1940 was my year of “raging hormones.” Raging, but not unbridled. Nor ungirdled. Because in 1940, you went on your first date not only in a tight-waisted full-skirted dress, but your hair was impeccably in place, you wore a girdle to which your seams-in-the-rear stockings were tightly hooked, you got a gardenia corsage which you pinned to your breast, and if you got a goodnight kiss, it was the chaste kind that the young Mickey Rooney gave to that sweet kid Judy Garland.
But we had yearning hearts and an unsatisfied curiosity. I remember a naughty little ditty that was popular with the underage crowd: Two little lovers, under the covers and what do they do…they doodely do. What on earth did they do? All the books that told us about it were red-lined in the library, locked in cabinets with the same lock and key that closed us away from sexuality. Sex, in the ’40s, belonged strictly to marriage. In those days, a honeymoon was a honeymoon. Wow.
We had just come out of the Depression, and movies were pure fantasy. Either extravaganzas where tap-dancing women wearing gorgeous feathered gowns were twirled gracefully by Fred Astaire, always in a tux. Or you watched Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey(1936) where screwball Carole, always in an elegant gown even at breakfast, was served by William Powell who was picked up as a bum for a scavenger hunt, turned into a butler who is (what a surprise) also fantastically wealthy and will turn the slag heep into a top-notch nightclub where the elite can exercise their feet while the really poor now can make a buck as doorman or waiter.
So if you had a yearning heart in the forties, it was still locked up…but the lock was rattling. And the neat locked-up costumery reflected the scene. Yet, overseas, it was something else. In the French cinema, a rough-edged character named Jean Gabin [Pepe le Moko (1937)] broke the mold when he appeared on the screen in a dirty shirt with a kerchief about the neck, unshaven, unwashed, unbridled eyes of an unrestricted underclass free to do whatever it damn well wanted. I remember him in an American film–I think it was called Moontide. He was a rough sailor, and when he ate, it wasn’t at the constrained table with the five food groups (we were supposed to serve bacon and eggs for breakfast, steak and potatoes for dinner, ruining the arteries of that generation), but he sat at a dirty table smooshing his eggs with a hunk of bread which he tore with dirty hands and chewed chewed chewed, mouth partly open while he looked at you with those half-closed eyes. You knew he was capable of you-knew-what.
Now, true, there were among us those adventurous women who ran abroad to Paris and did courageous, wild stuff. The rest of us got safely married, had our children young, served our five food groups, and went to the movies.
Then along came Marlon and the rigid mold was shattered. I don’t mean your Marlon of the stuffed-jaw Godfather, or the grotesque Marlon sitting on the edge of hell in Apocalypse Now. I mean the young man, he was exactly my age, who transformed the screen with On the Waterfront (1954). He was handsome, passionate, in his ex-prize fighter eyes you could see his chaotic heart. See it, feel it, and there in your movie seat, eating your popcorn or your candy bar, you could smell the sweat and sense the pulse of his beating heart as he falls in love with the convent girl, Eva Marie Saint, she who has been raised away from the turmoil and the raw emotion of the waterfront. You know he has something more than the animals he runs with because he keeps and loves pigeons, and because he recognizes his brother’s betrayal (the famous: You should have taken care of me, Charlie.) He gets this convent girl into a bar where she sits chastely dressed, it’s still the clothing, yet she looks at him without fear. Her convent heart is strong and ready to take on this rough-edged passionate animal, and she leans back against the wall and he leans into her. And you know that if sex is in any way the object, the real subject is a desperately needful heart.
Marlon Brando made real for love what Apocalypse Now made real for war.
What the young Marlon gave to us, the girdled kids of my generation, was the awareness that there was something deep and simmering, and that it was out there and for the first time we really saw it. That beneath the facade of the girdled and formulated movie was a gut, a nervous system, a yearning that went far deeper than Bette Davis smoking her spitty cigarette given to her by a Paul Henreid who spoke of love but wore a suit and tie, hair neatly combed in spite of imminent death by the Nazis.
For the first time on the screen, at least for me, was the reality of what drives us all: passion, disappointment, yearning, failure, redemption…not an imitation of life, as permitted by the code, but raw life itself. Maybe it was only in a couple of films: Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and a wonderful, unsettling film called Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), but my Marlon was a beautiful young man, full of sexual energy and repressed emotion, who tore away that veil of romantic love, so popular on the screen, and showed us the heat of what passion might truly be: the depth of it, the pain of it, the messiness of it. And to those of us in our girdles and gardenia corsages, it was purely wonderful.