Of all of the Hollywood genres that came and went, none were as quick to arrive, and just as quick to leave, as the James Dean lead rebellious teen genre of the mid 1950s. It started in 1955 with Blackboard Jungle. It starred Glenn Ford as man who goes to teach at an all boys school full of juvenile delinquents. The boys are disrespectful. They drink and smoke. They break the law.
That same year, James Dean, whose initials coincidentally matched juvenile delinquent, appeared in East of Eden. He was the very essence of the disassociated youth. Here was a young man who just needed his fathers love. Later that year came Rebel Without a Cause and the youth of the time had found their hero. Dean expressed his frustrations so openly that he spoke for all troubled teens. Even his personal life was of interest. He came from a broken home, and died due to his own recklessness.
Many films came out during this time that showed young people getting into trouble. There was Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957), Robert Vaughn in No Time to Be Young (1957). In Blue Denim (1959) Carole Lynley plays a teen who gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. In 1957 Broadway became a part of the teen angst movement with the debut of West Side Story. It features gangs that fought and killed each other. These kids roamed the streets staking claim to imaginary turf lines.
It is easy to see how these types of films struck a cord with its target audience. Up until this time teenagers were never treated seriously in movies. In the 1930s their was Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland putting on a show. In 1949, a teenage Shirley Temple acts ridiculous in an effort to get an older man’s attention in The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer. The only teens who got into any kind of trouble were the Dead End Kids, and they were for the most part harmless.
The Blackboard Jungle
The films of the mid to late 50s treated young adults as if they were actual humans with real problems. Plato, in Rebel Without a Cause killed puppies? His parents are never around. Judy’s parents live with her but her father is confused by her becoming a woman. Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause each hint that a character is gay.
Th lack of parental involvement is a reoccurring theme in these films. In BlackBoard Jungle, Glenn Ford blames World War II on the problem of delinquent adolescence. He says that when these boys were five years old their fathers went away to fight in a war, while their mothers went to work in the factories. He is definitely onto something. Any study on family makeup shows that children from a single parent home are more likely to get into trouble than those from a two parent home. That is probably why James Dean's films have remained relevant.
My brothers and I onced agreed that movies reflect the times. When West Side Story was finally made into a movie in 1961, the genre was pretty much over. Teens had decided to go to the beach with Annette and Frankie. Sure their were still troubled kids in the country, but the James Dean generation had grown up.