A Streetcar Named Desire
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Director: Elia Kazan
Production: Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 125 minutes. Released 1951.
Producer: Charles K. Feldman; screenplay: Tennessee Williams, from Oscar Saul's adaptation of the play by Williams; photography: Harry Stradling; editor: David Weisbart; art director: Richard Day; music: Alex North.
Awards: Oscars for Best Actress (Leigh), Best Supporting Actor (Malden), Best Supporting Actress (Hunter), and Art Direction/Set Direction—Black and White, 1951; Venice Film Festival, Best Actress (Leigh) and Special Jury Prize, 1951; New York Film Critics Awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actress (Leigh), and Best Direction, 1951.
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* * *
Partisans of America's Broadway stage, the "fabulous invalid" of 1920s, when pessimists feared that talking pictures would lure new generations away from live theatre, were greatly heartened when after the early successes of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie (1945), and Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947), the promising newcomers followed up their success with A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949). World War II over, a glorious new theatrical era appeared to be underway. However, the two dazzling Expressionist tragedies proved the climax of the period of psychodrama between the wars rather than the prologue to another era of greater accomplishment.
Both plays were directed in New York by the same socially conscious Greek immigrant, Elia Kazan, who had gained extensive experience, both acting and directing during the 1930s, and who, just as he turned 40, had begun moving between the stage and screen. After scoring impressive successes in the late 1940s with controversial films about social problems (Pinky, Gentleman's Agreement, and Panic in the Streets), he was engaged to direct the film version of Streetcar, but Death of a Salesman was assigned to Hollywood newcomer Laslo Benedek. Although the latter made headlines by being picketed by the American Legion, it proved unmemorable, but A Streetcar Named Desire was a smashing success, despite the problems of transferring the play to the screen.
The principal problem was censorship. Williams' play depicts the pathetic degeneration of Blanche DuBois, daughter of a once wealthy family of Mississippi planters, whose socially proper young husband killed himself after being discovered in bed with another man. Blanche watches her family squander its fortune on "epic debaucheries" until they lose their beautiful dream mansion, Belle Rêve. She is obliged to take a poorly paid job as a school-teacher and move into a squalid hotel, from which she is finally evicted because of her "intimacies" with travelling salesmen and high school boys. She is forced to take refuge in New Orleans with her unenthusiastic sister Stella, who has sought to escape the past by marrying a vulgar but virile Polish immigrant. Hostilities immediately flare up between pretentious Blanche and Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, who suspects that the sister is trying to cheat his wife out of an inheritance. He investigates her past and breaks up a budding romance with one of his poker-playing buddies and finally completes her degradation by raping her while Stella is in the hospital bearing their first child. Blanche's shift into probably congenital madness is completed by this traumatic violence, and she is institutionalized as Stella returns to Stanley.
Kazan wanted the film to be as true as possible to the play. Tennessee Williams refused to write the script, but insisted on approving any changes. When Kazan took Oscar Saul's script to Joseph Breen's office, which administered the Production Code, Thomas Pauly reports that he learned that to get the seal of approval that most exhibitors required, 68 changes, including major omissions of any references to homosexuality, nymphomania, or the rape—the principal causes of Blanche's downfall, would have to be made. The first two big no-nos were handled by awkwardly glossing over them with euphemistic references to "nervous tendencies" that many viewers already understood from widespread discussion of the play. Kazan insisted, however, that the rape was essential. Breen acquiesced, so long as there was no evidence of evil intention on Stanley's part, as leeringly suggested by the line in the play, "We've had this date with each other for a long time," and by merely suggesting what will transpire as Stanley advances on the terrified Blanche, brandishing a beer bottle which he smashes into a mirror. Since the Code also demanded that crimes could not be exonerated, Breen insisted that Stella must make it clear that she will not return to Stanley, even though many viewers would realize that in the still patriarchal South a woman with a baby might have no alternative.
Other problems arose. Kazan had at first wanted to open up the film with scenes from Blanche's life in Mississippi; but he finally realized, as Pauly points out, that Williams' intentions could only be realized by confining the principal action to the Kowalski's claustrophobic apartment. Only the opening scene of Blanche's arrival walking down a street that is certainly not—as identified in the movie—the wide, tree-lined Elysian Fields, was shot on location.
As production began, the conflict in the storyline between the decadent tradition of a self-destructive, snobbish society, and the macho violence of a vigorous outsider seeking to take over its social position provided the opportunity of a subtext, probably unintended by the playwright or director, about another conflict between tradition and innovation. Kazan had brought most of his Broadway cast with him; but Vivien Leigh, playing Blanche, had developed her interpretation of the role in the London production under the direction of her husband, Laurence Olivier. Although Williams and Kazan agreed that the emphasis in the film, as in the play, must be on Blanche, Kazan and Leigh clashed over her demeanour in the early scenes, as she argued that Blanche should be played sympathetically throughout. One senses beyond the surface class and gender conflict about which Tennessee Williams had ambiguous feelings an even tougher though understated conflict between two acting traditions—the exacting standards of classically trained performers for an established society and the controversial new method acting of the New York Actors Studio, with which Kazan was associated, which emphasized improvization and reflected in its work the alienation of a rebellious generation at a time when social and artistic traditions were under attack.
The result, abetted by the Breen office's inflexibility, was an immediate victory for tradition. Vivien Leigh gives an almost incomparable performance, transcending medium limitations and, by invoking the "suspension of disbelief" that sublime art requires, getting in touch with the audience as Blanche DuBois, a woman they may suffer with or scorn, but cannot ignore. Leigh triumphs by reversing the memorable image of her related role as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind or indomitable will, to become a symbol of the ever-suffering victims of maligned self-glorifiers with whom the world had become so familiar prior to and during World War II. She justly won her second Academy Award for best actress in a troublesome year when the bitter contest for best picture honours between Streetcar and A Place in the Sun (George Stevens' version of Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy), was settled by default with the award going to Vincente Minnelli's lightweight but uplifting An American in Paris. (Hollywood veteran Stevens was consoled with the Best Director's award, while Humphrey Bogart as Best Actor in The African Queen beat relative newcomer Brando.)
In the long run, however, while the sometimes fatal struggle continues between unreconciled extremist groups in the United States, Williams' vision of his ending for the tragedy seems prophetic as the "natural" behaviour of those struggling for survival and advancement grows, a stronger force than that defending artificialities of traditional culture—an American tendency that is increasingly exported abroad. Inevitably a flawed film because of the conditions imposed upon its creation, A Streetcar Named Desire remains an indispensable period piece that vividly projects an image of more aspects of its period than its creators may have realized.
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