This one appeared at The Broad Street Review on October 29, 2009. I had called it, unimaginitely, “Movies.” It called it “’50s Films that Stoked the ’60s.” It’s your call.
In the mid nineteen-fifties, when I was growing up in West Philadelphia, there were six movie theaters withing walking distance of my house. The Byrd, on Baltimore Avenue. The Commodore, on Walnut. And the Locust, Nixon, Rivoli, and State on 52nd Street.
The Rivoli seemed to show nothing but black-and-white films no ten-to-twelve year old would consider: “Niagara,” “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” The Byrd was good for catching up on Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle. The Locust played sophisticated fare – also of no interest – like “Mr Hulot’s Holiday” or the odd British import. The Commodore was where, during the opening of “It Came From Outer Space,” when the meteor shower rockets in 3-D toward earth, a new boy in the neighborhood, who had seen it before, earned his spurs by flinging a handful of pebbles into the air and setting everyone screaming. The Nixon featured cinematic excellence in the form of “Four Guns to the Border’ and “Riot in Cell Block 11,” and the State had the best Saturday matinee. Admission was fifteen cents. Candy bars were a nickle and a bag of popcorn a dime. You got, maybe, a Joe Penner short, three cartoons, a chapter in a Don Winslow or Dick Tracy serial, and a double feature (“The Crimson Pirate,” “Go For Broke”). Sometimes there were filmed races between funny men in cars or on bikes; and if your ticket stub had the winner’s number, you won a box of jujubes. During yo-yo season, you could come on stage to perform tricks and, even if you lost first round, receive a coupon for an ice cream sandwich.
Once you had attained a certain degree of maturity and wisdom – in my house this occurred between the ages of ten and eleven – you were permitted to take the 42 trolley (later bus) downtown, where another near dozen, mostly first run movies played. The Mastbaurm, Fox, Trans-Lux, Goldman (or was it Goldwyn?)… I forget the rest. Unable to wait for their general release, it was here that my friends and I pinned “House of Wax” and “Rear Window” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Admission cost more and bought fewer extras than in the ‘hood, but Center City offered other treats. Penny arcades filled with pinball machines. Army/navy stores loaded with the surplus of recent wars. Mustard pretzel carts and Horn & Hardarts automats. Book stores, where we peaked at nudist magazines, until the owners threw us out. Downtown took us a lot further from our parents than 52nd Street.
We did not go to movies for cathartic soul cleansing or philosophical challenge or the appreciation of montage and mise en scene. If we saw a comedy, we wanted to laugh. If we saw a western or war movie, we wanted excitement. But we could not help being schooled. We learned patriotism and foreign policy from John Wayne. We were instructed that the FBI would protect us from everything from Communists (“Walk East on Beacon”) to giant ants (“Them”). We understood that while it might be fun to ogle Marilyn Monroe, we really ought to settle down with someone perky and wholesome and steadfast like June Allyson. (I can’t tell you how shocked I was to learn, even fifty years later, that she had been two-timing Dick Powell with, of all people, Dean Martin.) And we knew to a certainty that evil-doers would be punished.
It went down as easily as vanilla.
Then, on December 30, 1953, a year in which I had rushed to see “Peter Pan,” a movie opened in New York City that would shake the world. I do not recall when or in what theater, I first saw “The Wild One,” but within the, oh, twelve months that I did – a year that also saw me imbibe “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle” – the experience, interacting with the hormonal additives by which age had seasoned me, so altered my viewing tastes that I was now plunking down my allowance for admission to “I am a Camera” (at, of all places, the Locust), “Man With the Golden Arm,” “Baby Doll,” “And God Created Woman.”
I doubt market researchers had fingered pre- (or even post-) bar mitzvah Jewish boys as “Wild One” material. Though commentators would link the film to “disaffected youth” and “juvenile delinquency,” Marlon Brando was nearly thirty when he made it; so was Lee Marvin; and Mary Murphy was twenty-three. (“Rebel,” with James Dean at twenty-three, Sal Mineo at fifteen, and Natalie Wood sixteen – though looking older than Murphy – was a closer demographic fit.) It did not bind to us with matching cultural adhesives either. The music on Bleeker’s juke box, to which the gang parties, was an assortment of anonymous instrumentals styled to rouse the temperatures of earlier generations. (“Jungle,” however, blazed with the embedment of “Rock Around the Clock” over its opening credits, a clarion hit of relevancy overshadowing the fact that when the students smash Richard Kiley’s records, they call for Frank Sinatra and Joni James, not Chuck Berry or Laverne Baker.) And motorcycles – motorcycles were about as forbidden to us as swastika tattoos or Gentile girl friends. But for the next decade and a half, when I would strike up a lasting friendship with a boy from Philadelphia or Boston or New York, one point of commonality on our resumes – not always, but often – was repeated viewing of this film, three times, six, a dozen.
It came down to Brando’s Johnny Strabler. He was revelatory: tough; sensitive; tender; cruel; leader of the Black Rebels but always apart; cat nip to the ladies but utterly contemptuous of squares. We were already receiving instructions about the evils of the establishment, the costs of conformity and the dangers of repression from “MAD” and Bob and Ray and Jean Shephard and other resisters of the Eisenhower ‘50s, which, a decade later, would help us establish the parameters of an actual counter-culture; and here was Brando, three years before Jack Kerouac, laying down the ecstasy of the road and the end-all and be-all of “Go.” His lines “I don’t like cops,” “Nobody tells me what to do,” and, most famously, in answer to Peggy Maley’s “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?” were catechistic and as valuable to us as Machiavelli’s instructions to the prince. We were assessing, building, equipping ourselves for our own futures with the salvageable and useful, whether we were to eventually to lodge as doctors or lawyers or something even further off the expected grid than tribal chief.
None – well damned few – of us would follow Johnny into the nihilistic pit where Stanley Kramer left him, no family, no job, no girl, not even the stolen runner’s up trophy from a race he had not run. Fortunately, we also had Dean’s searching, struggling, wrenching Jim Stark to draw from. In “Rebel,” it is Corey Allen’s – born, by the way, Alan Cohen – Buzz Gunderson who flaunts the “Wild One” ethic. “Why do we do this?” Jim asks before they race their stolen cars toward a fiery doom. “You’ve got to do something,” Buzz answers. That proves insufficient. “I want to do something right,” Jim tells his parents later. A boy has been killed, and they must not pretend it didn’t happen. “We are,” he says, “all involved.”
That sense of involvement, that wish for proper action would also surface. But first, I needed to get my hands on a motorcycle jacket, hoping its black leather and silver zippered pockets would offset my acne and horned rims.