The opening scene in the movie with Jim Stark and the toy monkey was improvised by James Dean after the production had been shooting for nearly 24 hours straight. He asked Nicholas Ray to roll the camera, that he wanted to do something. Ray obliged and the improvisation went on to become the famous opening scene.
James Dean got angry when Nicholas Ray stopped the knife fight scene after noticing that Dean had been cut on the ear and was bleeding. Dean said, "Don't you ever cut a scene while I'm having a real moment."
All three lead actors--James Dean, Sal Mineo--and Natalie Wood, died prematurely under tragic circumstances; Dean died in an automobile accident in September 1955, Mineo was stabbed to death on February 12, 1976, and Wood drowned in the late autumn of 1981. In addition, Edward Platt committed suicide in 1974 and Dennis Hopper fell ill suddenly in the fall of 2009 and died five months later.
In his article "Dangerous Talents," published in "Vanity Fair" in March 2005, Sam Kashner writes that director Nicholas Ray, screenwriter Stewart Stern, costar James Dean and Sal Mineo himself all intended for Mineo's character Plato to be subtly but definitely understood as gay. Kashner says that although the Production Code was still very much in force and forbade any mention of homosexuality, Ray, Dean, Mineo and Stern all worked together to insert restrained references to Plato's homosexuality and attraction to Jim, including the pinup photo of Alan Ladd on Plato's locker door, Plato's adoring looks at Jim, his loaded talk with Jim in the old mansion and even the name "Plato," named after the classical Greek philosopher Plato, who scholars generally agree was homosexual. For that mansion scene, Dean suggested to Mineo that Plato should "look at me the way I look at Natalie."
The empty pool in which the characters sit and discuss their lives first appeared in Sunset Blvd. (1950). The pool had been built specially for the earlier film, as a condition of renting the site from its owner, Mrs J. Paul Getty.
Natalie Wood was first considered too naive and wholesome for the role of Judy. She began changing her looks and eventually attracted the notice of director Nicholas Ray, who began an affair with her but still would not guarantee her the part, though he eventually relented. Both Ray and Wood later claimed that he changed his mind after she was in a car accident with Dennis Hopper and someone in the hospital called her a "goddamn juvenile delinquent". Wood soon yelled to Ray, "Did you hear what he called me, Nick?! He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?!"
Originally in the beginning of the movie, there was a gang beating up a father, who drops a toy on the sidewalk. The studio thought it was too violent, so it was cut. Jim Stark can be seen playing with the toy after he finds it on the ground during the opening credits
The living room of the Starks' house was based on Nicholas Ray's bungalow (he did something similar for In a Lonely Place (1950)). James Dean and other cast members would rehearse there, and Dean felt most comfortable there. It was Dean's idea for Jim to be placed between his parents during the climactic fight scene, to reflect his inner turmoil.
Dennis Hopper and Natalie Wood had a brief relationship during filming. Wood also had an affair with Nicholas Ray, which was scandalous due to the fact that she was only 16 while he was 43 and older than her father.
Marlon Brando filmed a screen test in New York City for an earlier, eventually abandoned, version of the film in 1947 on a break in rehearsals for the original Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire".
The movie was originally to be shot in black and white, and some scenes had already been filmed that way, when the studio decided to switch to color. The official explanation at the time was that Twentieth Century-Fox, which owned the wide-screen CinemaScope process, had ordered that all films shot in the process had to be in color, but some also believe that Warners ordered the switch to head off comparisons with Blackboard Jungle (1955) and because James Dean's increasing popularity gave the film more prestige.
Frank Mazzola, who plays "Crunch" in the film, was an actual street gang member when he was a student at Hollywood High School. He was a member of a gang called "The Athenians." As such, he served as a technical advisor to director Nicholas Ray and coached other actors as to street gang attitudes and mannerisms.
Originally based on a non-fiction work by Dr. Robert M. Lindner, about the hypno-analysis of a young criminal. Producer Jerry Wald intended to make a film of the work and commissioned several scripts, including one by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), and Marlon Brando was set to star at one point, but the project was eventually shelved. When the studio bought Nicholas Ray's treatment "The Blind Run" it asked him to use the title of Lindner's work, but the film doesn't include anything else from the book.
The writing credits for the film are as follows: Stewart Stern (screenplay), Nicholas Ray (story) and Irving Shulman (adaptation). In an interview published in "Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1999, Stern claims that he had never even seen "The Blind Run", the treatment for "Rebel" supposedly written by Ray. He said he was shocked when he learned that the director wanted to take sole story credit, as there had not been an actual story before he started writing the script. Stern admits that both Ray and Shulman had contributed to the story, and he believes that the credit should have been divided between the three of them. Later, the film received an Oscar nomination for the story alone, with only Ray being nominated for writing.
Ann Doran said, "Jimmy [James Dean] did most of the directing. He gave us our lines; he dominated the entire thing." Dean's and Nicholas Ray's working relationship was equally bizarre. Ray often rehearsed with Dean at his Chateau Marmont bungalow, and felt the energy between them there was so powerful that he actually recreated his own living room on the set to inspire Dean. Doran also recalled, "Jimmy was a strange boy. On the first day, Jim Backus couldn't believe it. We were watching Jimmy doing his scene and someone had said, 'Quiet, we're going to shoot now.' And they got up speed and were ready for action. Jimmy went down on the floor in the fetal position for the longest time. It seemed like half a can of film . . . and Nick said, 'Action.' Jimmy stood up and went into the scene . . . [Jim and I] had never seen this "Method" of doing things. Nick seemed to be mesmerized by Jimmy".
Jim Stark was actually first intended to be more of a nerd, wearing a brown jacket and glasses. However, when Warner Bros. told director Nicholas Ray to re-shoot in color, Ray, as well as costumer Moss Mabry, wanted him to wear red.
When the crew began night shooting at the Griffith Park Planetarium in Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles residents saw the bright production lights in the hills and flooded switchboards with reports of raging forest fires.
Margaret O'Brien tested for the role of Judy but was rejected by Nicholas Ray after he described her answers to his probing questions as "too pat". Jayne Mansfield also tested but Ray declined to film her audition, considering her "an hallucination" from the Warners casting department.
Soon after the premiere of East of Eden (1955), it became clear that James Dean had achieved star status. Modern sources speculate that, because of his new box-office appeal and the growing success of teenage rebel movies, Warners decided to "upgrade" this film, budgeting it more money and production time and ordering that it be filmed in color. One supporting gang member's character was excised and sequences depicting the teenage gang were also cut from the script, resulting in the loss of the individual personalities in the group. Modern sources suggest that the cuts were made to give Dean more screen time.
The film was conceived as a black-and-white "B" picture, and several scenes, particularly at Griffith Observatory, were shot only in black and white and never used. In some of the black-and-white footage, James Dean appears wearing eyeglasses. Another scene shot in black and white shows a large group of teenagers on the driveway behind the observatory; when the scene was later shot in color, few extras were retained, leaving only a handful of teenagers to taunt Jim. The alternate opening and ending scenes were also shot in black and white.
The switchblade that James Dean used in the fight scene at Griffith Observatory was offered at auction on September 30, 2015, by Profiles in History with an estimated value of $12,000-$15,000, with a winning bid of $12,000. Also offered at the same auction were production photographs and a final shooting script dated August 17, 1955, for a behind-the-scenes television promotional film titled "Behind the Cameras: Rebel Without a Cause" hosted by Gig Young and that had scripted interviews and staged footage by the cast and crew (the script sold for $225).
In Gilligan's Island: Castaways Pictures Presents (1965), Thurston Howell III cries out, "Method actors! Never again!" as he directs the castaways in film production. This may be an inside joke in reference to James Dean. Jim Backus played Frank Stark in this film and had scenes with Dean that turned physical as a result of Dean's legendary and infamous spontaneous method acting style.
Before the camera rolled, Nicholas Ray went to concerted efforts to get to know James Dean. Ray visited Dean's New York stomping grounds to get a feel for his life. Ray said, "I wanted to find out all about this guy. I ran around with him, and met his friends, got drunk a couple of times and we were pretty close by the time we were ready to go to work. Whatever else Jimmy was, he was a searcher, ever on the lookout for some trick or other he could store up and use. I could see him soaking them up and I knew he had to play that part, because he could do it like no one else I knew."
In the police station scene, while the adults are talking to the cop, Jim keeps whistling Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", a classical piece known to audiences because of its memorable use in Apocalypse Now (1979). Dennis Hopper appears in both films.
Nicholas Ray claimed that he wanted the film to work beyond the juvenile delinquency newspaper headlines and films of the day, like The Wild One (1953). Instead, Ray strove for a classical tone, and claimed Romeo and Juliet as inspiration, "the best play written about 'juvenile delinquents.'" Ray said.
Jim Stark was so new to the neighborhood he did not even know how to get to school. Yet at the Griffith Park Observatory he parked his car in a spot at a bottom of a very steep rise alongside the long building that cannot even be seen from the road in front of the Observatory.
When the scenes were shot for the chickie run aftermath when the teenagers ran to the edge of the cliff to look down; they witnessed what looked like the sun rising and exploding. Steffi Sidney, who played Mil, would later comment that it looked like an atomic bomb went off, and it was. What they witnessed was "Zucchini", the 14th and final fission bomb (weighing 28 kilotons) launched for Operation Teapot.
In 2010 a "New York Times" article about Nicholas Ray's widow Susan said she had in her archives an original, unused treatment for "Rebel" in which the ending was very different: Plato was going to shoot Jim and then blow himself up with a grenade. However, another Times report in 2011 says the archive contains a Ray storyboard that shows it's Plato himself who is shot from the top of the planetarium (a treatment is a preliminary synopsis of the story for a proposed movie that either gets written before the script is started [as in this case] or afterward so that executives at a potential producer's or investor's company won't have to read the whole script).
In the final scene where the camera pulls away from the observatory, director Nicholas Ray is the person walking toward the building. (possible director's trademark for it is rumored he appeared in all of his movies)
The "chickie run" was staged at a Warner Bros. property in Calabasas, CA. The cars drove on flat land that led to a small bluff only 10 -15 feet high. The cars drove over the small bluff, but the "cliff" supposedly overlooking the ocean was built on Stage 7 (now Stage 16) at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. The constructed cliff overlooked the stage's flooded water tank and the actors looked down upon the water from the edge. Even so, it became necessary to matte in shots of the Pacific Ocean in the final print.
According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Breen office had many concerns about the film. In letters to Jack L. Warner, the censors warned against the general brutality of the delinquent teenagers, the latent homosexuality of Plato, hints of sexual activity between Jim and Judy in the mansion sequence, the inference of the idea of incest in the relationship between Judy and her father, and Judy's promiscuity, which was more pronounced in an earlier version of the script in which she was brought to the police station for soliciting. Modern sources state that the script continued to change. In one version, Plato did not die. The sex and violence were, in some cases, minimized.