The History of Leather Part 22 – The Wild One

Posted on 31/07/14

Born to be wild (1953)

Mildred (played by Peggy Maley): What are you rebelling against, Johnny?

Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando): Whatddya got?

And just like that, the stage was set for Laslo Benedek’s “The Wild One” to capture the imaginations of teenagers across America. It was 1953, the world was still recovering from the Second World War, and Western teenagers were outraging their elders, and redefining what it meant to be young.

I say capture the imaginations of American teenagers for one very important reason – the film was banned in the UK by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC). It was nearly 15 years after the film’s original American release before the British public caught their first glimpse of Johnny Strabler’s Black Rebels Motorcycle Club.

With Strabler’s iconic image, one of long sideburns, a Perfecto-style leather jacket, a tilted cap and a Triumph motorcycle, along with his trademark effortless cool and nonchalance, it is almost no wonder that subsequent years would see numerous Brando imitations and Brando-inspired looks. Some argue that at points, the wannabe Brando situation has gotten out of hand, Dave Kehr of The Chicago Reader wrote that “legions of Brando impersonators have turned his performance in this seminal 1953 motorcycle movie into self-parody”.

The influential nature of Brando’s look can’t be denied though, featuring on the cover of The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and inspiring Elvis Presley’s role in “Jailhouse Rock”. Brando’s look was even unconvincingly aped by Shia LaBoeuf in 2008’s unnecessary Indiana Jones fourquel, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”.

You’d think that a look so memorable would have been carefully studied, debated and honed over a number of weeks and months. In actual fact, Brando’s image of the character was, in many ways, a happy accident. Brando provided Strabler’s wardrobe himself, after talking to a band of motorcyclists. A band of them? A gaggle, cabal, horde? Let’s go with ‘band’. A band of motorcyclists.

Nevertheless, the BBFC felt that the film presented a “spectacle of unbridled hooliganism”, and the infamous clashes between mods and rockers did little to dissuade the general public of the notion that the addition of “The Wild One” into the mix wouldn’t have helped matters. The allure of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club lifestyle was undeniable.

Even if the lifestyle didn’t appeal, the wardrobe certainly will have done – particularly Brando’s customized jacket. Fashion commentator Simon Doonan said in an interview with the New York Times, that often the ways in which people’s fashion choices are inspired by film is “never very apparent”, often only taking away “a single wardrobe item, a talisman…like they’re getting a holy relic”.

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