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Story of the Scene: Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray

Roger Clarke
Friday 13 August 2010 00:00 BST

Back in 1946, the Warner Bros producer Jerry Wald bought the rights to a racy novel, 'Rebel Without a Cause'; a script was commissioned (one of the writers assigned was Theodore Geisel – better known as Dr Seuss).

A little-known Marlon Brando turned up for the screen test and was attached for a while. Warners' chief talent scout William Orr recalled: 'He just sat there tearing up an envelope into little pieces... We figured he must be a genius so we signed him.' But the film sat gathering dust until Nicholas Ray discovered it in 1954.

In September 1954 Ray wrote his own treatment and the only thing that remains in the eventual movie was the 'chickie run' scene where two cars, lights out, race towards each other in the Sepulveda incline before crashing straight into each other as the cars 'approach the tunnel'.

The scene was filmed in May 1955 and involved locations in Calabasas and a 'cliff' actually built on what is now Stage 16 at Warner Bros Studios in Burbank. Ray had cast James Dean, Natalie Woods and Sal Mineo in the lead roles and, incidentally, almost certainly slept with all of them. Though Ray had originated the chickie run it was screenwriter Leon Uris who moved it to a clifftop location and turned it into a dare scenario rather than a suicidal rapture. The result was a scene where James Dean's character, in a dare with a rival named Buzz, sees Dean escape but Buzz plunge with his car to his death.

There was a fateful legacy to the film. Dean was dead from a car crash months later, in September 1955, racing to a car rally in Salinas in his beloved Porsche. There's some evidence that the crash was a game of chicken, certainly on Dean's part; 'He's gotta see us', he's supposed to have yelled out as he hurtled towards a Ford Tutor.

There's one other odd detail about the filming of this scene. Steffi Sidney, who played Mil, claimed to have seen an atomic bomb go off just as the filming finished that night. The dates certainly fit: there was a Nevada test explosion of a 28 kiloton warhead on 15 May 1955. Sun came up on the chickie run and it was bathed in a distant atomic event – more than appropriate for the teenage bombshell that was about to hit Hollywood.

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