Weirdness behind the scenes of Rebel Without a Cause


Knight and Day, the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz action comedy, opens this Wednesday in empty theaters, another of this summer's sausages ground out by the studios, or so's the buzz. Years of tinkering, a carousel of possible stars (Adam Sandler, Chris Tucker, Gerald Butler), the usual assortment of writers, three directors, three titles - it can't possibly be good.

Unless it is.

Movies suck, and harder lately, goes the meme, because of the increasing intrusion of suits into the filmmaking process, creating that downward spiral of quality and taste known as Development Hell. Not like the old days, as director Taylor Hackford reminisced last week, when "The Louis B. Mayers or the Harry Cohns of the world were always out there looking for commercial stuff that might sell, whatever it might be, but they also went with their gut on certain other things."

Here's a story from the old days.

In 1946, Jack Warner optioned a nonfiction book by Robert Lindner, a psychoanalyst who used hypnosis to treat a sociopath named Harold and wrote such cinematic sentences as, "No accounting of the psychopathic syndrome... can be considered even relatively complete if it confines itself solely to the precipitating mechanisms." The first draft was written by Theodor Seuss Geisel, who quit after it became apparent the producers had not read the book, and went back writing children's fare. Several drafts followed, including one by Peter Viertel (African Queen) and one co-written by Lindner himself. In 1947, a very young Marlon Brando screen tested for the part.

The project remained in limbo until 1954, when the success of black-and-white juvie movies - and media attention like Newsweek's cover, "Our Vicious Young Hoodlums: Is There Any Hope?" - prompted Warners to dust off the property for some down and dirty profit. They approached B-movie director Nicholas Ray, who had become fascinated with adolescent angst ever since he had caught his 13-year-old son Tony screwing his wife, Gloria Grahame. Ray responded with a treatment for a movie he wanted to call "Blind Run." The studio insisted he use the title of the book: "Rebel without a Cause."

Ray wanted the lefty playwright Clifford Odets; the studio insisted on Leon Uris, not yet the writer of Exodus. Uris' treatment "made me vomit," Ray later said. Then came a 164-page draft called "Juvenile Story" by novelist Irving Shulman (Amboy Dukes); in that one, Jim gets shot by police and Plato blows up his house with a grenade. The studio was ready to dump the project.

The artistic interference continued beyond the script. The studio wanted Tab Hunter and Debbie Reynolds in the James Dean and Natalie Wood roles; five days into shooting, the studio decided that based on the success of East of Eden, the film would now be in color and the scenes Dean wasn't in would have to be cut. Oh, and Dean would lose the glasses he wears in the black-and-white footage. Ray was forced to scrap his vision of the ending - Plato falls from atop the Planetarium - because it cost too much. After the first screening, Jack Warner told Ray to cut 45 minutes. And then the star died a month before the movie was released.

That film turned out all right.

(For more rebel hell and a lot of sex, read Live Fast, Die Young, by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel.)