Catalog Number: 2018.002.01
Remember the hit movie “Rebel Without a Cause?” Odds are you do, or you’ve at least heard of it. The movie is most often remembered for being one of James Dean’s most famous performances. However, you may be surprised to learn that the director of the film, Nicholas Ray, was originally from La Crosse.
Nicholas Ray, born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, was born in Galesville on August 7, 1911. His family moved to La Crosse in 1919, following the end of World War I. Ray spent his childhood in La Crosse and spent his teens between La Crosse and Chicago, where his older sister lived. He stayed in La Crosse his senior year and graduated from Central High School in 1929.
Ray then studied drama for two years at La Crosse State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse) before transferring to the University of Chicago in the fall of 1931. Ray’s time at the University of Chicago was short lived, and he quickly took an internship at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin School. There, he studied architecture and learned visual concepts, such as the horizontal line that would later influence his films.
Soon after, he moved to New York and became involved in a left-wing theater group, Theatre of Action. It was there that Ray began to take an interest in directing and met people who would later help introduce him to filmmaking.
By 1944, Ray was living in Hollywood. He started his work in movies as an assistant to director Elia Kazan (who Ray had met through Theatre of Action) on Kazan’s debut film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which came out in 1945. Ray’s own debut film, “They Live By Night,” was released in 1948.
Ray’s most productive professional years were during the 1940s and 50s, with his most critically acclaimed films falling in between the years of 1952 and 1955. These films included “The Lusty Men,” “Johnny Guitar,” and, of course, “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Ray continued directing films in his later years, but they were not as successful as his earlier work. During the 1970s, Ray taught filmmaking at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In his time as a professor, Ray took a hands-on approach to teaching and collaborated with his students on an experimental film entitled “We Can’t Go Home Again.” Ray continued to edit this film until his death in 1979.
Over the course of his career, Ray directed more than 20 feature films.
Throughout his career, Ray returned to La Crosse several times to visit family.
In 1951, Ray stood beside his mother and a Marine Corps color guard in a ceremony for the opening of his film “Flying Leathernecks” at the Rivoli Theater. During one of his visits to La Crosse, Ray filmed some scenes for a movie, which he referred to as “Project X” at the time.
The La Crosse County Historical Society recently received a donated screenplay for one of Ray’s first films, “Knock on Any Door,” which came out in 1949. “Knock on Any Door” is a courtroom trial film, which starred Humphrey Bogart as the lawyer and helped launch the career of John Derek, who played the young man on trial for the murder of a police officer. The donated artifact is the final draft of the screenplay and is signed by members of the cast and crew, most notably John Derek. This item was donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society by Ray’s widow, Susan Ray, and the Nicholas Ray Foundation.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on March 17, 2018.