For a culture obsessed with the threat of foreign conspirators, plagued by a fear of economic relapse, and still deeply uncomfortable with race mixing, open rebellion of any kind spelled danger, and perhaps even the beginning of the end of post-war prosperity. Aggressive and out-spoken teens posed a particular problem for parents who worried that their children might pose a danger to themselves and to a fragile American society. These parents found no comfort in the rough-edged, blue-jean-wearing, chain-smoking teenage character portrayed by actor James Dean in the 1955 hit Hollywood film Rebel Without A Cause.
In the film, seventeen-year-old Jim Stark, played by Dean, frequently drinks, acts up in school, and challenges his parents, particularly his father, Frank Stark. His love interest is a young girl, Judy, a member of a gang who, like Jim, is often involved in confrontations with her parents and the police. The two befriend fifteen-year-old Plato, another troubled kid seeking meaning in his life and finding solace only in resisting his mother's authority. All three characters are plagued by anger, disappointment, and loneliness—and they blame their parents for it all.
In one particularly pivotal scene, the young Jim Stark carefully asks his father, Frank, for advice. "Suppose you had to do something, you had to go someplace and do this thing that was, you knew it was very dangerous, but it was a matter of honor, and you had to prove it," he says. "What would you do?"
Mr. Stark grills his teenage son on the details, wondering exactly what kind of "trouble" Jim has gotten himself into. He demands he be sensible. "I wouldn't make a hasty decision. Nobody can make a snap decision. We've got to consider the pros and cons. We'll get some paper and we'll make a list, and if we're still stuck, we'll get advice," he rambles, urgently.
Frustrated with his father's poor response, Jim seeks a more direct answer. "What can you do when you have to be a man?"
"Listen," Frank begins in an attempt to calm the boy and keep him in line, "you're at wonderful age. In ten years you'll look back on this... and then wish that..."
"Ten years," Jim responds, noticeably disappointed and, now, directly challenging his father. "I want it now, I want an answer now. I need one."
Sensing the worst, Frank attempts once more to pull his son back from whatever it is he has planned to do. "Listen, Jimbo, I'm just trying to show you how foolish you are. When you're older, you'll look back at this, and you'll, well, you'll laugh at yourself, for thinking that this is so important. It's not as if you are alone. This has happened to every body. It happened to me when I was your age, maybe a year older."
Jim stops listening because his father, he realizes, only pretends to understand him. He realizes he is alone and must make his decision without his father's guidance, and so he heads to a strip of road where he and his nemesis, the bully Buzz Gunderson, will race cars toward the edge of a cliff to determine who is a "chicken."
A parent's worst nightmare? Perhaps. For some, Rebel Without A Cause was a frightening tale about American youth—disillusioned, disrespectful, and destructive. The film presented middle-class fifties teens, however, with a role model in the cool Jim Stark, a recluse with a tough exterior, a kind heart, and the weight of the world on his shoulders. Jim's character confirmed the notion that they were significantly different from their parents and couldn't depend on them for guidance. Their authority figures, like Frank Stark, failed to take them seriously and cared only to confine them to a safe, practical (read: boring) life. James Dean and his character Jim Stark proved to them that only by resisting conformity could one find happiness, romance, and meaning. These teens craved risk, spontaneity, lust, and adventure... and all, preferably, without the approval of their parents, teachers, or clergymen.
Rock and roll music spoke to them in a way that no forties- and fifties-era pop music could. It offered young people alternatives to traditional rhythms, dances, words, styles, values, and attitudes. And teens equipped with spending money (employment rates for young people in the years following World War II remained high until the 1970s), cars, and transistor radios, it presented an accessible form of secret entertainment, the kind that could be enjoyed in the company of other teens and far from the eyes and ears of adults who might object.
It's no wonder that James Dean's character from Rebel Without a Cause remains to this day a symbol of '50s-era rock and roll youth culture, a generation that perceived itself as misunderstood, misled, and in need of something, some tradition they could call their own. The popularity of the film in the mid-fifties attests to the deep relationship between authority and rebellion in post-World War II America—a relationship that helped speed the rise of rock and roll music.