Remembering Marlon Brando
April 3 marked the birthday anniversary of Marlon Brando, born 1924. To many he is The Godfather. An older generation thinks of him as Stanley Kowalski. But to those of us who are closer to 70, he was The Wild One.
My best friend, Carol, and I attended movies together from the time we were seven years old. The movie theater in our North Dakota hometown, population 1000, showed two movies a week. The first one ran Sunday through Tuesday, and the second Thursday through Saturday. No movies played on Wednesdays. That was church night. The women drove off to Ladies Aid and the teenagers closed their books and headed for Youth Group. Only the men got the night off. It gave Mr. Olson a chance to clean the theater, including the town’s only popcorn machine.
My dad’s service station stood at the junction of Highway 15 and 52, a convenient spot for the big semi from Bismarck to drop off the dented steel canisters that held the films. My dad made $1.00 a week for loading them onto his pickup and driving four blocks to Main Street to deliver them to the theater.
When Carol and I turned twelve the movie fare went from 14 cents for the child’s ticket to 35 cents for a junior.
“Dammit,” Carol said under her breath as she dug out a quarter and a dime from her pink plastic wallet. “I babysat over an hour for this. I nodded in sympathy. We thought of lying about our age, but everybody in town knew how old we were.
Our other best friend, Sandy, sold the popcorn. She stood in the alcove beside the steaming popper for six hours a week, but she smelled like popcorn all week long. I knew her Norwegian blonde beauty and chatty personality attracted the boys, but I couldn’t help wonder if that buttery earthy smell played a part in luring them to her.
It was a steaming mosquito-happy August night in 1954 when Carol and I went to see “The Wild One.” North Dakota known for its long freezing winters, was home to summers hotter than hell. The farmer, lifting his sweat-stained cap in my dad’s station, repeated the old joke in the hundred-degree heat, “I guess this one melted the snow.”
We walked up the sloped floor to our favorite spot in the balcony, happily sinking into the cool velvet-seated darkness, munching on the popcorn that Sandy had scooped up. At least that still cost 5 cents. We talked through the Headline News, watched the Tom and Jerry cartoon, and then the movie began.
The camera panned in on the street of a small dusty town that could have been our Main Street. The girl working in the café could have been us. Then, with the roar of a motorcycle, HE drove into town. Black leather jacket, jeans, boots and a soft, brimmed cap tipped at an angle. And that face! The sullen expression, the mysterious eyes. He knew things that we had only begun to imagine.
The plot of the movie was incidental to our lust for Marlon-his confident swagger, the low timbre of his voice, the muscular body that lurked under those rebel clothes.
We walked home reviewing all our favorite parts.
“When he first met the girl.”
“And when they said, ‘What are you rebelling against?’ and he said, “What have you got?”
“YES!” Carol yelled out in her cheerleader voice. We were by O’Neill’s barn, almost to my house.
“And when he took his shirt off . . .” I continued.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” we screamed in unison to the dark sky, the mosquitoes, and any neighbors who cared to look out their windows at two goofy twelve-year-olds.
In the days that followed we didn’t know quite what to do about Marlon. Not understanding the feelings we had for him, we tried instead to be him. We tore out an ad for a motorcycle from the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune, put it in a cigar box and began saving money to buy it. We got to $11.65 before we quit.
Marlon’s simmering sexuality made us hunger for the forbidden, leading us to become ardent Elvis fans a couple years later, and even chance some real-life encounters with those edgy, pre-Fonzie high school guys, who exhaled danger in a cloud of cigarette smoke. But Marlon remains the original bad boy.
Lucy Bell is a retired teacher and writing consultant. She is a certified Native Plant Master and Interpretive Guide at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. She founded Friends of Emerson in Colorado Springs, now in its thirteenth year.