Over at the Guardian yesterday, they reported that "lost" footage of iconic actor Marlon Brando screen testing for Rebel Without a Cause way back in 1947 has been found, and it's got lots of folks excited to imagine what Brando would have brough to the lead role of the classic film. The five-minute screen test, included as an extra on the DVD release of Brando's A Streetcar Named Desire, shows a young Brando "railing against his parents" and "finding a gun and lighting out for a new life with his girl. Today The Guardian's Xan Brooks speculated on what Rebel Without a Cause might have been like with Brando in the role that made James Dean famous eight years later. Davis opines that a Rebel with Brando in the role of Jim Stark would have been inferior to the film made by Nicholas Ray with Dean in the lead role - an assertion I happen to agree with.
What neither Guardian piece addresses, though, is that the screen test Brando made in 1947 had practically nothing to do with the Rebel Without A Cause we're all familiar with. After I read the article in the Guardian, I emailed Stewart Stern (pictured), who wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause. I interviewed Stern extensively last year, and we talked a lot about Dean, Rebel, and what Brando thought of Dean. I knew Stern didn't write his screenplay in 1947, so I asked him if he knew anything about this Brando screen test. As he recalls it after all these years, Stern believes it went this way:
"Marlon's 1947 test was not for Rebel Without a Cause as we know it. Dr. Robert Lindner wrote a book of that title in which there were several case histories, written in fictional form, of young offenders whom Lindner had treated psychiatrically in prison. One of these chapters - and the book - had the title, Rebel Without A Cause. I believe that Jerry Wald was to produce it for Warner Bros.
The whole project fell through as undoable and was shelved for years. I hadn't known that Marlon tested for that book adaptation - I didn't know they even had a screenplay from it to test him with. Anyhow, Fade Out - Fade In! It's 1954. Now Nicholas Ray approached the studio about doing a story about middle-class kids in trouble and hired first Leon Uris and then Irving Shulman to write it. He wanted to call it The Blind Run but Warners didn't like the title and someone recalled the shelved book, Rebel Without A Cause, so they took the title - they owned that book anyway -and threw the book away.
Neither Uris nor Shulman came up with a script based on Nick Ray's idea that the studio liked and had gotten a little desperate when the Uris and Shulman scripts failed to meet expectations. Meanwhile Leonard Rosenman, composer of East of Eden, told Nick about me and Nick asked to see my only film, Teresa, which he liked very much. Meanwhile I had come to California for Christmas and Jimmy (Dean) and I had become friends through my cousin Arthur Loew, so Jimmy reinforced Leonard's recommendation, and then I was hired to write the picture in late December 1954. It had nothing to do with the material Marlon tested on."
So there you have it folks - the real story of Rebel Without a Cause and Brando's screen test, from the screenwriter himself. Although I think it's interesting to speculate on what Brando would have brought to the role, I can't imagine anyone but Dean playing Jim Stark. I'd still like to see Brando's screen test, though; it's always interesting to see great actors when they were just starting out.