Marlon Brando’s Jazz-Culture Cool in a Muical Era before Elvis
Scattered thoughts on Elvis, Jazz, and The Wild One:
John Lennon famously said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” In terms of dominant cultural conceptions of cool, I almost entirely agree. But before Elvis, there was Marlon Brando.
It’s hard for those of us who weren’t there to think of 50s cool before James Dean and Elvis became household names and images thanks to the the innovations of film and television. (Would those in our ND community who were like to give us some first hand accounts below?) Perhaps that’s why Brando’s character in The Wild One seems so much more distant in time from us. Dean and Presley are perhaps the most recognizable–and in certain ways, malleable–ideals of American cool…so how did we measure cool before them?
Marlon Brando’s performance as Johnny Strabler in 1953’s The Wild One became, and still is, a central icon of this elusive ideal of cool–that indefinable thing that everyone wants to be from the day they’re born. This was two years before James Dean perfected his image of alternately brooding and explosive teen through Rebel Without a Cause, and thee years before CBS and Ed Sullivan deemed Elvis’s hips unfit for family audiences. (But America sure saw and remembered the rest of him). Brando’s performance as Johnny Strabler is oft-cited as inspiring Elvis and pretty much any other male of that generation (I exaggerate…but only slightly. But I want to be like Johnny a little bit myself).
Brando’s rebellion comes off schmaltzy at times to our sensibilities if context isn’t taken into account despite its groundbreaking immediacy at the time. Undoubtedly, James Dean and Presley’s performances seem dated as well ,but not to the same extent. The rebels in The Wild One engage in some activities which seem pretty juvenile to us. If you watch the whole film, make sure to look for the pogo stick race. Things have changed.
In the film, African American culture profoundly shapes the white youths’ performance of coolness–as has been the case throughout many instances in the 20th century. Keep in mind this film debuted to the ostensibly segregated American audience in 1953. But the film betrays a profound mutual cultural interdependence while segregation was still in a effect–a trend W.T. Lhamon details elegantly in Deliberate Speed. No African Americans are even featured in the film, but traces of black culture run throughout. A disturbing note is the racism the film could potentially incite in its viewers, since the white hoodlum seem to be caricatures of African Americans at times (see the hip speech by one of the characters in the video posted above). I am not calling Marlon Brando, Frank Rooney or anybody else associated with the production of the film a racist. Rather, I am specifically addressing prevailing cultural ideas rather than individuals. Westerns similarly draw off racist ideologies but I wouldn’t make the personal accusation of calling an actor or filmmaker a racist.
In the scenes involving Brando and the gang, big band music plays in the background. This is similar to the distinctly African American-influence we see in many of Elvis’s movies, as well as other teen-targeted films since time immemorial. As I mentioned above, Brando and his fellow rebels’ language is drenched in hip African American derived slang. For instance, Brando tells Mary Murphy’s character, “You want to stay cool you got to wail, you got to make some jive, you get what I’m saying?” This African-American influence on white youth’s conception of cool is something we see continue through the massive cultural influences of rock and roll and hip hop.
The Wild One is a jazz-driven event; a film populated by white people but owing a great deal of its energy and appeal to jazz culture. It’s a population that remains hidden from the camera but subterraneously drives the entire momentum of the film. Lhamon argues that we hear traces of the same culture coming through Jack Kerouak’s seemingly extemporaneous style. Despite this jazz culture becoming further and further removed from us, you can still feel Brando’s character alive and breathing.
So, here we are 58 years later, in the age of Lady Gaga and Cee Lo, and other performers intend to transgress on our current conceptions of morality–to rebel and shock us. The Wild One was intended to do the same thing, opening with the teasing disclaimer in white letter: “This is a shocking story. It could never take place in most American towns, but it did in this one. It is a public challenge not to let it happen again.” This disclaimer probably only served to seduce young viewers into Brando’s intoxicating devil-may-care mentality, rather than set the film up as a cautionary tale.
But like Cee Lo Green, what gives the shock staying power is what you find after the impact. The coy editing of a naughty word in “Forget You” draws a person in, but his knowledge of the tradition and his craftmanship is what keeps you playing his album. That’s what makes you realize what a great talent somebody like Brando really was. Even 11 American presidents later, Brando can still deftly pull at some unexpected emotional chords with his melodramatic performance of youthful post-war cool and its accompanying insecurity.