Youth Culture In The 1950s Movie Review Samples
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You’re tearing me apart; Jim Stark (James Dean) tells his mother in Rebel without a Cause (1955). Miller (Sidney Poitier) in Blackboard Jungle (1955) responds to Richard Dadier (Gleen Ford) who asks him not to call him chief, “Sure, ‘chief’. That's what I been doing all the time. Okay for us to drift now, ‘chief’?” Both films portray rebellious teenagers in America during the 1950s. While the 1950s was the era of Eisenhower, it was far from pleasant as crime was on the rise and youth were essentially a big part of that rise. Both films seem to portray a side of America that was never seen before. One film is set in the heart of New York City whilst the other takes place in suburban Los Angeles. What they have in common are teenagers willing to go against the system as to serve as a crystal ball to the looming disruptive 1960s.
The Blackboard Jungle was a monumental film for its time. It depicted unsavorily youth that had never been seen on screen before. The film is set in an inner city school in New York. Richard Dadier is a recent transfer who shows an inclination to help the students achieve their full potential. He has told by his colleagues not to bother as they cannot be taught. Despite being subjected to ridicule and suspicion by his students, he slowly wins them over. What is the most interesting in the film is that his classroom is a mixture of Asians, African-Americans, Latinos and Irish-Americans. It portrays juvenile delinquency realistically and with courage. For instance, a female teacher almost gets raped in the library. Some of the students in Dadier’s class are members of a gang and are intentionally disruptive. According to Kevin E. McCarty, “Societal issues of the 1950s -- from failings schools to race relations, from urban transitions to responses to crime, and from rock and roll to the Cold War -- were mixed in the film like the varied students were mixed in the classroom” (par.2). This was the dirty secret of the 1950s. Rock and roll was extremely popular and breakaway of the norms of previous generations. The film even incorporates a rock song into the film ‘Rock around the clock.’ It is played over the opening and closing credits so to symbolize rebellious youth. Rock and roll was the epitome of rebellion as young people rebelled against society, their parents and the system.
Rebel without a Cause is set in the suburbs of Los Angeles with a mostly white cast. Jim Stark, the protagonist, in the opening scene of the film is found on a sidewalk and taken to the police station. When he is picked up by his parents, they berate him for being drunk and disorderly. Jim is clearly anguished by his parents. The interesting aspect about Jim’s parents is the gender roles as Jim’s mother is the dominant force in the relationship whilst his father cannot stand up to his mother. This is again another example of how the film goes against the cultural norm of the 1950s where the wife stayed at home; the men worked coming home to attentive and loving children with a white picket fence. The film turns that idea on its head. Another instance where the film goes against the accepted culture is in the form of John "Plato" Crawford (Sal Mineo). Plato is infatuated with Jim and has absentee parents. He craves for attention which he does not receive. Another factor the film insinuates is that he is gay. 1950’s America was not receptive to homosexuality and the idea of two men lying together was revolting. The way Plato looks at Jim with longing eyes is similar to a young man pining for a pretty girl. According to Tim Dirks, “It has been surmised that Sal Mineo's teen-aged character in the film was obviously gay and troubled by typical problems of in-the-closet homosexuals in the 50s - the film disguises his problems, but hints at the possibility that he is seeking out Dean's character because he rejects fake machismo” (par.5). Human sexuality of all forms is a recurring theme in the film. For instance, take the character of Judy (Natalie Wood). She eventually becomes the love interest of Jim. She is also in the police station the night Jim is brought in. She is mistaken for a prostitute as she dresses in racy with lots of makeup and hanging on a sidewalk. She craves for the attention of her father. In another scene, she gives her father a kiss on the cheek and he is astonished by her. The film seems to suggest that Judy has a sexual attraction to her father. It is twist on the 1950s stereotype of loving children. The film depicts the hypocrisy of the 1950s with its attention to repressed homosexuality, dysfunctional homes and well as sexual intercourse amongst the youth.
Both films represent an America that was all too real. They provided a breakaway from conventional storytelling and norms that plagued cinema at the time. They inspired other similar films like To Sir, With Love (1967) and Dangerous Minds (1995). Rebel without a Cause could have been a cheesy teeny bopper comedy but it was so much more. Blackboard Jungle could just been a film getting a few unruly children in class to learn. It went the other way with its depiction of violence, rape and youth can get up in the malarkey that comes within an impoverished area. But there are a few similarities. Both Jim and Miller are young men who come from dysfunctional homes. They are both heroes of their respective films with Jim being the surrogate father figure to Plato and Miller proving to be a pillar of support to his teacher in their time of need. They both start off as unsavory characters that gradually show their true colors in each act. Another similarity was the depiction of a couple sleeping together. In both film, the couple sleep in separate. This is more likely a product of censorship that plagues the industry at the time. It also shows an unwillingness of American society to depict real couples and intimacy on screen.
America has always been in a constant state of change. The 1950s proved to be poor lovechild to the 1960s as civil rights had picked up across the nation and schools had been desegregated. America being the melting point that it was began to boil over. Both films are a testament to the era with its dialogue, subtext and vivid imagery.
E. McCarthy, Kevin. "Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Theory in Blackboard Jungle." John Jay College of Criminal Justice 14.14 (2007): 318-27. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. <http://www.albany.edu/scj/jcjpc/vol14is4/McCarthy.pdf>.
Dirks, Tim. "Rebel Without A Cause (1955)." Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Film Site. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. <http://www.filmsite.org/rebel.html>.
Blackboard Jungle. Perf. Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier, Anne Francis. MGM, 1955. DVD.
Rebel without a Cause. Perf. James Dean Natalie Wood Sal Mineo. Warner Bros. Classics, 1955. DVD.
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