In 50s & 60s, biker babes and boys ruled
Hot rods, motorcycles and black leather jackets in the 1950s symbolized Hollywood’s youth rebellion characterized by James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Jack Nicholson, who portrayed characters running against norms either as defiant loners or in biker “gangs”.
Young women such as Nancy “These Boots are Made for Walking” Sinatra went against the prevailing June Cleaver image of doting wives and mothers in dresses and pumps by falling for the bad boys who persuaded them to be themselves, not what society expected. These women express their independence and sexuality by loving the rebellious guy and rejecting female norms in their own “gangs” where rolled up pants exposing bare legs, red lipstick, boots (sans pantyhose), jackets and motorcycles abound (i.e. “Hell’s Belles,” “Teenage Devil Dolls,” or “The Hot Angel”).
Anti-authoritarian biker gangs rode free-wheeling into towns and quickly introduced bullets and blood in an updated spin on the Western where outlaws road into towns on horseback.
Dean’s statement that “I’m doing [life] on my own … a rebel in my own way,” threatened the economic establishment of the era and in many of the films brought such embittered feelings that these small groups of kids theoretically endangered democracy in the U.S.A.
Brando’s “The Wild One” (1953), which demonized the motorbike hoods who ravaged a small California town, preceded Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), which stereotyped juvenile delinquency and was quickly followed by a fiendish style of music: rock ‘n’ roll (“Rock Around the Clock”, 1956). Anti-moral activities of Hell’s Angels gangs continued to popularize the thug image.
Marauding psycho portrayals morphed into sex, drugs, lifestyle experimentation, and the rock ‘n’ roll hippie 60s, where the bike became an essential vehicle for touring the road. The sexy images range from “Vanishing Point’s” nude girl riding a bike in circle or the French “Girl on a Motorcycle,” in which the leather wearing star supposedly had no underwear. Her life in flashback make the suit more sensual.
A search of Amazon listings of ‘hot rod and biker flicks’ praises the 6l minute drive-in gem, “Teenage Strangler,” which places teen queens in peril in a small heartland city as the authorities take on dancing, hot rods, and music with a strong beat.
A reviewer writes of the film, shot in Huntington: “While the killer is both obvious and a surprise, the real reason to watch is the vintage cars, malt shops, dances, clothes, and furniture. Since the film was shot live on location in 1965, there do not appear to be any fabricated sets.”
Cinema depicting bikers as hellish hooligans spreading anarchy shifted in the late 60s to native American, Vietnam-era Green Beret vet Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) as a good-guy vigilante (“Born Losers”), which opened the same year (1969) that Peter Fonda explored the counterculture road in “Easy Rider”. This softened the characterization from scary outlaws to dudes throwing caution to the wind on a hog.
Billy Jack goes on to inspire the counterculture and champion minorities in a series that eventually sends him to Washington as a Congressman.
These rebels sported long hair, beards, peace signs and love beads, and consumed their share of weed and LSD spouting “make love not war.” Instead of revving up the townfolks, they found the prejudice of southern rednecks, the continuing negative image of bikes and bikers, and casual sex exemplified the “hippie” styles.
As a low budget action genre, motorcycle-themed films’ up-and-coming “stars” got their first breaks in some of them. Lee Marvin shared billing with Brando in “Wild Ones.” Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper gained fame, too. Exploitation hero Russ Meyer helmed “Motor Psycho.” Bruce Dern was cast in “Angels Unchained,” and “Cycle Savages.”
Television introduced numerous cycling characters. “Happy Days” character “The Fonz” may be the most widely known and, of course, the most law abiding as his slick hair and bike explained his rebellion against 50s norms.