“Hey Johnny,” shouted a woman from the dance floor. “What are you rebelling against?”
Johnny, tapping his fingers idly on a jukebox, sneered, “What’ve you got?”
Brando, then a virile 29, was provocatively clad in skin-tight jeans, engineer boots, a white cotton T-shirt, aviator’s cap and a black leather jacket.
Not just any jacket. It was a Schott Perfecto “One Star,” with Johnny’s name emblazoned on the chest. (SchottNYC, making leather jackets since 1913, continues in business today.) On the back, there was a skull above crossed pistons, the insignia of his “gang,” the Black Rebels.
Brando’s seductive portrayal, based on a real-life 1947 biker rumble in Hollister, California (actually filmed there, and Calabasas), furthered the image of the American biker as a “bad boy” – a myth that has been perpetuated in countless films and images.
Brando, who died July 2, 2004, at age 80, previously told reviewers he faulted the movie for failing to explore the motivations behind biker lawlessness.
“There’s a line in the picture where Johnny snarls, ‘Nobody tells me what to do!’” Brando recalled in an interview shortly before his death. “That’s exactly what I’ve felt like all my life.”
Brando’s portrayal is said to have directly inspired actors in counter-culture cult flicks, such as James Dean
in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1953), Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider” (1969), and even the King Himself, Elvis Presley, in “Jailhouse Rock” (1957). After “Rebel” wrapped, Dean’s Schott would become an integral part of his real-life wardrobe. Even members of the rock band, “The Ramones” wore Schotts.
Brando himself is thought to have selected the Schott to wear in the movie to “create the iconic biker look.”
Schott jackets still inspire lust in collectors. On eBay, almost any kind of a Schott motorcycle jacket commands high prices. The vintage versions show up from time to time, inspiring frantic bidding, and prices well in excess of $500. This week, in fact, one from the 1950s sold on eBay.
I felt lucky to find one a few years ago in a Paris flea market for about what it originally cost: $20. It is in excellent shape. But the intriguing thing about my jacket is its provenance. The small kiosk where I bought it (no longer there, as of last summer) was selling old movie costumes, apparel and memorabilia (like an original “Bullitt” movie poster in pristine shape for $10!). Could it be…?
Nah, mine has a pocket tag that identifies it as a 618 model – which came out sometime in the 1950s. Brando’s jacket was from the same era, of course, but a model 613. That got me wondering, though, “Whatever happened to Brando”s actual jacket?”
The actor professed not to know. But a museum curator in Phoenix, when I first tackled this subject in a 2004 article for Copley News Service, told me Brando’s actual jacket exists. It is, she said, “THE motorcycle jacket. The elusive Holy Grail” to motorcycle jacket aficionados.
“It is out there,” said Dennita Sewell, the curator of fashion design for the Phoenix Art Museum. She attempted to track it down for an exhibition that she put together back then.
“I think I know where it is,” she said at the time, “but even if I’d found it, I couldn’t have afforded it.”
If you know where Brando’s Schott Perfecto is, please let me know. I want it. Sure I have too many black motorcycle jackets already, but you can’t have too many, can you? And, as Brando said, “Nobody tells me what to do!”
September 10, 2010