Cause was due to be released in one month. Moviegoers flocked to theaters to see the tragic young icon’s last feature film, helping it become a great success. While it would’ve undeniably been a hit anyway, Dean’s passing increased its notoriety tenfold. Interestingly, none of the three lead actors would live to see old age. Sal Mineo was murdered outside of his LA apartment at 37 in 1976, while Wood would later drown in mysterious circumstances in 1981, age 43.

The Opening Scene was Entirely Improvised

Toy Monkey
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

The famous opening scene with Jim Stark and the toy monkey seems too genius to come out of thin air. However, it wasn’t scripted at all – just the pure and brilliant genius of James Dean. The cast and crew had been shooting for 24 hours straight when Dean asked Ray to roll the camera as he wanted to try something.

Ever trusting in his star, Ray did just that. The result was the now legendary opening scene. It’s a true testament to Dean’s impeccable talent and unmatched improvisation skills. Incidentally, Rebel was the only movie which Dean would ever get top billing for.

Residents Reported Production Lights as Forest Fires

Griffith Park Observatory
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These days, there are all sorts of ways that studios can inform local residents of scheduled filming. Social media, emails and other ways of communication are often used. Back in the ’50s, it was post or word of mouth, both of which were fallible.

When the crew began shooting at the Griffith Park Planetarium in Hollywood, the production lights began frightening downtown LA residents. Some were rattled enough to call the police, believing that they were raging wildfires. Of course, they were soon assured that it was nothing of the sort and continued their evenings without the presence of emergency services.

James Dean and Natalie Wood also Hooked Up

Natalie and James on set
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After his death, rumors of Dean’s private life become a hot topic. According to some sources, he had affairs with dozens of high-profile men and women. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando were all on notches on his bedpost. He reportedly even had a threesome with Judy Garland and John Carlyle, admitting, “I don’t really remember who did what to whom. Judy gave us some pills after popping a few herself.”

Natalie Wood would later discuss her own dalliances with Dean while filming Rebel, saying, “Sometimes Jimmy liked to hurt his partner and be hurt. I don’t go in for that.”

Ray and Dean Smoked a Lot of Pot

Ray and Dean Hanging Out
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Actors spending time with directors is a necessary part of movie making. When you’re working in such close proximity with someone else to create a vision, it’s only natural that you hang out. Ray went one step beyond, going the extra mile to get acquainted with his lead actor. He would often visit New York to party with Dean.

The two would get drunk and smoke copious amounts of pot before talking long into the night. Then, they would move on to Ray’s Chateau Marmont bungalow and spend hours upon hours rehearsing scenes and adjusting lines. Ray and Dean had a much closer bond than you might expect.