Vintage Hunk: Marlon Brando

By: Mike McCrann

In the 1950s Marlon Brando was considered a true sex symbol. I hit my teen years at the end of that decade and I could never see Marlon Brando as sexy at all. I still don't. No major American actor made more lousy movies with equally bad performances than Brando.

Yesterday I saw The Wild One (The epic motor cycle invasion movie) on the big screen at LACMA. And I finally figured out why Marlon Brando did not appeal to me – his voice. He had sort of a high squeaky voice and it mitigated most of his performances. At the end of The Wild One, Brando has a final silent scene where he just smiles at Mary Murphy and you feel drawn to his face. But even in 1954 he already had a double chin and Lee Marvin stole the movie as the drunken ex motor cycle buddy. (Marvin keeps telling Brando: "I love you." which gives the movie a whole new meaning 60 years later. Lee Marvin was not remotely handsome but his energy made him sexier than Brando.)

But Marlon Brando was a sensational phenomenon. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1924 and created Broadway history playing Stanley Kowalski in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. After his film debut in The Men, Brando reprised his role in the film version of this landmark play. Everyone else in the 4 star cast won an Oscar except Brando. He was pretty stupendous as you did not see vulgar low class sexuality so startlingly portrayed before in a movie. Brando followed this hit with two great films again directed by Elia Kazan Viva Zapata and On The Waterfront.

But what followed was pretty mediocre. Terrible in the musical Guys and Dolls, embarrassing as Napoleon in Desire and really lousy (with a phony southern accent) in Sayonara. Brando reached his nadir with the foppish performance in the epic flop Mutiny on the Bounty. The 60s brought flop after flop until Francis Ford Coppola came to the rescue and cast him (against studio wishes) in The Godfather. Brando was excellent in the film and won his 2nd Oscar. But it was the film itself that was the towering achievement. Everything in it was first rate. More junk followed including the ludicrously overrated Last Tango in Paris.

On the personal front Brando struck out romantically as well and his life was inundated with tragedy and sorrow. Disastrous marriages and affairs haunted him. His daughter committed suicide and one son went to prison for murder.

Marlon Brando should be lucky to be even listed in the company of America's three greatest films actors: James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy. But Brando was a cultural sensation and watching him in his wordless scene at the end of The Wild One you could see partially why audiences of the day responded to his brand of charm and sexuality.

Watch Brando sizzle in this early Hollywood screentest, filmed as he was just starting to set Tinseltown ablaze.