Hollywood and the Rebel Image in the 1950s

Ron Briley

Memory, obscured by the omnipresent role of film and television in contemporary society, tends to hold two polar extreme images of the family, adolescents, and culture in what John Kenneth Galbraith termed the "affluent society" of the 1950s. The first stereotype may be found in such television comedies as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," "Father Knows Best," and "Leave It to Beaver," all of which championed the values of the so-called postwar liberal consensus. These images of blissful family life safe within the confines of suburbia, where life's most serious problem is that Beaver Cleaver has a "crush" on his fourth grade teacher, may be juxtaposed with the motorcycle and black leather jacket of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), and the apparently alienated youth portrayed by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). However, a closer examination of these films reveals that, behind the rebel images portrayed by Brando and Dean, Hollywood was not quite prepared to reject the mainstream values of that era.
Historian William Chafe defines the postwar consensus as extolling such values as "confidence in capitalism as an economic system, belief in the efficacy of reform, distaste for and disapproval of class conflict, and dedication to social unity at home as a means of fighting communism abroad." This consensus was based upon two cornerstone assumptions: that the structure of American society was sound and that the spread of communism was a clear and present danger to the United States.

While Republicans and Democrats might disagree about the means necessary to assure prosperity and security, they shared a common faith in capitalism, cooperation between business and government, anticommunism, progress, technology, patriotism, and the traditional family unit. Americans desired the security symbolized by the white picket fences of suburbia and the gray flannel suit of the corporate ladder climber. Increasing prosperity would solve all of America's problems, and there was no need for dissent. The growing pie would even provide for minority groups previously left out of the American dream. The American government was as understanding and reasonable as Ozzie Nelson and the other patriarchs of television sitcom.1

However, the corporate state failed to usher in a safe and secure world. As Michael Harrington documented in The Other America, pockets of poverty unseen in the tranquil suburbs inhabited by TV's idealized families were real nevertheless.2 Spy scandals, the explosion of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, and a shooting war in Korea reminded Americans that the world remained a very unpredictable place.

Beyond the White Picket Fence
Many family historians, among them Arlene Skolnick in Embittered Paradise, maintain that family realities in the postwar world failed to reflect the domestic peace portrayed on network television. Skolnick writes, "The 1950s were a unique interlude in the history of the American family, unlike any other decade in the twentieth century. Far from being the golden age of American family life, even the happiest families-and and especially the women in them-were haunted by contradictory demands and expectations. The upheavals of the following decades grew directly out of these contradictions."3
Contemporaries also recognized that the family values of the Nelsons, Andersons, and Cleavers were not uniformly accepted and practiced in the nation. In 1955, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver held hearings of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to investigate juvenile delinquency in the United States. Among the issues examined was whether Hollywood encouraged adolescent rebellion and criminal behavior. In support of the Subcommittee, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover asserted:

In the face of the nation's terrifying juvenile crime wave we are threatened with a flood of movies and television productions which flaunt indecency and applaud lawlessness. Not since the days when thousands passed the bier of the infamous John Dillinger and made him a virtual shrine have we witnessed such a brazen affront to our national conscience.4
Hoover and other concerned citizens were reacting to sensational stories of antisocial behavior by teens flaunting the mores of American middle class life. For example, out of small American towns-such as Borger, Texas, and Matton, Illinois-came accounts of teen "sex" clubs in which female members were initiated by having intercourse with male partners in the presence of other male club members. To maintain their standing in the club, the female initiates pledged to have sexual relations with a club member at least four times a month. Nahant, Massachusetts, provided the story of three middle class adolescent baby sitters who were bored with their jobs and stole eighteen thousand dollars, then going on a shopping spree in New York City before being discovered in a hotel room with prize fighter Wayne Eckhart.5

Needless to say, such tales terrified parents throughout the country. While sex clubs and grand theft were exceptional behavior rather than the norm, it was evident to both parents and teens that an adolescent subculture played a prominent role in defining teen behavior. In a Cosmopolitan article, writer Richard Gehman warned parents of "a vast determined band of blue-jeaned storm troopers, forcing us to do exactly as they dictate."6 In a less apocryphal fashion, David Halberstam, in his best selling The Fifties, observes, "A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music. There was nothing the parents could do: This new generation was armed with both money and the new inexpensive appliances with which to listen to it."7

Statistical analysis supports Halberstam's description of an emerging teen subculture and market with perhaps as much as ten million dollars in disposable income. While many parents and self-appointed guardians of American values bemoaned the rise of an adolescent culture-and its adoption of Elvis Presley as a hero and rock' n' roll music as its anthem-business and advertising catered to this new market. (At times, it seemed to dictate even the tastes of older Americans and parents who wanted to remain "forever young.") For example, in 1955, Chevrolet paid tribute to teen purchasing power when it marketed a V-8 engine "to create the image of a 'hot car' to attract the young market." Meanwhile, Life Magazine estimated that of the ten billion dollars in discretionary income at the disposal of teens, sixteen percent went to the entertainment industry, with the rest divided among fashion, grooming, automobiles, sporting equipment, and miscellaneous consumer goods.8

While the music industry was quick to embrace the emerging teen market, Hollywood, whose studio heads were used to addressing a family audience and relying upon their instincts, was reluctant to rely upon market research and the adolescent audience. Seeking to maintain some artistic credibility and a family orientation, but confronted with the challenge of television and new demographic patterns within the culture, Hollywood attempted to follow the suggestion of one exhibitor who proclaimed, "What we need today at the theatre is a gimmick to create an incentive for teenagers to come in to their neighborhood theatres, enjoy themselves, and bring their families with them."9

This is precisely what Hollywood seemed to do with teen icons Brando and Dean in The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. While ostensibly exploiting headlines regarding juvenile delinquency and antisocial behavior, and offering a teen audience handsome young rebels with whom they could identify and fantasize, the filmmakers actually maintained a hold upon their older middle class audience with conservative messages that undermined the rebellious image of the stars. Accordingly, in their analysis of these two movies, film historians Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy conclude, "The power of these films lies in their personal drama of identity crisis, not their social analysis in the tradition of the Depression and postwar message films."10

The Taming of The Wild One
If the final product is subject to a more conservative interpretation, it was clearly the intent of The Wild One's producer, Stanley Kramer, to make a film of social commentary on the conformity of American society in the 1950s. Originally titled The Cyclists Raid, the film was based upon a Harper's magazine piece about the descent of four thousand members of a motorcycle club on the hamlet of Hollister, California, during the weekend of July 4, 1947. Inebriated bikers committed several acts of vandalism, in addition to endangering public safety during drag racing activities along the main streets. Following a weekend of debauchery, the bikers left the hamlet a physical wreck, although there were no reported acts of rape or assault against townspeople.
Kramer was attracted to the story, as it "touched my sense of social responsibility, and I thought it would make a good movie." The alienated cyclists were an indication that not everyone was content with the values of middle class America, and that some young people were feeling marginalized within the affluent society. Kramer included actual cyclists in the production, observing that much of the film's dialogue was taken from conversations with the bikers, including perhaps the most famous line of the film. When Johnny (Marlon Brando), the leader of the motorcycle gang, is asked by a young woman from the town, "What are you rebelling against?", he replies, "Well, what ya got?"11

Like Kramer, Brando was attracted to the possibilities of the film as a critique of postwar American society. According to biographer Peter Manso, the temperamental star insisted the film had " to show the citizens of Hollister for what they were: drones and Babbits responding to the leather-jacketed bikers with a hysteria that had driven the group to violence in the first place."12 In other words, the film was to focus upon outsiders who rejected the status quo. However, these radical sentiments expressed in the script by writer John Paxton quickly ran into trouble with champions of the liberal consensus, who argued that the film would give aid and comfort to communist critics of American society. Jack Viszard, in charge of industry self-censorship, exclaimed, "By God, if they tried to do that to a town where I lived, I'd shoot 'em first and ask questions

later."13 Paxton returned to his typewriter and provided script alterations that left the film's message enigmatic. A disenchanted Brando became more withdrawn and quarreled with director Laslo Benedek as the film lost much of its impetus and direction.

The Wild One opens with an establishing shot of an open highway, but the screen is soon filled with the image of motorcycles and black-leather-clad bikers. However, the impact of this visual is reduced by a voiceover in which Brando suggests that what the audience is about to see could not happen again. Brando states, "A girl got to me. I changed." Immediately, the idea is introduced that all these rebels need is a domesticating influence; perhaps these bikers could be rehabilitated into the American mainstream through a relationship with the right woman.

The idea that Johnny, the leader of the Blue Devils Motorcycle Club, hearkens for some type of middle class respectability is further suggested by the opening scene of the film, in which the gang crashes a legitimate motorcycle race complete with spectators and an organized competition. Before being chased away by the local authorities, one of Johnny's followers steals a trophy and presents it to Johnny. Even though it is only a second place trophy, Johnny is quite taken with this traditional symbol of success and accomplishment, attaching it to his motorcycle and clinging to it until the final moment of the film.

In the next scene, the gang pulls into a small town for gasoline, and ends up staying for the day when one of the bikers, Crazy, has an accident with a local citizen. Johnny decides that they should wait until a doctor has the opportunity to treat Crazy. Playing a key role in Johnny's decision to stay is his attraction for a waitress, Kathy (Mary Murphy), at Bleeker's Cafe. While Kathy's uncle, who owns the café, welcomes the bikers' business-implying that a good capitalist is not averse to profiting from these apparent rebels-an obviously attracted Kathy rejects Johnny's advances. As a dejected Johnny is preparing to lead his gang out of town, he is accosted by the leader of a rival gang, Chino (Lee Marvin), who attempts to steal his trophy. They fight, and in comparison with the loud, drunken, stumbling, stubble-faced, cigar-chewing Chino, Johnny appears to personify the more traditional values of a quiet man seeking to defend his symbol of social acceptance.

Subdued by Johnny, a belligerent Chino gets into a fight with a townsperson and is placed in jail. Angry that the policeman, who is Kathy's father, arrested Chino but not the local businessman with whom he quarreled, Johnny vows to keep the motorcycle groups in town until Chino is released. That evening many of the bikers, now quite inebriated, begin to get out of control, and some looting and vandalism occur. Several of the young motorcyclists chase Kathy, who is rescued by Johnny. In a deserted park, Kathy and Johnny attempt to make some sense of their lives.

Kathy asks Johnny where he is going. Like the alienated youth in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Johnny has no real answer to this question. The best he can muster is that "we just go"-that is, there is no direction. But Kathy is also adrift. She feels trapped in her small town existence, telling Johnny of her dream that some day a stranger will come into the cafe, order a cup of coffee, and rescue her from this boring life. She asks Johnny for his trophy, but when he fails to give it, runs away proclaiming that she wishes Johnny had some direction or that she was going some place. She concludes that the whole situation is just "crazy."

This ambiguous dialogue is open to interpretation. While Johnny's embrace of the open road and Kathy's rejection of her small town life may be perceived as an assault upon traditional values, it is also possible to view this scene as indicative of the power of the American dream. Thus, Kathy is Cinderella looking for her Prince Charming, and the omnipresent trophy becomes the symbol of middle class acceptability. But before a confused Johnny can fully contemplate the dream of life with Kathy in the suburbs, he is captured by a mob of locals and beaten up. This vigilante action may certainly be interpreted as a condemnation of the middle class emphasis upon protecting property values over human considerations. However, any effort to provide a broader sociological explanation for Johnny's rebellion is lost when the biker tells an angry citizen, "My old man used to hit harder than that."

Johnny escapes from his captors, but in a frenzied pursuit by a club-wielding mob, he is knocked off his motorcycle, which strikes and kills an elderly dishwasher. A small army of police from the neighboring county sheriff's office now arrive, and the town is once again brought under control. The bikers are forced to leave, but Johnny escapes a manslaughter charge when Kathy's uncle testifies that the death was an accident and not Johnny's fault. A sullen Johnny has his symbolic trophy returned and is told by the sheriff that he is lucky, but that he could have taken charge and prevented the chaos.

Ordered to get out of town, Johnny returns to Bleeker's Cafe for a very important epilogue. He enters the cafe and asks for a cup of coffee, setting up expectations that he will attempt to fulfill Kathy's dreams. But too much has happened for Johnny to immediately assume the role of Prince Charming. Although Johnny smiles for the first time in the film-as he gives Kathy his treasured racing trophy-he gets back on his motorcycle and roars out of town, much like the lonely hero of the Western genre riding off into the sunset. But perhaps all is not lost. Will he return for Kathy and the trophy signifying social responsibility and acceptance? Remember the introductory voiceover in which Johnny remarks that the girl got to him and he has changed?14

Whether intentionally or not, The Wild One leaves the viewer in confusion. The hero is clearly alienated from his society, while Kathy's experience does little to extol the virtues of life in small town America. On the other hand, the film suggests that love might be able to conquer Johnny's wanderlust, and the holy grail of the racing trophy indicates that Johnny is seeking social acceptance. But the cause of his discontent is never addressed.

Perhaps Brando best summed up the failure of The Wild One. Using jazz music, rather than the fledgling rebellious rock 'n' roll, the film sought to explain the psychology of the hipster. "But somewhere along the way we went off track. The result was that instead of finding why young people tend to bunch into groups that seek expression in violence, all that we did was show the violence."15 Any conclusion that the motorcycle gang members were rebels against the conformity and status quo of American society in the 1950s, or were alienated from their labor amidst the prosperity of the affluent society, was erased from the film. All the viewer was left with was a sense of teenage angst and alienation, but with no political context.

Rebel Without a Dad
Many film critics and admirers of James Dean argue that the alienated hero reached his apex with his performance as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. Critic David Dalton argues that James Dean, as film star, "merged the Teen Dream of nonconformity with the American Dream of success," while as Jim Stark, he "evolved a new community, and those who saw him became like him and took his message into themselves."16 Dean, with his alternating images of alienation and vulnerability, appealed to many teens who were trying to find their way through the confusions of 1950s culture. However, director Nicholas Ray's film adaptation of Rebel Without a Cause carries with it a most conservative message. Rather than challenging the values of the dominant culture, Dean's Jim Stark rebels in order to be accepted into society.17
The film begins in a police station where three youths wait to be picked up by their parents or guardians. Jim Stark has been arrested for public drunkenness, Judy (Natalie Wood) has broken curfew, and Plato (Sal Mineo) has shot a number of puppies. These adolescents are all from middle class homes, and the viewer quickly learns that their antisocial behavior is rooted in the failure of their parents to follow the middle class values extolled by television's stereotypical suburban families. Judy's father is incapable of dealing with his daughter's budding sexuality, while Judy needs a mate with whom she can express feelings once reserved for her father. Plato, whose parents are divorced but affluent, is being raised by an African American housekeeper. Away on business on his birthday, Plato's mother sends him a check, while the location of his father is left uncertain. Plato is searching for traditional parent figures.

The film's primary focus is on the difficulties between Jim and his parents, who do not assume the proper gender role models for the 1950s.18 Jim's father (Jim Backus) is dominated by both his wife and his mother, who lives with the family. There is no father who knows best available to Jim, although he does have the guidance of juvenile officer Ray, who seems to understand the problems confronting the teens. Ray represents the therapeutic state, which seeks to help individuals adjust to a society that is not at fault in this film. Thus, a reformist government, exemplified by Ray, will assist these families in working out internal conflicts, and there is certainly no reason for rebellion against the system.

But Jim does have a problem being accepted on his first day of school in a new town. Confronted by a gang who challenge Jim's manhood by calling him "chicken," he turns for advice to his father, who is shown at home wearing an apron and preparing a meal for his wife. Receiving no guidance from his father on how to be a man, Jim accepts the challenge from the gang's leader Buzz (Corey Allen) to engage in a drag race with stolen cars. The participants are to drive full speed toward the edge of a cliff, and the first driver to jump out of his car is the "chicken."

Jim escapes from his car before it crashes, but Buzz is killed when his jacket becomes entangled with the door handle. With regard to rebel images, it is interesting to note that Buzz is wearing the black leather jacket symbolic of an outlaw, while Jim is clad in a modest red jacket. In the final analysis, it is his rebel coat that leads to Buzz's death-an interesting point in light of Dean's own comment that in Rebel, he was looking for "something that would counteract The Wild One" and give teens who were not tough guys "something to identify with."19

Seeking to cope with the aftermath of this accident and receiving no support from his parents, Jim forms his own "family" with Buzz's former girlfriend, Judy, and the troubled Plato, who looks upon Jim and Judy as his surrogate parents. In order to escape the outlaw gang members, who want revenge and fear that Jim will reveal details of the car crash to officer Ray, the three find refuge in an abandoned mansion where they assume the role of a suburban family. When Plato, the child in this scenario, falls asleep, Jim and Judy retire upstairs. However, the sleeping Plato is soon awakened by the gang members, who have discovered the hiding place. Once again feeling abandoned by his parents, a frightened and angry Plato lashes out and shoots one of the boys. He then flees to a nearby planetarium where, earlier in the day, the students had attended a lecture in which a professor predicted the end of the world.

Jim, as father figure, refuses to desert his family, so he and Judy join Plato in the planetarium, which has been surrounded by the police. Hoping to save his friend's life, Jim convinces Plato to let him examine his gun, and removes the bullets. He then convinces Plato to come outside and talk with officer Ray, who has arrived at the scene with Jim's parents. However, the bright glare of police floodlights leads Plato to panic and reach for the gun. Not knowing that it has no bullets, the police shoot and kill Plato.

Ray and Jim have failed to rehabilitate Plato into the consensus values of 1950s society. But it is still possible for Jim and Judy to be reintegrated into the community. As the film concludes, both Ray's advice and Jim's efforts to form his own family have finally captured the attention of Jim's parents. After Plato's body has been removed, Jim turns to his parents and says, "Mom, Dad, this is Judy." Placing a protective arm around Judy, who has now found the proper subject for her affections, he leads her away. As Jim's mother starts to protest, she is immediately silenced by a stern look from Mr. Stark. Reduced to her properly submissive gender role, she smiles at her husband, who also places a protective male arm around the shoulder of the woman he loves. Traditional gender roles have been reestablished, and all is well.20

Rather than a rebel seeking to confront the system, Jim is in reality a conformist desiring to embrace traditional social values. He wants to be accepted, to see his parents find their traditional roles, and to find a proper mate so that he may begin his family and establish his own place within the affluent society. Eschewing any type of rock music background, the film teaches that the system works and that, indeed, there is no cause for rebellion.

While Rebel Without a Cause carries little of the ambiguity associated with The Wild One, both films clearly demonstrate Hollywood's ability to exploit social concerns and curiosity regarding adolescent behavior-along with the rebel images of stars such as Brando and Dean-to the conservative end of reinforcing traditional middle class values. It does not stretch credulity to imagine Johnny and Kathy, or Jim and Judy, assuming their place in the suburbs and inviting the neighbors over for a barbecue. Having gone through a phase of youthful questioning, they are now ready to assume their proper places alongside the Andersons and the Cleavers. The rebels of the 1960s would not come from the likes of Johnny and Jim. Rather, they would emerge from racial groups marginalized within American society, young men faced with the draft, and young women educated to uncertain futures-for all of whom the affluent society held its share of alienation and frustration.

1 For historical interpretations and sociological insights into the Cold War period of the 1950s see: John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, DATE); William H. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 185-187; William H. Whyte, Jr., The Organization Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957); David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny, The Lonely Crowd (New York: Doubleday, 1955); and Geoffrey Hodgson, America in Our Time (New York: Doubleday, 1976).
2 Michael Harrington, The Other America (New York:Macmillan, 1962.)
3 Arlene Skolnick, Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Basic Books, 1991), xviii.
4 U. S. Congress, Motion Pictures and Juvenile Delinquency: A Part of the Investigation of Juvenile Delinquency in the United States, 84th Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1956); and "Hoover Again Aims Fire at Crime Films," Motion Picture Herald (May 10, 1958), 20.
5 Eric F. Goldman, The Crucial Decade and After: America, 1945-1960 (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), 190-191; "These Brutal Young," Newsweek (March 25, 1957), 36-39; and James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
6 Richard Gehman, "That Nine Billion Dollars in Hot Little Hands," Cosmopolitan (November, 1957), 72.
7 David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Villard Books, 1993), 473; and Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1994).
8 "Catching the Customers of a Critical Age," Business Week (October 26, 1957), 88; and "A New $10 Billion Dollar Power: The U. S. Teen-Age Consumer," Life (August 31, 1954), 78.
9 James W. Morrison, "Teenage Incentive," Motion Picture Herald (January 5, 1957), 8; and Thomas Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 61-66.
10 Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair, and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 297. For additional information on the screen image of teen rebellion, see David M. Considine, The Cinema of Adolescence (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1985); Ruth M. Goldstein, The Screen Image of Youth (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980); and Terence Pettigrew, Raising Hell: The Rebel in the Movies (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986).
11 Donald Spoto, Stanley Kramer: Film Maker (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1978), 157-159.
12 Peter Manso, Brando (New York: Hyperion, 1994), 338.
13 Ibid., 340.
14 The Wild One (1953), Columbia Pictures, Director Laslo Benedek, Producer Stanley Kramer.
15 Quoted in Manso, 347. For additional background on Brando, consult Richard Schickel, Brando: A Life in our Times (New York: Atheneum, 1991).
16 David Dalton, James Dean: The Mutant King (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974), vii-viii and 262-263.
17 For an interpretation that also questions the rebellious nature of Rebel Without a Cause, see Peter Biskind, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 197-217.
18 For gender relations in the 1950s, see Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell Publishing, 1963). Friedan also provides a critique of Freudian psychology in the 1950s, which is exemplified in Rebel Without a Cause by the "Electra complex" relationship between Judy and her father. For Friedan's discussion of Freud, see The Feminine Mystique, 95-116.
19 Dalton, 262-263.
20 Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Warner Brothers, Director Nicholas Ray, Producer David

Ronald Briley teaches film history and is assistant headmaster of Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.