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"Powerful... So Powerful. Sensitive... So Sensitive." Happy Birthday, Rebel Without A Cause!

Rebel_Without_a_Cause_Poster By Michael Roe

54 years ago, today, Rebel Without a Cause was released, a film since deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. It was James Dean’s second film (and his second-to-last), and the movie that made the young man an icon. 

With All Hallow’s Eve just a few days away, I can’t help but think about how all three of Rebel’s stars -- Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo -- met untimely deaths, as did some (most) of those touched by the curse of James Dean’s car. Mostly, though, I’m reminded of how much rebelling has changed in just over half-a-century. In Rebel, “the bad boy from a good family” is shown publicly intoxicated, participating in both “chickie runs” and knife fights, and kicking in paintings and choking his dad down to the floor. God, I love the 1950’s! Today, for most, rebelling means sticking it to Wal*Mart by shopping exclusively at Target; considering oneself religious, but never feeling compelled to ever attend church; not watching American Idol; or, if you’re a hipster, trading in the PBR every now and then for a Cherry Lime Rickey, ‘cause, you know, unlike the dude in those commercials, you’re not old. You’re totally a rebel, hipster dude. I could tell right away by the anti-authority, distressed t-shirt with the retro corporate logo on the front that you bought at, yeah, Target.

Anyway, in other James Dean news, a few days ago, the Associated Press reported, “For sale: Stage where James Dean's career began.


James Dean on Fairmount High School stage. 1954. In 1988, Morrissey would sit on this same stage, recreating this photo for the video to his song, “Suedehead.” Photo by Dennis Stock.

As a Hoosier, the thought of Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, Indiana selling the stage that launched the actor’s career totally makes me want to do bad things. But, unfortunately, I’m sort of exhausted what with all my constant rebelling. I mean, almost everyday, I receive an action alert from the Center for Biological Diversity requesting that I take action on everything from protecting polar bear critical habitat to asking -- no, demanding -- the EPA ban mountaintop-removal coal mining. I don’t even think about it, ‘cause I’m a rebel, and words are my knife. Knives? Whatever. All this rebel knows is that within seconds of receiving the action alert, I’ve clicked on the link provided in the email and sent a form letter rebelling against both big oil and big coal. No need to thank me polar bears or mountaintops. Like Dean’s Jim Stark character (and Dean in real life), rebelling is how I get down. Don’t believe me? Get this, chickies. I don’t have health insurance. That’s right. Haven’t had health insurance in seven months. So, do-not-fuck-with-me. Seriously. Please, don’t. I can’t afford to see a doctor. And, if you do fuck with me, finish it, because I can barely afford generic aspirin.

When Rebel was released to theatres on October 27, 1955, Jimmy, as we Hoosiers prefer to call him, had already gone to the great method actors school in the sky, having died less than a month earlier after crashing his cursed Porsche 550 Spyder, “Little Bastard,” on California’s US Route 466, known today as Route 46.

I’ve driven Route 46 many times, and, each time, I drove right past the spot where the actor lived fast, died young, and left anything but a good looking corpse. I rarely even glanced at the memorial, let alone took the time to stop at the spot where his life ended and the legend began. I had no interest in where he died, although I have a great fascination with who he was and how he lived. Therefore, during my years in Los Angeles, I visited most of the places where Rebel Without a Cause was filmed, including Santa Monica High School (Dawson High in the film) and the Griffith Observatory. The place I’ve always felt closest to the icon, though, is where Jimmy’s story began -- on that high school stage. The school’s been closed for years now, and with the stage up for sale, it won’t be long before where it all began will be gone.

[Crying makes me more, not less of a rebel.]

Last week, while participating in the Goodwill Healthcare Plan (aka the Public’s Last Option) -- digging through the pockets of old suits looking for aspirin -- I came across a book by Jack Douglas called “A Funny Thing Happened to Me On My Way to the Grave.” Published in 1962, the book was written by one of Bob Hope’s former writers. I bought the it because I liked Hope, as well as because I liked the names of some of the chapters: Summertime and The Livin’ Is Ridiculous; New Year’s Eve In, I Think, Buffalo; With the Peace Corps In Sodom and Gomorrah; and, America After Dark, or Stereo Drunks. When I got home, I noticed there was a chapter called, The Day Jimmy Dean Died. Douglas wrote:

“The next time I saw Jimmy was on the morning of the day he was to die...

...A bunch of us [race car drivers] met at Jack McAfee’s... We were all leaving that morning to drive to Salinas for the races that weekend... After a cup of coffee, most of us took off, because it was quite a long drive to Salinas... When we left, Jimmy was leaning up against a greasy bench, sipping his coffee and looking off into space.”

Sipping my coffee and staring at the computer screen, it’s interesting to me (and only me, probably) how I’ve unknowingly followed in Dean’s footsteps: we both grew up in Indiana; we both moved to Los Angeles in our early 20’s; we both ended up on California’s Central Coast; and, finally, we both found ourselves back home again in Indiana. Today, the only thing separating the two of us is about a hundred mile stretch of road. Well, that and six feet of dirt. And, seeing as I’m 17 years older than Jimmy when he died, take high blood pressure meds, don’t have health insurance and constantly fuck with both big oil and big coal, I’m probably closer to following in his footsteps than ever before.

Happy anniversary, Rebel Without a Cause! See you next year... maybe.

Rebel Without A Cause, Original Theatrical Trailer

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