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Marlon Brando on DVD, Part One: The Fifties

by Jesse Shanks

Recent releases of two classic Marlon Brando films on DVD could renew interest in this foremost of American actors whose career spans five decades and includes some of the greatest performances in some of the greatest films ever made. On the Waterfront (1954) and The Young Lions (1958), bring to a total of five the number of films starring Brando from the 1950s that are available on DVD; the missing seven include some fascinating film work. This first of a three-part series examines the actor's films from that decade and the impact of his work on Hollywood in that era.

To many of the current generation, the career of Marlon Brando could be difficult to comprehend, based on some of his recent movie appearances, and especially after his television appearances on CNN's Larry King Live. The DVD release of On The Waterfront and The Young Lions, as well as, the upcoming expanded version of 1979's Apocalypse Now (Redux) bring a renewed perspective on Brando's place in the forefront of American cinema. Many more of his most interesting and some of his most confusing performances have yet to be released in the new medium. Any current Brando collection on DVD will be dwarfed by the entirety of his body of work.

A two-time Academy Award® winner and a multiple nominee, Brando has provided an erratic resumé in the last couple of decades following his career heights of the 1970s with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. There are some finely wrought performances in such films as The Freshman, which was a comic retake of his turn as Don Corleone, and a cameo in A Dry White Season, where he stole his scenes as a liberal attorney in apartheid South Africa. But, there are also such strange interpretations as his portrayal of Torquemada in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, a mondo bizarro performance in the title role of The Island of Dr. Moreau and his ultimate, over-the-top performance as The Swede in Free Money.

Marlon Brando has been one of the most respected American actors for more than 50 years and has largely been credited with the popularization of the Method style of acting, which depends on a psychological understanding of the motivations of a role, as opposed to a more superficial portrayal based on surface technique. He began with the Actors Studio, where Lee and Paula Strasberg taught their naturalistic theory of acting using what was called "sense memory" to reach for learning the truth of a role, rather than just giving an impersonation. This coincided with the development of a more naturalistic modern American theater dominated by such emotional playwrights as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

During a short stage career—in which critic Pauline Kael noted at one performance that he appeared to be having a seizure on stage—Brando originated the indelible role of the brutish Stanley Kowalski, opposite Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois in Williams' sensational play, A Streetcar Named Desire. James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio television series on Bravo has stated that seeing Brando on stage in those days was "witnessing the invention of a new kind of acting." But Hollywood soon beckoned and Brando made his film debut in The Men, which gained him some notoriety because he actually spent time with disabled veterans to add authenticity to his role as a paraplegic Army Captain wounded in World War II. His co-stars included Jack Webb and Theresa Wright. Although dated, The Men was significant, both in its subject matter and the hints of the explosive actor to come.

Brando burst into the popular culture of the 1950s with when he re-created his Stanley Kowalski stage role for the big screen in the equally sensational film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan, and opposite Vivien Leigh in the role of Blanche. Appearing in a t-shirt for most of the film, he was responsible for an upsurge in their sales as outerwear and could perhaps be blamed, to a degree, for the incredible proliferation of t-shirts we know today. Nominated for an Oscar® along with the entire cast, Brando was the only one not to take home the statuette in a year in which Streetcar was awarded Best Picture and Elia Kazan won the award for Best Director. The film was heavily censored for content with elements involving sex, rape and homosexuality removed or diluted. Brando's performance was literally like no other that had ever been captured on film and few have matched its raw power since. With this second screen portrayal, Brando was already being hailed as the greatest of American actors and soon there would be a proliferation of young actors employing, with varying degrees of success, his naturalistic mannerisms and brooding style, including Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift and James Dean.

An "Original Director's Version" of Streetcar was the first Brando film of this era to be released on DVD by Warner Bros. in August 1997. This featured dialogue and scene restorations in four of the chapters that totals about 3 minutes. Production notes outline the reasons for the cuts, which mainly entails attempting to avoid condemnation by the Legion of Decency in that era of strict control over the production code. Streetcar stands as one of those films that contributed greatly to the breaking down of those creative barriers in America.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was up next as Brando tackled the difficult role of Marc Antony, opposite such venerated English actors as John Gielgud and James Mason. This performance garnered Brando—often accused of mumbling through his roles—surprise acclaim and his second Oscar® nomination in the Best Actor category. Although his acting is constrained by the stylized performance necessary for Shakespeare, Brando showed a power in the "dogs of war" and Forum speeches that won the respect of his more traditionally-trained colleagues.

In this era prior to the Red Scare of the 1950s and the blacklisting of the so-called "Hollywood 10," Brando received his third Best Actor nod, appearing opposite Anthony Quinn and Jean Peters in the title role of Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!. The film told the story of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata's struggles to liberate the downtrodden peons who quickly finds himself sucked into the very corruption that he was fighting against. Brando's performance was full-bodied and powerful. Films with a social message like this would soon be taboo in Hollywood, but Brando has continued through his life to use his status to support causes that battle social injustice.

Brando finally scored the Oscar when he once again joined Kazan to play the role of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Malloy is an ex-boxer involved with racketeers among the longshoremen on the docks who eventually testifies against his former cohorts. This film features his famous scene with Rod Steiger in the backseat of a taxi where he mutters the immortal lines, "I coulda been a contender. I coulda had class." The film later gained an unexpected notoriety as director Kazan "named names" before the House Un-American Activities Commission, which became public knowledge. The plot line of a young man doing the right thing by testifying against his criminal companions was seen as a justification for the testimony of Kazan himself. The film also features scenes in which Brando's character is brutally beaten by his enemies, which would become one of the trademarks of his acting. Interestingly, in the case of this Oscar®, a smiling Marlon not only picked up his award but gave a gracious acceptance speech.

Columbia TriStar released a Special Edition of On the Waterfront in October 2001 with a nice selection of extras that show and discuss him, but do not feature Brando. A few years ago, the actor was interviewed by Connie Chung and towards the end of their conversation, in which Brando had repeatedly refused to discuss his film work, she said, "Some people feel as if you've cheated them out of the genius of your work over the years..." Brando cut her off with the remark, "That's like putting fried eggs in your armpit."

His next performance in 1954's The Wild One as Johnny Malone, the leader of a motorcycle gang, in cap, leather jacket and jeans is one of the most enduring symbols of Hollywood of the '50s. That film virtually gave birth to the whole motorcycle gang B-film genre, featuring the classic response to the question, "Hey Johnny! What are you rebelling against?" Brando's Malone drums on the table and replies, "Whaddya got?" Widely criticized for its subject matter, The Wild One became a omen of the unsettled times to come. Although today's audience might find some of the melodrama and message quite dated, the performances are powerful. This includes a young Lee Marvin in the role of an opposing motorcycle gang leader. It was released on DVD by Columbia TriStar in November 1998.

Contract problems, difficulties with the studio system and Brando's refusal to accept a role led to his appearance as Napoleon in Desirée, opposite Jean Simmons, to fulfill his contract. Brando eerily captures the look of the French dictator with eerie authenticity and creates a brooding, arrogant, self-absorbed figure that begs for a real historical context. The film itself, however, is mostly a piece of Hollywood fluff, based on a romance novel that was not overly constricted by the facts of history. Desirée also features Merle Oberon as Josephine, Michael Rennie as General Bernadotte and a young Cameron Mitchell as Napoleon's brother Joseph.

Brando then amazed his fans in 1955, singing and dancing with Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra along with the Goldwyn Girls in Guys and Dolls. The reception was somewhat mixed for this performance in this impressionistic gambling story, although the movie remains a popular musical. Brando performs quite earnestly and adequately in a role that would seem outside his talents. It is the inclusion of this film in the actor's resumé from the '50s that tilts an already astonishing range of film roles and movie types. Guys and Dolls has seen release on DVD from MGM in May 2001 with a 2.55:1 widescreen image transfer and a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

Next he drew on his stage experience and tackled the role of Sakini in the post-war comedy, Teahouse of the August Moon. Many were amazed that Brando would take on the role of the wily Okinawan interpreter who wreaks havoc among the American occupation forces. Again, the reviews of this portrayal were lukewarm. But, the movie is an enjoyable experience and suffers more from being overly long than from Brando's performance, which insinuates itself nicely into the overall conception of the picture and actually hands over the main task of carrying the film to Glenn Ford and Eddie Albert. Leonard Maltin calls Teahouse an "outstanding comedy."

In 1957, Brando signed on for James Michener's Sayonara as a prejudiced Air Force officer who finds himself falling in love with a Japanese actress. The film was part Japanese travelogue with a huge helping of love story and a spice of tragedy. Red Buttons (Oscar® for Best Supporting Actor) and James Garner portrayed other American soldiers; sadly, for "authenticity," Ricardo Montalban plays a small part as a Japanese Kabuki actor. The fact that he is obviously not Japanese opposite real Japanese actresses as Miiko Taka (as Brando's love interest Hana-ogi) and Miyoshi Umeki (Oscar® for Best Supporting Actress as Button's wife) seriously damages credibility in a film with racism as a plotline. During this time, a notorious Truman Capote interview was published and other stories of his battles with director Joshua Logan surfaced. This also continued an emerging trend where Brando gave his best performances in films that seemed to have some meaning or message, such as telling the story of paraplegics in The Men, the downtrodden peasants in Zapata or here addressing the post-war prejudices against the Japanese. The film was quite a success, garnering ten Academy Award® nominations including Best Picture, winning four awards. Brando was accorded his fifth Oscar® nomination of the decade.

His next film, The Young Lions in 1958 was controversial for Brando's portrayal of a sympathetic Nazi character in a vast, sprawling film that mixed love and war. A little more than a decade after the end of World War II, Americans were not ready for a Nazi on the screen that evoked any feelings other than hatred. Brando, with hair bleached blonde to exemplify the Aryan ideal, was condemned for his interpretation by the critics and the author of the original novel, Irwin Shaw. The parallel story tells of three men, one German and two Americans, as they wind their way through the years prior to and during the war, from the training camps of America to the death camps of Germany. Montgomery Clift, playing a character similar to his performance in From Here to Eternity, utilized an acting method that evoked a more sensitive version of Brando, and their shared billing was a public relations coup for the film. Dean Martin played the other American, an entertainer attempting to avoid the war altogether. This character struck an unpopular chord with an audience who had now been enduring the brutal years of the Korean War. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten involved in the HUAC scandals, the film seemed to have many unpopular aspects. To make matters worse, all three stars never had a scene together in the film!

The Young Lions was released on DVD by 20th Century Fox as a Fox War Classic with a very good 2.35:1 widescreen image transfer and an impressive digital stereo soundtrack in November of 2001.

Brando's final film of the decade, The Fugitive Kind, was a reunion with the material of Tennessee Williams. Originally called Orpheus Descending and based on a rewrite of Williams' first significant play, Battle of Angels, the film production was plagued by some significant production difficulties with script rewrites and actor conflicts. The story draws on Williams' fascination with the ancient Greek myth and is rife with betrayal, sexual tension, murder and destruction. Brando appears as Val Xavier, a young man in a snakeskin jacket with a guitar who flees troubles in New Orleans, winding up in a small Mississippi town. He causes uproar among the community's women with his odd way of thinking and physical attractiveness. Featuring an all-star cast including Joanne Woodward, Anna Magnani and Maureen Stapleton, The Fugitive Kind was the first Brando film to garner extremely negative criticism and fail at the box office, heralding the difficult decade to come for the actor's career. The film occasionally appears on late night TV and in a severely hacked-up version at that.

Thus came to a close a decade for Marlon Brando that contained 12 films, with four among the best American films ever made, and 5 Academy Award® nominations, with one win. He established himself as the foremost American actor and a huge box office draw. He impacted our culture with his Stanley Kowlaski—even cartoon characters have been seen to agonize, "Stel-l-l-l-l-l-l-la!"—and his rebellious Johnny Malone in his boots and leather jacket, as well as his Terry Malloy striving for just a little bit of something better. Both lionized and victimized by the Hollywood system, Brando attempted, as many stars of this era had, to select and produce his own films. But, unlike the others, he was also determined to make films of significance and did not hide his support for many unpopular causes, something that was destined to bring him into opposition with the finely honed propaganda factory that marketed motion pictures. Once the studios producing the films became the distributors of them, a new battle line would be drawn and as one of the most popular actors in the world, Marlon Brando would find himself on the front lines.

Out of these twelve films, only five have been released on DVD, with two having been released prior to this year, one released earlier this year and two within the last month. Out of the remaining seven, certainly three of those (Zapata, Julius Caesar and Sayonara) are worthy of special editions. Even the last four certainly have interest and deserve to be transferred to the new medium. In the next part of this series, the 1960s dawn with a new era of freedom in filmmaking and Brando runs afoul of the changing currents with box office disasters and a growing reputation as "difficult." He would make another dozen films in the next decade, only one of which is widely available on a quality DVD release and it is astonishing which of that twelve it is.