I carried banned books by Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn), D.H. Lawrence (Sons and Lovers), and Allen Ginzberg’s recently published poem Howl, off the boat with me. United States customs agents had been seizing copies of Howl as obscene since March 25, 1955. I was prepared for confiscation and a good story, but I slipped past bored officials who didn’t give my suitcase a second glance.
We took a bus to the airport and waited for our plane ride home. The frantic pace and nervous energy in the airport lounge were nerve-wracking after the subdued pace of Europe, still barely on its knees and not yet striving. I felt back at age 12 in the suburbs of Connecticut, the kids around me anxiously adrift and frantically trying to conform, hoping to figure out who they were.
At Reed, the campus buzzed with discontent. While I was away the Un-American Activities Committee had come to Portland and subpoenaed Reed professors. Three refused to cooperate. Reed’s Board of Trustees suspended them. When Stanley Moore, a Professor of Philosophy, declined to tell the trustees whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party, they fired him. Two other professors said they were not communists and were re-instated.
Moore had received enthusiastic support from students and faculty. The Faculty Council called him “among the outstanding members of the faculty in terms of scholarly preparation, objectivity in the presentation of material and general effectiveness in the classroom.”
Moore’s firing pleased Portland’s business community, which supported the college financially. The leading Portland newspaper wrote: “… should Communists be allowed to teach? “No!” the Reed Trustees roared in reply, “No Communists should teach in the schools of this country, and particularly not at Reed College.” So much for academic freedom.
I had only been back in college a few weeks when, on September 30th, 1955, at age 24, actor James Dean died when his Porsche 550 Spyder collided head on with another car on a two-lane highway. His death emotionally devastated many young people. Dean embodied their alienation.
A month after his death, Rebel Without A Cause premiered in New York City and then opened across the country. Dean played Jim Stark, promoted as “the bad boy from a good family” in the ad campaign. Actually, Stark is one of the few good boys in the movie and he came from a dysfunctional family.
It was strange to watch Rebel Without a Cause in 2015, sixty years after I first saw it as a college sophomore. While the plot twists seem wildly improbable today, they were based on real events heavily covered by the era’s news media. The portrayal of 1950s’ alienation is dead on.
Stark’s father, a henpecked husband who wears a frilly apron for most of the movie, is weak and indecisive. Stark’s mother, a shrewish caricature of discontent, offers no love nor guidance. Stark sees no cultural model worth emulating. He doesn’t know where he belongs, feels alienated from the society around him.
What does it matter anyway? In a powerful scene that reflects the era’s fear of nuclear annihilation, an astronomer explains how man is of little consequence and demonstrates how the earth will eventually end in a flaming cataclysm!
The movie opens with Stark, drunk, lying in a puddle of water, caressing a stuffed animal, rain dripping on his face. He’s picked up by extremely respectful policemen who take him to the station and call his parents. The police psychiatrist is one of the only other good guys in the film. He befriends Stark who agrees to report back to the cops, presumably to help them end a plague of juvenile delinquency. Snitching was considered a good thing in the Fifties.
Juvenile delinquents are tormenting Stark at high school. Costumed in upper middle class clothing, they seem to be “the bad kids” from “the good families” the ad talked about. They relish tormenting others, giggle while inflicting pain and almost beat a kid to death. Natalie Wood, who plays the gang leader’s girlfriend, is as sadistic and nasty as the rest of them … until she switches her allegiance to Stark.
The penultimate scene is a game a chicken. Cars were the center of teenage life in the Fifties. You either had one yourself or you knew someone who did. They were our entertainment, our refuge from the adult world, where we proved our courage by reckless driving and learned about sex. I did some pretty stupid things in cars, rolling two of them before I was twenty, but I never played chicken. In chicken, two cars drive toward each other at top speed. The first driver to swerve is chicken. In the movie version, they drive toward a cliff over the Pacific Ocean.
Just before the drivers take off, the gang leader tells Stark, “You know, I kind of like you.” Stark asks, “Then why are we doing this?” The gang leader replies, “We gotta to do something.”
Two other juvenile delinquent films came out at about the same time, “Blackboard Jungle” and “The Wild One.” Variety hoped that the facts were “hideously exaggerated” and prayed that they would “never meet such youths except upon the motion picture screen.” Bosley Crowther of the New York Times thought. “There are some excruciating flashes of accuracy and truth in this film.” None of the contemporary critics saw Rebel Without a Cause as a reflection of 1950s’ alienation.