Corey Allen: Two scenes and immortality

And now all the principal characters of “Rebel Without a Cause” are gone.  Corey Allen, who played the ill-fated Buzz Gunderson, died Sunday, the 27th, in Hollywood.  Born Alan Cohen in Cleveland, Ohio, his name was changed to sound less Jewish.  He was two days shy of  his 76th birthday.  The Los Angeles Times reported Allen suffered from Parkinson’s the last two decades.

The demise of the main actors came quickly in a 1-2 punch of less than a month.  Dennis Hopper, who played Goon, died on May 29.   I wrote about Hopper’s death and the dwindling cast of `Rebel,’ the survivors the dead and the dates of death,  on that same day in May.

In two riveting scenes — The Knife Fight and The Chicken Run — Allen hit the jackpot.  It was his role of a lifetime,, and he became to the initiates as immortal as any actor can be.   Allen as Buzz was tall, dark and handsome with a distinctive way of speaking.  He carried as much charisma as the film’s star, James Dean, if not the great talent.  .

`Rebel’ was released in October 1955 .  It was the most eagerly-anticipated movie of my lifetime.  That Dean died in a car accident a month before its release only added to the luster.  It became THE film of my era and the movie that defined the youth of those times, the Silent Generation, those born during the Great Depression and who came of age shortly after the end of World War II.   

Here are some excerpts and scraps taken from the film’s excellent and detailed history by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel,  “Live Fast, Die Young:  The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without A Cause,” (Simon & Schuster, 2005):

Corey Allen

  • Director Nicholas Ray spotted Cohen as a bad guy in the play, Pretty Girl, had him tryout through a rigorous “games” competition with 150 others before giving him the part of Buzz.
  • Allen’s father, Carl Cohen, was casino manager at Howard Hughes’s Sands in Las Vegas when he punched out a petulant Frank Sinatra in 1967.  (Sinatra suffered split lips and lost two teeth, it was reported elsewhere).
  • A graduate of UCLA the year before `Rebel,’ Allen was named the Fine Arts department’s Best Actor.
  • Allen and Frank Mazzola (Crunch, one of the gang members) feuded during the entire shoot, almost coming to blows once.  Mazzola had been a real gang leader at Hollywood High and probably resented the self-described “book nerd” Allen for getting the part.  They became friendly later.
  • Allen had a bizarre ritual that he performed before each scene of `Rebel.’  He roared as loud as he could.  “I always hated my voice,” he was quoted as saying.  “I always felt it was childish.  That was my way of giving myself the franchise to do what I wanted.”
  • He later played another gang-leader in the movie, “Juvenile Jungle.”

The Knife Fight

[The Dean character, Jim Stark, has just moved to Los Angeles.  He wants to fit in with his high school classmates but hits a cold wall with Buzz and his gang.   He is attracted to a neighbor who just happens to be Buzz’s girlfriend, Judy (Natalie Wood).  After a show in the planetarium at Griffith Observatory, Stark is confronted by the gang.  Stark watches as a tire on his parked ’49 Mercury is flattened by a switchblade.  A knife fight ensues between Buzz and Jim around a small telescope with L.A. spread out in the background.  Buzz gets careless switching his knife from hand to hand.  Stark wins by knocking the knife away, but refuses to cut Buzz.  In lieu of blood, the two opt for a “chickie run”  at a nearby cliff.]

  • An industry watchdog, the Hays Office, wanted the scene cut as too violent.  As a concession, Ray agreed to chop a scene where Buzz is kicking Stark’s new friend, Plato (Sal Mineo), on the ground.  Ray also agreed to change the line, “No killing,” to “no sticking.”  Also Ray scrapped some shots in which Stark becomes more aggressive and nicks Buzz several times. 
  • Dean objected to using fake knives for the scene and got his way.  The two switchblades had dulled edges but retained their sharp points. 
  • The two actors wore metal chest protectors under their shirts.
  • Allen dreaded the scene.  “I was so fucking nervous,” he was quoted as saying years later, “We did take after take and it was all awful.”  But after a break, both actors became more aggressive.
  • Dean became irate with the director, Ray, after Allen nicked his ear, causing blood to flow.  Ray stopped shooting immediately and called for medical aid.  “Goddamn it, Nick!” Dean shouted. “What the fuck are you doing?  Can’t you see this is a real moment?  Don’t you ever cut a scene while I’m having a real moment!  That’s what I’m here for!”
  • Dean allowed his stuntman, Rod Amateau, to do a few of the shots.  Allen said he was unaware that he could use a double and did all the shots himself.

 The Chickie Run

[The game of “chicken” between Buzz and Stark was filmed on a Warners Studios lot and at  the Warner Ranch in Calabasas, northwest of L.A.   This scene stemmed from The Knife Fight.  Buzz’s gang steals a couple of cars for the occasion.  The game is this.  The cars are to be driven by Buzz and Stark at high speed toward a steep cliff that drops into the ocean.  The first one to jump out before the cars go sailing into oblivion is the “chicken.”   Before they get in their cars, Buzz and Stark peer over the cliff in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.   A somber mood over-takes them.  “I like you, you know,” Buzz says.  “What are we doing this for?” Stark asks.  “You got to do something,” Buzz replies.    Judy gives an arm signal for the cars to head toward the cliff.  She is exhilarated.  Starks jumps nimbly from his auto, but Buzz’s jacket sleeve gets caught in the door handle.  He goes over the cliff to a fiery end below, setting the stage for the last part of the film.  Buzz’s crushed gang members blame Stark and set on a course to kill him.]

  • Allen thought his line, “You got to do something,” was special.  “It was the best line in the picture,” he was quoted as saying.  “It was one of the first times in my acting career that I had a chance to do something that truthful.”   Allen saw the line as the question that confronts every generation of adolescents:  “Here we are, what do we do?  The answer may have been different but the question was always there.  Kids in the (1950s) didn’t have any cause.  What are we going to do?”
  • As Buzz goes over the cliff to his death, Ray wanted him to scream.  But Allen couldn’t do it.  He just opened his mouth.  He told Ray  a scream wasn’t truthful.  Ray seemed to go along with Allen.  But later the director dubbed in the scream using another actor’s voice. 

 And so it’s mostly over for the cast.  Some bit players are believed to survive.  Mazzola, now 76, and two other gang members, Beverly Long (Helen) and Jack Grinnage (Moose). 

Dean once said he had the goal of bridging life and death.  He wanted to be remembered after he was gone, to become immortal in a way.  Corey Allen continued working for many years as an actor, director and teacher.  But it was two brief scenes when he was just 21 years old that led to his own immortality.   Thanks, Corey, for an indelible portrait of my generation. 

 

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