"Rebel without a Cause" and the Flying Saucers: On Seeing vs. Believing in Midcentury America
How did they not see it? The question haunted me. The answer was equally disturbing.
In popular memory, the 1950s were a placid period of gray flannel suits, conformity, and prosperity. That image is more a product of the era’s sitcoms and movies than it ever was a reality. Underneath the glossy surface, the modern world was struggling to be born, erupting in full force a decade later. Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about the classic 1955 film Rebel without a Cause and what the bifurcated reaction to it can tell us about the way culture shapes our perception of the world around us. Above all, I became interested in a key question: How can people look at the same movie and see incompatibly different things? This has lessons for understanding, of all things, the development of another classic product of the postwar years, the flying saucer, when we look at the intertwined cultures of paranoia and secrecy created by the Lavender Scare, the Red Scare, and the UFO panic of those years.
If you don’t think that there is a connection, then you haven’t paid attention to the connection between pop culture and UFOs. After all, flying saucers were born from a pulp magazine editor’s effort to capitalize on Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, alien abductions grew out of imagery in The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and the portals and star gates of current ufology are a direct outgrowth of Stargate and its TV spinoffs. The influence goes the other way, too, with UFO claims feeding back into movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which then shape the next generation’s UFO beliefs. Some play both sides. Rod Serling moved back and forth, making science fiction about aliens and flying saucers and then making documentaries about them, too.
But today we’re going to look at something different, how cultural expectations and beliefs shape what we see and how we understand what we see. The connection is a bit more subtle, and doesn’t always move clearly in one direction, but it is nonetheless right before our eyes.
Rebel without a Cause
I saw Rebel without a Cause for the first time last month, and to be completely honest, all I knew about it was that James Dean was in it and that he had made three movies before dying in a car crash at the age of 24. I couldn’t have told you which of James Dean’s three movies this one was. I had run through all of the new things on Netflix and half the movies on the Turner Classic Movies app, and that was the next one up. I did vaguely recall reading that one of the three films had been suspected of having a homoerotic subtext. It must not have been terribly important, since it was little mentioned in mainstream descriptions of the film. As of this writing, the film’s Wikipedia page makes no mention of same-sex attraction. Indeed, TCM’s own summary in use right now says the film is about a teenager forced to deal with a father who “wears an apron.” Literally true, yet totally beside the point.
And then I watched the movie. And I started to wonder if I was seeing the same movie. And it turns out that cultural expectations and experiences quite literally cause viewers to see the same movie in two utterly incompatible ways. The film is structured like a Greek tragedy. Like many ’50s melodramas, several interwoven plots happen at once, not always plausibly. To highlight one is not to deny that other themes and issues exist alongside it. However, the climactic tragedy compels us to see the line leading up to it as the main story, if the tragedy is to have any impact and warrant its climactic role. That the movie isn’t meant literally ought to have been obvious from the fact that an entire adolescence’s worth of emotional and character development, and months of story, occur in one symbolic day. Its partial setting in a planetarium suggests a cosmic dimension akin to the capricious gods of Greek myth. The collapsing cosmoses discussed in the planetarium mirror the failure of every level of society, from parents to police to peers, to help and support our heroes.
Rebel without a Cause, directed by auteur filmmaker Nicholas Ray, tells the story of three teenagers, Jim (Dean), Plato (Sal Mineo), and Judy (Natalie Wood), whose lives intertwine over the course of some interlocking love triangles and feelings of parental alienation. We first meet the three in a police station, where each meets with a police psychologist (Ed Platt) after being taken into custody for various offenses. Although they don’t know each other yet, their actions this night foreshadow the climax of the film in ways large and small.
Jim’s domineering mother and grandmother, with his cowed father (Jim Backus) in tow, collect him from jail—and it’s worth noting here that this is a film about masculinity, and as such it treats its female characters badly, even by 1950s standards. Soon after, we learn that Jim’s family just moved to town, part of his mother’s unexplained need to keep the family moving. There is the implication that they move to try to keep Jim from delinquency, though the exact reasons for that are suggestively unclear. Jim hates his father’s weakness and demands guidance and support he can’t give him. Similarly, the other teens are alienated from their parents. Judy has an almost incestuous infatuation with her father (toned down from the original script!), and he tries to keep her at a distance, though in a borderline abusive way, while Plato’s parents have abandoned him.
When Jim arrives for his first day of school the next morning, the dynamics for the rest of the film fall into place. He is attracted to Judy, who is dating a gang member named Buzz. Jim befriends Plato, who is so obviously both gay and in love with Jim that I cannot believe that so few contemporary viewers noticed this even in 1955. He has a pinup photo of Alan Ladd taped to the inside of his locker. (Modern aesthetics notwithstanding, I am told that Ladd was considered attractive by 1955 standards.) Plato stares longingly at Jim. During a trip to the Griffith Observatory, Plato lovingly caresses Jim’s shoulder. During the movie’s famous “chicken run” drag race to the death between Jim and Buzz to settle their rivalry over Buzz’s questioning of Jim’s masculinity, Plato is seen in the typical love interest pose, wringing his hands and praying for Jim’s safety while Jim’s putative love interest Judy is brightly indifferent. After the race, Jim takes Plato—not Judy—back to town, and Plato offers this question to Jim: “Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there’s nobody home at my house, and heck, I’m not tired. Are you?”
Plato is a bit younger than Jim, and his innocence is at times painful to watch. He tells Judy that Jim, whom he has known only since seven or eight that morning, is his “best friend” and that he wishes Jim would take him out and teach him to fish. He says he wants Jim to teach him because he knows Jim would never get mad at him when he goofs up. He tells Jim that he wishes Jim could be his dad. Plato lacks the words to express his feelings, so they come out in socially sanctioned language.
But it’s equally the case that Jim is attracted to Plato as much as Judy. Every other male in the movie treats Plato with something between contempt and homicidal hatred. Jim, by contrast, is warm and affectionate and seems to genuinely enjoy Plato’s admiration, even when he behaves like an overeager puppy. The alternating feelings of parental, brotherly, and erotic love, which later critics read as indecisive were actually indicative of how midcentury people understood same-sex love, as opposed to homosexual sex acts, following Freudian psychoanalytical ideas about homosexuality originating from failed parental relationships and classical Greek models where that mixture wasn’t confusing but idealized. Both Plato and Jim have relationships with their parents that mirror those that midcentury psychoanalysts like Irving Bieber identified (wrongly) as inducing homosexuality. Plato’s name wasn’t accidental. His story mirrors and somewhat inverts that told by the more famous Plato in Symposium 179e-180b about Patroclus’ and Achilles’ divine love and more generally the Platonic view of the love between men as the highest ideal.
The climax of the movie ties these threads together in a classical tragedy. After standing up to his failed parents, Jim tries to do the right thing and confess his role in Buzz’s death. But Buzz’s gang sees him and thinks that he is turning them in to the cops. They attack Plato in hope of tracking Jim down, and Plato immediately tries to warn Jim. He finds Jim and Judy at his secret spot whose location he shared with Jim in confidence, the abandoned Getty mansion near the Griffith Observatory, and there the three play house—literally, not figuratively—before falling asleep together. Plato wants them to be something between a surrogate family and a throuple, and the movie makes the subversive argument that they could have been happy that way, if only the intolerance of society didn’t intervene.
That intolerance comes in two forms, from the juvenile delinquents of Buzz’s gang and also from the uncomprehending authority figures, mindlessly enforcing pointless moral order. Buzz’s gang breaks into the mansion, and Plato is terrified because he wakes up alone and thinks Jim and Judy have abandoned him. He shoots one of the gang members and nearly shoots Jim before running off to Griffith Observatory, where the police trap him inside. Plato is heartbroken and suicidal, ready to die for what he cannot have. Jim and Judy arrive, and Jim tries to defuse the situation while Judy blankly looks on. Without using the words, Plato confesses his love for Jim and Jim does the same for Plato, trading his red nylon jacket for Plato’s gun in order to remove the bullets. Plato caresses the coat lovingly and puts it on. Once again, there is a final opportunity for everyone to be happy together, but the police shoot and kill Plato, seeing him as a threat, even though, unbeknownst to them, he had been disarmed.
Jim is utterly heartbroken and cries over Plato’s corpse like a husband lamenting his bride, or a father mourning his son, or Achilles weeping for Patroclus. It is the most emotion anyone shows for another person in the entire movie, but the film ends on a discordant note. Now that Plato is dead, Jim suddenly transforms. While Plato’s corpse is being hauled away in front of him, he is all smiles, introducing Judy to his parents as his girlfriend. His parents laugh and smile. The final line is an incomplete sentence in which the parents appear to express their relief that Jim is going to be straight after all. Then, even though the police just killed a kid, the crime scene is cleared within seconds, the observatory reopened, and sunny normalcy is restored.
It’s such an odd, incongruous ending that it can only be meant as a jarring contrast to the Greek-style tragedy of the preceding minutes in order to highlight the falseness of Hollywood’s efforts to confine love to a small box. It’s as though the viewer is intentionally meant to think about why this ending rings so false. In fact, it almost resembles another 1950s classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from the following year, or the Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life” episode. It is perhaps the latter that is the better comparison, with a demonstration of terror reinforcing a falsely cheerful conformity. Winning Judy, who over the course of the movie had given her love promiscuously to her father, to Buzz, and then to Jim, is no triumph. (Frankly, I’d be suspicious of anyone who lost her boyfriend a few hours ago, was suddenly horny for a new guy, and cheerful after a kid just got shot in front of her.) The hasty acceptance of ’50s conformity occurs because the characters have seen how society punishes those who transgress.
Behind the Scenes
My reading is undoubtedly the correct one. Ray and Dean had romantic involvements with both women and men, and Mineo made his homosexuality public shortly before his murder in 1970. Ray took great pride in how he told a story of same-sex love right under the nose of Warner Bros. “Warners did not know what the hell I was doing,” Ray later said. He encouraged Dean and Mineo to play into Mineo’s own crush on Dean, and Dean even advised Mineo on ways to make his character’s attraction for Jim more obvious. “Look at me the way I look at Natalie,” he was said to have instructed. Before his death, Mineo said he was proud to have played what he described, with only mild hyperbole, as the first gay teenager in film. Years after production, those involved in the making of the movie credited Dean with codirecting the film alongside Ray. While that’s an exaggeration, both men influenced the final product and pushed it in the same direction. Even the writer of the original screenplay, Stewart Stern, who at times denied any overt intention of depicting homosexuality, admitted that he framed the story around the deep bonds of male love and affection he witnessed in World War II, where “a lot of romantic attachments were formed before heterosexual encounters.” He called Plato “the faggot character.” The point, Stern thought, was that such attachments were normal until adulthood turned warrior boys into family men. Of course, Stern thought he was writing a movie about the interior lives of youth gangs, and Ray had very different ideas about what to put on film.
There is a bit of irony in the framing of the story as a Greek tragedy. The Greeks themselves speculated that Homer had pulled off a similar trick in not using explicit words to describe the love of Achilles and Patroclus. Aeschines, in his Against Timarchus, could have been describing Ray’s approach in explicating Homer’s: “He, indeed, conceals their love, and does not give its proper name to the affection between them, judging that the extremity of their fondness would be intelligible to instructed men among his audience” (trans. J. A. Symonds). The more things change, you know.
Nevertheless, the resulting movie produced a very different response among critics and viewers in the 1950s. Mainstream audiences and critics literally could not see what was right in front of their faces. To be entirely honest, I can’t quite fathom how that is possible, which is why I described the movie above in such detail. People then couldn’t have been that naïve. After all, in 1954 psychiatrist Frederic Wertham claimed Batman and Robin were a “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” and Wonder Woman was a lesbian bondage aficionado, claims that made their way to the U.S. Senate. The year before, Pres. Eisenhower banned homosexuals from government service, six years into the Lavender Scare over subversive gays supposedly aiding communists. As I watched the movie, I kept trying to imagine how it would be possible to sit through that picture from beginning to end and never once pick up on why Plato cares so much or why Jim is willing to risk his life for Plato or becomes so upset when he dies.
In reviewing the film in October 1955, Variety’s Robert J. Landry, for example, framed the entire movie as an exploration of bad parenting on the infection of crime in the suburbs. He mentioned Mineo only in passing as “an important value” for the film and never speaks of Plato’s connection to Jim. He devoted twice the space to Wood’s “bosoms, lipstick and sex feelings.” Mineo was nominated for an Oscar for the role critics would barely mention. Similarly, consider how The Hollywood Reporter’s Jack Moffitt emotionlessly described the climax of the film a few days earlier:
Fearing that Dean will squeal to the cops, a group of youthful terrorists beat up Mineo, who arms himself with a gun and joins Dean and Natalie in a deserted mansion to which they have fled when both found their parents unsympathetic. The frightened Mineo shoots one of the gang and is, in turn, shot by the police. The love of Dean for Natalie is at last viewed sympathetically by their parents.
He recited the lyrics but missed the music. The “at last” really kills me, since Jim’s parents hadn’t met Judy, much less objected to their pairing. Judy’s parents weren’t even involved! It takes special talent to imagine a story that isn’t there to avoid seeing the one that is. Like Landry, Moffitt saw the movie as nothing more than a melodramatic tale of failed parenting.
The New York Times did these two one better. Bosley Crowther wrote on Oct. 30 that the movie was rife with “deception” in claiming to “understand” youths today. He stopped just short of demanding censorship, but he called it a “desperate and dangerous distortion” in blaming parents and police for forcing youths into delinquency. He doesn’t deign to mention Plato at all, except to call him “a young friend” whose death finally convinces Jim and Judy to return safely home. He, too, saw the best element of the film as the parents’ approval of Jim’s new girlfriend—who I will remind you is portrayed as throwing herself at any alpha male within spitting distance. Morality!
Such readings persisted through the twentieth century. Critic Peter Biskind, in his 1983 book Seeing Is Believing argued that the film makes the case for conformity by celebrating Jim and Judy returning to traditional gender roles, which the gender-nonconforming behavior of Jim’s feminized father and domineering mother had interrupted. That is almost literally the opposite of the plain meaning of the story, and the directors’ and stars’ intent. Popular critic Leonard Maltin managed to be both more and less obtuse, summarizing the movie in his famous movie guide as a meditation on “the comfort found in friendships.” I cannot emphasize enough that Turner Classic Movies literally continues to this day to describe the film this way: “An alienated teenager tries to handle life's troubles and an apron-wearing dad.”
So what accounts for such readings? On the one hand, the confusion that twentieth century critics showed is fairly obvious. If you don’t understand or refuse to believe that Plato is in love with Jim, or that Jim has at least more than casual feelings for Plato, then the climax of the film simply doesn’t work. It’s just melodramatic sensationalism for shock value with no emotional consequence. That’s probably why Crowther saw the movie as dangerous exploitation. It also allows the viewer to accept the incongruous happy ending as the film’s real message, even though at even the surface level, it is absurd. Biskind accepted the absurd in order to restore heteronormativity.
You might think that critics were simply being coy, but that’s not what the evidence shows. Critics had no trouble identifying unhealthy or cruel homosexual themes. Time duly noted the “repressed homosexuality” of The Strange One (1957), about a sadistic cadet who preyed on his classmates. Conservative groups, who threw angry fits about previous delinquency films like the Marlon Brando vehicle The Wild One (1953) and Blackboard Jungle (1955) actually praised Rebel without a Cause for highlighting the importance of having strong parental role models. If they had suspected anything untoward, they would have said something. The National Legion for Decency, for example, condemned Son of Sinbad in 1955 as an “incitement to juvenile delinquency” and had objected to both Blackboard Jungle and The Wild One, but saw nothing amiss with Rebel without a Cause. The Catholic group gave it an A-II rating, stating that it was “morally unobjectionable” for all but small children. And if a group of Catholic extremists didn’t notice any gay stuff… Well, that’s saying something.
This situation continued down to the twenty-first century, even as awareness of sexual diversity entered the mainstream. Old ideas took a long time to shake. In 2002, the Boston Globe critic Jay Carr recognized the “homoerotic” undercurrents of the film, which he called “unmistakable,” but nevertheless remained baffled as to why Woods’s Judy was such a poorly written blank, or why the happy ending felt so “tacked-on.” Why, it was almost as though her character wasn’t really important! It took decades for Roger Ebert, the great film critic, to realize that “Plato is gay and has a crush on Jim.” In reflecting on this in 2005, Ebert saw it as only a minor moment in a film about juvenile delinquency and suggested that Ray had no idea what his movie was saying under the surface and that the story was ultimately unclear. He even declared the happy moment the kids share in the Getty mansion to be “beyond creepy” as they reject social norms of behavior and decorum. The exhaustive The Making of Rebel without a Cause by Douglas Rathgeb (McFarland, 2004) only mentions homosexuality twice, both times in warnings from studio executives that the film should not have a hint of anything gay.
By contrast, Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel’s Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel without A Cause, published the next year, was much more open about the subversive sexual elements of the film and praised them. It is from the latter book that I borrowed many of the facts reported above. They followed in the wake of a number of queer theorists who identified the movie as an important moment for queer representation in film. These discussions, made famous in the groundbreaking documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995), and the 1981 book it was based on, remained separate, and second-class, confined in large measure outside mainstream discussions, if a review of the literature can be believed. Nevertheless, even though mainstream critics now repeat many of the early queer theorists’ ideas, such analysis is still often boxed away as “queer readings,” as though identifying the director’s intent was somehow less worthy than constructing an independent mainstream analysis—or, like the midcentury critics, imagining one wholesale. The strangest part is when even recent writers continue to refer to Plato with the word “coded,” as though one needed to say the magic word “gay” to make it real. Actions aren’t enough unless the special formula makes it so—the hallmark of the supremacy of a belief over reality.
I couldn’t help but compare this to the recent Ryan Murphy Netflix series The Politician, which also featured a similar love triangle that also ended in tragedy. In that case, the series bizarrely argued that after the character of River confessed his love for another boy and committed suicide, he was never really gay because he hadn’t performed anal intercourse. He was just a really good friend. The show then cheers the surviving characters for choosing heterosexual relationships. I immediately thought of Rebel screenwriter Stewart Stern implying that same-sex romance and love were not gay if the characters did not have sex. Sixty-five years after Rebel without a Cause, somehow a major production is actually promoting a more regressive and less compassionate view than one from the 1950s. At least back then, the gay boy’s death was a tragedy rather than an inconvenience.
UFOs in Midcentury Culture
So, what does any of this have to do with flying saucers? Ask yourself this: If 1950s audiences couldn’t correctly intuit the motives and feelings of fellow human beings, why should we trust that they correctly intuited the motives and meanings of supposed otherworldly craft that, to coin a phrase, were far more alien?
As we saw, viewers’ reactions to Rebel without a Cause are heavily influenced by cultural attitudes, values, and beliefs. The facile comparison would be to say that UFO believers are in the right, seeing what the blinkered masses can’t. But that isn’t the right comparison. The more important observation is the degree to which cultural expectations and blind spots can prevent us from objectively understanding what we see as we force it to conform to prewritten scripts. There is also a comparison to be made to the reasons the government and society went bonkers over flying saucers and gay panic at the same time in 1947 and eventually subsumed both under fears of communism. The comparisons aren’t exact, and not always perfectly comfortable, but they are nevertheless informative. It’s also no coincidence that that gay panic, communist panic, and UFO panic all crossed paths on the desk of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who saw all three as opportunities for domestic repression, and who was himself subject to persistent rumors about his own sexual orientation.
It might be radical to suggest this, but there isn’t really a UFO phenomenon as such. As the first investigators of UFOs discovered in the summer of 1947—just months after the first sightings—the narrative of UFOs as alien spacecraft was a story that science fiction editor Ray Palmer palmed off on the world. If he hadn’t done it, someone else would have because Golden Age science fiction had set the stage for believing in visitors from other worlds traveling in metal ships. But that cultural priming didn’t just shape how people of the era interpreted flying saucers, it also seems to have created them. Absent a cultural belief in alien spacecraft, the myth of the flying saucer simply could not have emerged from random sightings of lights, space rocks, birds, unusual weather phenomena, etc. Those things always existed, but the development of one primary cultural expression of them (among the masses, though obviously not among intellectual elites) limited the diversity of experience.
If there is one lesson to take from the UFO files of the 1950s, it’s that there was no consistency to UFO claims at first. Flying discs were popular thanks to Arnold, but no one really knew what they were supposed to be, so sightings varied wildly. Some were big; many were very small. In one risible case from July 1947, a cardboard disc with a Ray-O-Vac battery and a small motor sparked a military investigation and an effort by its finder to gain publicity for finding one of the “discs” the media kept talking about. It measured 19 inches, and FBI investigators decided a kid had made it. Lights, shadows, reflections, and all shapes and sizes of object got folded in. None of this material really belonged together absent the overarching paradigm of the flying saucer. Jacques Vallée was on to something when he noticed that elements of the UFO myth—lights in the sky, strange beings, cryptic messages, etc.—all appear in the past, just not together, but he was wrong in thinking that no one back then had understood the real connection. It was he who was blinded by culture, mistaking a paradigm created by happenstance and pulp fiction in the 1940s for an eternal truth.
It’s commonplace to observe that no one saw flying saucers as alien spaceships until newspapers and movies started giving people a language and an interpretive framework for identifying things they didn’t understand in the sky. In the opposite direction from film’s accidental broadening of sexual horizons, the convergence of Hollywood and news media narratives around a set of signifiers for alien spacecraft imposed an increasingly uniform idea about what could be accepted as a “genuine” alien UFO. Systematically, but unconsciously, UFO believers pruned down the diversity of ideas to a narrower range—all without any actual evidence, just the belief systems that developed around the idea of UFOs as alien spacecraft. Things that didn’t fit were rejected, ignored, or forced to conform, at least until UFOs escaped self-appointed experts’ control and expanded into a bewildering array of supernatural menaces in recent decades. But we’re still talking about the 1950s.
Paranoia and Persecution in Midcentury America
While that process was occurring within ufology, the opposite process was occurring outside of ufology. Across the United States, purges of outsiders marked the postwar years as society seemed to undergo a forcible reversion to an idealized prewar, almost Victorian, social arrangement. Anything that didn’t fit had to be assimilated or destroyed. The U.S. government and its allies in business waged war on communists and homosexuals, cleansing government and society of their threatening rejection of postwar social norms. Sen. Joseph McCarthy tied the communist and gay panics together, telling the U.S. Senate that the “peculiar mental twists” of homosexuality made gays susceptible to communist corruption. Eisenhower fired five thousand gays (actual and perceived) from government, and federal agents were dispatched to repeatedly test employees for signs of sexual “perversion.” Just as the government suspiciously looked for signs of communism, they also carried checklists of imagined signs that someone might be gay. Twelve million Americans were required to sign sexual loyalty oaths attesting their allegiance to heterosexuality in order to retain their jobs. The parallels between the anti-gay and anti-communist internal spying and the Men in Black of ufology fame are uncomfortably close, emerging from the same feelings of midcentury paranoia where any deviance from conformity or social norms was a risk.
Gays, communists, and aliens were all functionally the same. The government’s war on UFO belief paralleled its other efforts to purge society of imagined outside invaders. There is no need to rehearse here the efforts of the government to downplay UFO sightings and to dismiss sightings as misidentified natural phenomena, etc. We all know that part of this effort was to cover up actual military and CIA test flights and projects, as the government later admitted, and that some of it involved intentional propaganda or psychological operations. But it also spoke to the government’s efforts to maintain an image of authority, stability, and control. UFO believers were kooks and subversives, subject to the same types of internal spying, infiltration, and monitoring as gays and communists. Indeed, the government worried openly that UFO groups were communist fronts. In July 1947, the FBI met with Gen. George F. Schulgen of Army Air Core Intelligence (and later the Chief of Staff for the Air Force), who told the Bureau that he suspected that people who saw flying discs were “individuals of Communist sympathies with the view to cause mass hysteria and fear of a secret Russian weapon.” The actual reality of flying saucers—that there wasn’t one, and they weren’t any real threat—was less important than the paranoid belief that invaders from outside the bubble of straight white patriotic nuclear families might destroy America from within.
By 1953, the national media were openly speculating about flying saucers as alien invaders, and the U.S. government, led by the CIA, undertook a formal effort to combat UFO belief in order to prevent what a 1952 memo called the “risk of panic.” The CIA’s secret 1953 Robertson Panel report unanimously concluded that UFOs were no danger to anyone and probably natural phenomena, visual misunderstandings, balloons and aircraft, etc. But they were worried that public belief in the myth of UFOs was a danger to national security because believers might overwhelm government reporting systems in the result of an actual emergency, or leave America open to “mass hysteria and greater vulnerability to possible enemy psychological warfare.” The panel recommended a sustained program of public education (i.e. propaganda) and “debunking” to purge hysterical beliefs from society. J. Allen Hynek, not yet a believer in flying saucers, recommended utilizing amateur astronomers to “spread the gospel” against UFOs, and the panel laid out a plan to use Hollywood to combat subversive beliefs. Such efforts were essential, they said, for the “morale” of the nation. They might as well have been writing about communists and gays, whose appearances were already strictly regulated in Hollywood productions to conform to the Hays Code, itself a cooperative measure meant to forestall formal government censorship. “Sex perversion” was already forbidden, and it would be little trouble to convince Hollywood to cast UFOs in a mocking light, too.
The entertainment industry dutifully followed on all fronts, not just on UFOs but also communists. Communists were blackballed and purged. Movies depicted flying saucers as allegories for communist invasions, and the broadcast TV networks dutifully aired documentaries casting belief in UFOs as alien spaceships as the province of kooks and subversives. Walter Cronkite’s 1966 UFO special, for example, was produced in cooperation with Robertson Panel experts to tamp down public enthusiasm.
In all cases, the result was failure—but not for a while. Eventually, the more the government tried to suppress and censor, the harder the reaction against their efforts rebounded. Leftist movements, sexual liberation, and UFO beliefs all exploded in the 1960s. But in the 1950s, it seemed that suppression was working. By and large, the public chose to hew to the government line, at least in public.
Seeing without Believing
And so, many in the 1950s chose willful ignorance, not to see what was in front of their faces. If you didn’t say the right magic word, then the bad thing didn’t exist and didn’t have to be thought about. Conformity is its own sort of power, and choosing to believe the party line over reality became an act of patriotism—not too different from today’s voters, who enthusiastically repeat official government lies and convince themselves they are true, until they change again. My guess is that more people saw and understood but actively suppressed or rejected what they saw as long as they could maintain a plausible surface of conformity. I keep thinking of Robert J. Landry, who imagined a whole different story for the ending of Rebel without a Cause to maintain the illusion.
Certainly, I have strayed rather far from where I started to get where I ended up, but I hope that the connections are sufficiently clear. What we see and what is actually there have only a partial connection, filtered through lenses of culture, politics, and belief. The 1950s were particularly good at asking people to replace reality with politically correct beliefs, and prejudice for tolerance. This cut both for and against what we today might identify as the “correct” views on sex, science, and politics, but the processes were the same no matter which direction they ran.
As much as some might want to try, it’s impossible to ignore the deep interconnected tapestry of culture that connects even its most seemingly disparate elements.
There is a final irony to all of this. Nine years after Rebel without a Cause helped spawn the delinquency exploitation genre, The Twilight Zone offered its own version called “Black Leather Jackets.” The episode styles its three ominous delinquents like Marlon Brando in The Wild One but borrows more from Dean for Lee Kinsolving’s portrayal of the sensitive Scott. It takes, too, the suburban setting of Rebel, and we see another tale of star-crossed lovers, this time from outer space. It’s sad that it was easier in those years to imagine a young man as a space alien than a queer, but I can’t let it go unremarked that “Black Leather Jackets” is one of four episodes of science-fiction TV that I previously identified as likely sources of Barney Hill’s famous alien abduction fantasies while under hypnosis in early 1964, the template and source for the modern alien abduction myth.
Hill described his abductor as wearing Kinsolving’s costume of a “black shiny jacket and the scarf” from “Black Leather Jackets” (though with Brando’s Wild One hat) while enacting scenes from another of Kinsolving’s James Dean-inflected roles that winter, his turn as another alien lover on The Outer Limits—a literally alienated outsider youth with daddy issues that again drew from the same well of themes as Rebel without a Cause, but substituting interracial subtext for the movie’s homoerotic one. (The episode, “The Children of Spider County,” was directly inspired by the 1935 novel Odd John, about a communist super-genius alien!) Kinsolving had previously costarred in The Explosive Generation (1961) alongside William Shatner and Father Knows Best’s Billy Gray, with Ed Platt helping to cement its connection to the teen exploitation genre founded by Rebel. Kinsolving, whose agent had previously been Dean’s, mirrored Dean’s style to a degree, particularly in using squints and pouts to convey emotion, elements he brought in flattened form to the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. Kinsolving’s career apexed with a Golden Globe nomination in 1960, but he lost to, of all people, Sal Mineo.
The connections explored here may not be direct, but the train of influence is remarkable nonetheless. Seeing isn’t always believing.
This essay has been updated with additional information.
7/4/2020 09:19:06 am
I have a cousin who is of the age to be one of the teeny boppers that swooned over Dean. She is still almost totally lost on the concept of lesbianism. I attended high school where there was a support staff member whom most male students knew was gay but middle age and elderly faculty had, at best, mild suspicion. I don't think that the men of my Father's generation thought that Little Richard was gay, but I picked up on it the first time I saw him interviewed. Pardon the pun but hindsight is 20-20 when it comes to pondering why what is apparent now wasn't so apparent 50 years ago.
7/4/2020 02:25:41 pm
I can still remember my grandmother refusing to believe that Liberace wasn't straight. That's one reason I framed the discussion around a story instead of a persona, since stereotypes about behavior aren't a great indicator. It's much harder to see a story play out and deny actions rather than personality traits.And as I pointed out, the naivete, while probably real for many people, couldn't have been so nearly universal. The government, the media, the intellectuals all talked about the supposed homosexual menace. There were even printed checklists handed out to help parents spot signs of homosexuality in their kids! They could have known if they wanted to, and they chose not to.
An Anonymous Nerd
7/4/2020 02:50:29 pm
I'm reading this article slowly but to address the point about how folks could've missed the gay implications of the film: I think I get it. Or, at least I have a hypothesis. (And sorry of the rest of the article I haven't gotten to yet addressed this.)
7/4/2020 03:27:31 pm
I've never seen one of those lists but I would guess that they are about as well-researched and reliable as similar lists for spotting Communists in the US in the 50s or identifying Jews in Nazi Germany.
7/4/2020 06:08:46 pm
Here are a couple of entries from Newsweek's 1949 list of ways to spot a homosexual:
7/4/2020 06:52:55 pm
Anonymous--you probably are on to something, since the 1957 movie "The Strange One" was equally silent about specifics, but reviewers had no trouble perceiving its "repressed homosexuality," as Time magazine put it. The difference is that the characters were sadistic and cruel rather than kind.
7/4/2020 07:13:55 pm
I had a couple buddies who exhibited effeminate mannerisms because they were the youngest child in a large family of girls.
7/4/2020 12:12:27 pm
When I first watched the movie as a young adult, my mind had already been saturated with repeats of crappy 60’s television shows, so it was jarring for me to see Thurston Howell III and the Chief from “Get Smart” playing serious roles.
7/4/2020 02:28:46 pm
And the strangest part is that they didn't age from 1955 through the 1970s. They were both perpetually 60 years old.
7/4/2020 06:32:23 pm
The big lesson demonstrated here is one that has been more than obvious for a long time: our society is much more driven by beliefs than reality. U.S. society has always seen the fantasy of itself more than the reality, and more fundamentally, more resolutely than most other societies ever have. It may be a human trait (at least among the young), but we've taken it to outrageous levels. Even when facts smack us in the face (COVID-19, for example), a significant portion of the population cannot and/or will not acknowledge them, and even those that face the facts will couch their objections in terms calculated to "spare the feelings" of those in fantasyland. In cases such as the particular instance cited here, the outsider group must be made invisible and incomprehensible to the mainstream of society. Just watch white pundits blithely spewing their well-meaning but clueless analyses of Black Lives Matter, even when a BLM leader is facing them and saying exactly what she or he means.
7/5/2020 09:29:37 am
I believe that Another actor who finally came out of the closet was Charlton Heston. I mean, think of it, he would go to conventions and wave his gun around while intoning you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. I think the symbolism is quite evident.
7/5/2020 10:17:42 am
Heston was quite adamant that his movies never contained any gay content. Gore Vidal had to hide the homosexual references in Ben-Hur from Heston because he was so intolerant.
From My Cold Dead Hands
7/6/2020 11:32:22 pm
At the time of Ben Hur, Heston was a staunch liberal Democrat. Was he intolerant of homosexuality or like most everyone else at the time did he want to play it safe and avoid overt gay references. By the standards of a Generation X'er there are plenty of liberal Democrats whose failure to wholeheartedly support a gay rights agenda as recently as 20 years ago or less who could be spun as intolerant using similar standards.
7/5/2020 04:55:15 pm
Wishful thinking Clete, wishful thinking.
7/5/2020 09:46:55 pm
Actually, It is interesting to me how little Sense of humor many of the posters and Jason Colavito have. Charlton Heston wasn't gay at all, of that I am sure. The conventions he went to were for the NRA. He was their spokesman, He was also a far right conservative, who if he were alive today would probably either be a Republican Senator from California or a rabid Donald Trump supporter.
7/5/2020 10:23:18 pm
I knew you were joking. I thought I'd tell an amusing story that related.
7/6/2020 05:33:34 pm
Clete: Not a spokesman, Heston was President of the NRA for five years.
From My Cold Dead Hands
7/6/2020 10:59:38 pm
Heston was President of the NRA which is largely a figurehead role with real power vested in other positions. As a well known actor he was in a position as President to serve as a readily recognized spokesperson for the NRA. While he may not have been THE spokesperson he was most certainly A spokesperson as are all other NRA Presidents.
7/5/2020 01:16:17 pm
This piece is simply brilliant, Jason. Thank you. I was reminded of Walt Whitman's Calamus poems (1860), which hardly anybody at the time recognized as homosexual despite their remarkable frankness. Sure, this was the Victorian era, but still, Whitman caught hell for the hetero stuff -- was fired from his government job, in fact -- while nary a word was heard about Calamus. Your piece makes clear how social norms, and their manipulation, can blind people to what's right in front of their eyes or make them see what isn't there at all.
7/5/2020 04:13:34 pm
The forth person in the first photo is Marietta Canty.
7/6/2020 11:07:35 am
Thank you. I wondered.
7/5/2020 06:14:25 pm
Yes, Alan Ladd was good looking, It's just a 1950s good-looking, but having been born in that decade, I recognise it, much younger watchers may not.
7/6/2020 08:23:32 am
First, paragraphs are your friend.
7/6/2020 10:37:55 am
Old school middle and upper class men in the deep south often cultivated a southern gentleman image based on flamboyant dress, affected speech that sounds effeminate to non-southerners, and a social life spent mostly in the company of other men. Some of them still do. Based on some of the discussion here one might be inclined to assume that the entire Sewanee College class of 1960 was gay.
7/6/2020 12:18:57 pm
7/7/2020 11:27:06 am
I enjoyed this immensely, Mr. Colavito, and hope to see more like this in the future!
7/7/2020 11:49:32 am
Born in the 50s, I watched Rebel in 60s since my dad frequently referred to me by title of the film. But lst, I read Linder's 1944 book, which was about a hypnotized teen psychopath. It had little in common with the film. Dad was contrite & it launched decades of fruitful discussions about wild, non-compliant youth & culture clashes.
7/7/2020 01:11:18 pm
Tommy Weiseau of the infamous The Room, 2003, cribbed from Rebel without a Cause when he said 'You're tearing me apart!" but the character in his wasn't Judy, but Lisa.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.