LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #11: Live Fast, Die Young – The Wild Ride of Making ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel

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Anyone who truly loves classic movies in general, but limit themselves to genres, or seeking certain categories such as specific decades or eras that you feel are more informative to your own lifetime – well, you’re missing out on some cinematic masterpieces that transcend time, history and place, providing more pleasure with multiple viewings.

Mainly because of the ill-defined ‘innocence’ and crippling censorship that the Hayes Code imposed upon the big-time movie studios of yesteryear, and the meticulous, behind-the-scenes scrutiny given to what today could be considered the most chaste of character portrayals, ‘golly-gee’ dialogue, and avoidance of serious social issues and graphic visuals whose restrictions are most rightly associated with those first 27-30 years (post 1932) of the new, revolutionary art form of the cinema and the vast potential that seemed to be squandered away in those early productions, one really cannot be blamed for passing over classics they have seen thousands of different ‘clips’ from, filtered through the television and internet and other mediums in entirely alien concepts, and who have heard their plots and climaxes without ever seeing them. (‘It’s A Wonderful Life‘? Wait, Jimmy Stewart does redeem himself in the end? Bogie and Bacall actually break up at the end of ‘Casablanca’?)

But one exquisite example of subversive, and authority-challenging, 1950’s films that has stayed with this writer for nearly twenty years is a 1957 black-and-white movie called A Face In The Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan. It’s the story of the rise and fall of an unlikely radio, then- television personality named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drunken, crude, volatile ex-con drifter, played with underlying menace and deceptively off-hand charisma by Andy Griffith (!), who captures the attention of an ambitious radio producer (Patricia Neal) tape-recording ‘authentic’ southern, small-town people and their quaint visions of life for a radio program, after his arrest and jailing for drunken violence that leaves no doubt that this is one of many previous incarcerations for him. Anyone familiar with the gregarious, affable Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, which Griffith would eventually portray, is immediately taken aback from the very first closeup we see of him, being awakened from a drunken stupor and turning towards the camera with such instant rage that makes a ‘jump-in-your-seat’ moment as riveting and memorable as Anthony Perkins’ first appearance in the shower scene of Psycho or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

The movie itself is a revelation in cinematic history, presented in an uncharacteristically ‘modern’, media-savvy story, using actual television personalities of the time (like John Cameron Swayze and a young newcomer newsman named Mike Wallace): this ‘in-the-moment’ film, with provocative language we would blush at even today, such as Andy-effin’-Griffith shoving and calling one of his servants a “black ape,” or telling a prostitute in his hotel room to pick up some dishes and pretend to be a housekeeper when Patricia Neal’s character calls on him unexpectedly, is as original and exciting to watch as it probably was ‘shocking’ to the Eisenhower audience of the late fifties. Though nothing erotic or graphic is shown, the viewer, along with Neal’s character, is all-too-aware that the ‘housekeeper’ and Griffith’s character have spent the night together, which is obvious from Griffith’s suggestive looks and macho demeanor alone, which only arouses Neal’s character more – the scene could not be any more ‘graphic’ than the strictly-forbidden ‘man and woman in bed together’ ban in movies that had existed for years prior. To a then-twenty-something film lover just beginning to discover the old classics he had only read about previously, here was nothing any less shocking (or titillating) than William Hurt and Kathleen Turner burning up the screen in ‘Body Heat’ thirty years later.

But books like ‘Live Fast, Die Young’, carefully and enthusiastically disseminating the creation of classic movies that we only associate with iconic scenes in the ‘moldy, outdated’ films (Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, Gable’s shocking use of the word ‘damn’ at the end of Gone With the Wind), are essential reminders of just how much subsequent generations have been missing out on – learning the various techniques, subversive approaches and desperate leaps of faith in the making of these ground-breaking films, along with all the various ‘offstage’ scandals and melodramatic events that were at times as much a factor in molding and distinguishing these films as the subjects they presented to us.

The authors of ‘Live Fast, Die Young’ have written a book that a true classic-movie lover/historian lives for: an in-depth, carefully-researched and detailed history of the making of the iconic James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause, so rewarding in its excellent mix of informative insight into virtually every single aspect of this film’s creation: its trio of iconic stars and visionary director, Nicholas Ray; and the battles, compromises and passionate dedication in bringing this story and the radical-for-his-time director’s vision to the big screen, along with the story of how a young, complex and dynamically intriguing and exciting actor named James Dean turned an unfocused, subversive story of teenage anguish into a film classic for the ages, and gave voice to a generation in search of validity and an identity that had yet to be defined (the word ‘teenager’ had only existed for a decade or so, but had never been of any notable importance in our language as more than a mere descriptor for statistical purposes).

The authors provide a thorough background story to Rebel‘s beginnings as a cautionary novel of ‘youth in revolt’, with a fairly generic approach, but no less unique in its thematic narrative, from the dynamic director Nicholas Ray’s introduction to such, that would come to be almost entirely re-written by the film’s finish, to suit not only his own aesthetics but more importantly conforming to the enigmatic, moody, self-destructive nature and independence of arguably the greatest actor who ever lived, a twenty-three-year old force of imprecise nature known as James Dean, that only his tragically-sudden death, after only three motion pictures, deprived him of reinventing (along with Brando, DeNiro, and others) the very foundation of motion picture performance in the following years. The story of the extremely complex relationship James Dean and Nicholas Ray shared throughout the production of Rebel is itself a student / mentor story, at times reversed and always fascinating in its dynamic.

But allow the ‘gossip-whore’ in me to assure all movie star and show business scandal/secret fanatics that this book delivers the goods big time. So much so that, revealing director Ray discovered his 13-year-old son in bed with his second wife Gloria Grahame, the very afternoon the boy had just met her after travelling 3,000 miles across country to visit his father from military school, unannounced, is not being near “spoilish,” as this Oedipal occasion is revealed in the first three pages.

The authors would have a quite satisfying, complete book with just the ‘making of’ story, which takes precisely 219 and 1/2 pages. The 20-page recreation of James Dean’s final days and subsequent reaction to his death gives the book even more gravitas, when it could easily have been dispensed with in a few pages without diluting the original premise. Upon seeing there were another 60 pages left to go, I was a bit wary of getting impatient with all the ‘afterwards’ to follow, and did get a bit restless with a rundown of all the enduring merchandising, subsequent worshiping and continuing popularity of Dean and Rebel product. But not to fear: upon realizing that the authors are telling an equally compelling story of the two surviving stars (Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo) and the very colorful Ray’s final years, I settled back in and enjoyed it just as much as I did the ‘making of Rebel‘ story.

Along the way, we are informed of many worthy-to-ponder psychological and behavioral (both domestic and worldwide) aspects directly influenced by both James Dean and Rebel even to the present time- consider a Chinese billionaire known as ‘The Biggest James Dean Fan’, who spent a few gazillion yen or yang to construct a monument in Dean’s tribute.

The obvious commitmment of Franscella and Weisel to this book is clearly evident, from its evocative reminiscences of scenes as they were being filmed, using very intimate and believable sources, both human and recorded through studio communications records, to the revealing story that may have vanished into obscurity had it not been so poignantly told here, of the African-American actress portraying Sal Mineo’s character’s nanny, a small but essential presence in the film who was all but forgotten in the overall discussions of the movie itself (and beyond).

Personally, I was struck by the incredibly short amount of time between James Dean’s filming of Rebel and his death from a car crash, while in between completing his third and last movie, Giant, with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Rebel‘s final day of shooting was May 27, 1955 – James Dean was killed on September 30, 1955, barely four months later, with only his debut film, East of Eden, having yet been released.

I have Rebel on DVD and will start watching it as soon as this review is finished. I saw bits and pieces of it on TV growing up, but without ever really experiencing the movie. As an example, I fell asleep during the first half hour of A Few Good Men on my initial viewing, before seeing the entire movie later under more ‘appropriate’ circumstances, and have watched it multiple times since – we’re not in the same condition or disposition to watch a movie with any sustained interest every single time.

I did not want to view this movie before I had reviewed the book, but I at least know that, whatever reaction I have towards the actual film, it will not change the the quality and page-turning fun of reading this true labor of love, that covers all the details.

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