Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
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Background

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is a subversive, steamy film classic that was adapted from Tennessee Williams' 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play (his first) of the same name. [Early working titles for the play included The Moth, Blanche's Chair on the Moon, and The Poker Night.] Playwright Williams adapted his own play for the screen version. This film masterpiece was directed by independent director Elia Kazan (his first piece of work with Williams), a socially-conscious director who insisted that the film be true to the play (that he had also directed on Broadway). However, it was opened up to include places only briefly mentioned or non-existent in the play, such as the bowling alley, the pier of a dance casino, and the machine factory.

The electrifying film tells the feverish story of the pathetic mental and emotional demise of a determined, yet fragile, repressed and delicate Southern lady (Blanche) born to a once-wealthy family of Mississippi planters. Her impoverished, tragic downfall in the squalid, cramped and tawdry French Quarter one-bedroom apartment of her married sister (Stella) and animalistic brother-in-law (Stanley) is at the hands of savage, brutal forces in modern society. In her search for refuge, she finds that her sister lives (approvingly) with drunkenness, violence, lust, and ignorance.

The visceral film, considered controversial, decadent, and "morally repugnant" challenged the regulatory Production Code's censors (and the Legion of Decency) with its bold adult drama and sexual subjects (insanity, rape, domestic violence, homosexuality, sexual obsession, and female promiscuity or nymphomania). Ultimately, it signaled the weakening of Hollywood censorship (and groups such as the Catholic Legion of Decency), although a number of scenes were excised, and new dialogue was written. And the Production Code insisted that Stanley be punished for the rape by the loss of his wife's love at the film's conclusion. In 1993, approximately three to five minutes of the censored scenes (i.e., specific references to Blanche's homosexual - or bisexual young husband, her nymphomania, and Stanley's rape of Blanche) were restored in an 'original director's version' video re-release.

The three main character roles in the ensemble were played with remarkably triumphant performances, all from various stage play casts. One film poster provided a partial film synopsis and description of characters:

...When she got there, she met the brute Stan, and the side of New Orleans she hardly knew existed...Blanche, who wanted so much to stay a lady.

The controversial film was nominated for a phenomenal twelve nominations and awarded four Oscars (an unprecedented three were in the acting categories): Best Actress for Vivien Leigh (her second Best Actress Oscar), and Best Supporting Awards to Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. This was the first time in Academy history that three acting awards were won by a single film (this feat was later repeated by Network (1976)). In addition, the Best B/W Art Direction/Set Decoration was given to Richard Day and George James Hopkins for their naturalistically sordid sets. Remarkably, these other eight nominations were all defeated:

The hotly-contested, competitive year saw the Best Picture Award presented instead to Vincente Minnelli's musical An American in Paris (1951). [It was only the third musical in Academy Award history to win the top honor.] Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951) took the Best Actor Award away from Marlon Brando (it was Bogart's sole career Oscar). And George Stevens was awarded Best Director for his work on A Place in the Sun (1951).

Two made-for-TV movies have been made of the famous play: a 1984 version with Ann-Margret (as Blanche), Treat Williams (as Stanley), Beverly D'Angelo (as Stella), and Randy Quaid (as Mitch), and in 1995 with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange (both recreating their 1992 stage roles), and also with Diane Lane (as Stella) and John Goodman (as Mitch).

The Story

Set in New Orleans in the years immediately following World War II, the film opens with the arrival of a train and a pretentious southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) - she has taken the train to the city. As a joyous wedding party runs by in the station, Blanche appears like an apparition or angel out of a cloud of steam emitted by the train engine, as she carries her battered suitcase. Blanche is frail and in a neurotic emotional state, a faded-beauty with ragged, bleached hair and superficial, genteel Southern propriety. In her very first lines, she expresses her delusionary confusion to a young sailor, mentioning three streetcar stops that symbolize her desperate situation. She has come as a result of her sordid 'desires' to the last stop available to her:

They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.

The Desire Line streetcar (named Desire after Desire Street) [the symbolic assumption is that Blanche has already indulged in 'Desire' before her arrival] takes her to her sister Stella DuBois Kowalski's (Kim Hunter) apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter. There at Elysian Fields [symbolizing paradise beyond death from ancient lore] where she has come for a visit, she is surprised at the downstairs living accommodations of her sister, a small, shabby two-room tenement in a run-down neighborhood: "Can this be her home?" She finds her sister at the local bowling alley where her brother-in-law Stanley is bowling. After hugging each other, Blanche worries about her appearance: "Oh no, no, no. I won't be looked at in this merciless glare," and is concerned about where her sister lives in a derelict area: "Only Poe. Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do justice to it. What are you doing in that horrible place?"

Stella has turned her back on her aristocratic background, and found happiness by marrying a working class, Polish immigrant husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche's first glimpse of the loud, coarse, and brutish Stanley is on the bowling lanes. A fight erupts - and Stanley is in the middle of a rough and tumble controversy with some of the other players - but Stella admires him: "Oh, isn't he wonderful looking?"

While sipping on a cold drink (Blanche's preferred drink is scotch, not soda 'pop') in one of the alley's booths, Blanche tells her sister why she had to leave her poorly-paid, high-school English teaching position in Laurel, Mississippi before the spring term ended - she took "a leave of absence" due to nervous exhaustion. Holding on to reality and her struggles in life in an unreal world of her imagination, she just had to leave for a while, finding nowhere else to go but to her sister's for protection. She suffers from delusions regarding her past, her true age, and the reason for her sudden appearance. She directs the lights away from her face, lamenting: "Daylight never exposed so total a ruin."

Back at the cramped, two-room apartment with dirty, peeling wallpaper, Blanche expresses her need for human contact to find solace: "I'm not going to put up in a hotel. I've got to be near you, Stella. I've got to be with people. I can't be alone..." She is also nervous about Stella's raunchy husband, as her main intention is to win back Stella's devotion to her and her in-bred Southern aristocratic attitudes:

Blanche: Will Stanley like me or, or will I just be a visiting in-law? I couldn't stand that Stella! (She looks at a picture on the dresser of Stanley in his military uniform.)
Stella: You'll get along fine together. You just try not to compare...
Blanche: (interrupting) Oh, he was an officer?
Stella: He was a Master Sergeant in the Engineers Corp. (proudly) Decorated four times.
Blanche: He had those on when you met him?
Stella: Surely I wasn't blinded by all the brass...Of course, there, there were things to adjust myself to later on.
Blanche: Such as his, uh, civilian background. How did he take it when you said I was coming?
Stella: Oh, he's on the road a good deal.
Blanche: Oh, he travels?
Stella: Umm, mmm.
Blanche: Good.

A returning World War II veteran, Stanley was decorated for his service but now his job takes him on the road a good deal. Judging everything by the standards of Old Southern gentility, Blanche finds Stella's love for Stanley severely lacking and somewhat incomprehensible.

Seeking to minimize her sister's "reproach," Blanche quickly explains how she tried to preserve everything by sticking to their home, Belle Reve, and how she struggled to salvage what she could:

...take into consideration you left. I stayed and struggled. You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself. I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together. Oh, I'm not meaning this in any reproachful way. But all the burdens descended on my shoulders...You were the one that abandoned Belle Reve, not I. I stayed and fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it.

Blanche rationalizes about "the loss" - the fate of their old family estate, a beautiful dream mansion named Belle Reve ('Beautiful Dream'), the aristocratic DuBois homestead in Laurel, Mississippi. Blanche had been left to care for the family holdings, but soon lost her home, her job, and her respect. Due to the family squandering its fortune, it was lost to creditors. Family deaths had also left her alone and penniless, while Stella was in bed with her husband:

I, I, I took the blows in my face and my body. All of those deaths. The long parade to the graveyard. Father, mother...You just came home in time for funerals Stella, and funerals are pretty compared to deaths. How did you think all that sickness and dying was paid for? Death is expensive, Miss Stella. And I, on my pitiful salary at the school. Yes, accuse me! Stand there and stare at me, thinking I let the place go. I let the place go! Where were you? In there with your Pollack!

When Blanche first meets the brawny Stanley, he has just returned home from bowling. They stare at each other for a short while, and then she introduces herself: "You must be Stanley. I'm Blanche." He offers her a drink, but she declines by explaining she rarely touches it. He comments:

Well, there are some people that rarely touch it, but it touches them often.

Animalistic and exhibitionistic, he removes his hot, sweat-soaked, smelly and sticky T-shirt in front of her, and changes into a clean one to "make myself comfortable." [Brando, beginning with his Broadway performance, popularized the T-shirt to be worn as a sexy, stand-alone, outer-wear garment. Originally, it was issued by the U.S. Navy (as early as 1913) as a crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirt to be worn under a uniform.] She covertly sneaks a peek at his massive, muscular biceps and torso after he states his motto: "Be comfortable. That's my motto up where I come from." While they size each other up, he asks if she is planning to stay for a while: "You gonna shack up here?" And then he senses her distance from him - she is from an entirely anti-thetical culture:

Well, I guess I'm gonna strike you as being the unrefined type, huh?

Stanley knows from Stella that Blanche was married once when she was younger. Blanche explains what happened as she hears polka music - and associates the music with her dead husband. A distant gunshot in her head silences the music: "The boy...the boy died. I'm afraid I'm, I'm gonna be sick." [In the stage version of the play, her socially-proper young husband committed suicide because he had been caught in a homosexual encounter. The fact of her deceased husband's homosexuality is retained only through vague suggestion in the partially-censored film.]

Blanche's large steamer trunks arrive, implying that she will be remaining for an extended stay. Because it is Stanley's poker night and the disruption might upset Blanche, Stella plans to take her out to dinner and leave Stanley with a cold plate on ice. With endearing kisses, she tries to persuade Stanley to be nice to Blanche who is edgy and seems to be upset by everything. Stella suggests that Stanley tell her that she looks good:

Honey, when she comes in, be sure and say something nice about her appearance...and try to understand and be nice to her, honey. She wasn't expecting to find us in such a place...And admire her dress. Tell her she's looking wonderful. It's important to Blanche. A little weakness.

Stanley is very suspicious of Blanche's account of the demise of Belle Reve. He thinks that both of them have been swindled out of an inheritance from the family fortune:

How about a few more details on that subject...Let's cop a gander at the bill of sale...What do you mean? She didn't show you no papers, no deed of sale or nothin' like that?...Well then, what was it then? Given away to charity?...Oh I don't care if she hears me. Now let's see the papers...Now listen. Did you ever hear of the Napoleonic code, Stella?...Now just let me enlighten you on a point or two...Now we got here in the state of Louisiana what's known as the Napoleonic code. You see, now according to that, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also, and vice versa...It looks to me like you've been swindled, baby. And when you get swindled under Napoleonic code, I get swindled too and I don't like to get swindled...Where's the money if the place was sold?

He sees all her fancy clothing and jewelry in the trunk, gets all worked up and refuses to pamper her as Stella would have him. He throws Blanche's possessions around and violates her trunk with all its clothes, jewelry (and her love letters) - suspicious that a poor schoolteacher could have so many possessions:

Now will you just open your eyes to this stuff here. Now I mean, what - has she got this stuff out of teacher's pay?...Will you look at these fine feathers and furs that she comes to bring herself in here. What is this article? That's a solid gold dress, I believe...Now what is that? There's a treasure chest of a pirate...That's pearls, Stella, ropes of 'em. What is your sister - a deep sea diver? Bracelets, solid gold. (To Stella) Where are your pearls and gold bracelets?...And here you are. Diamonds. A crown for an empress...Here's your plantation Stella, right here...Well, the Kowalskis and the DuBois - there's just a different notion on this.

When Blanche comes out of the bathroom from a hot bath (where she was "soaking in a hot tub to quiet her nerves" - and compulsively cleansing herself of her past), Stanley is waiting for her like she is his prey. Her lady-like affectations rub Stanley the wrong way, as does the long steam bath (in the summertime!) and the disruption in his poker night plans. She notices her trunk has been partly unpacked ("exploded"), and he starts questioning her about her expensive-looking clothing ("It certainly looks like you raided some stylish shops in Paris, Blanche"). Stanley can't believe Blanche's pretentious attitude or her tales of rich and handsome suitors. He tells Blanche that he doesn't believe in complimenting women about their looks, when she appears to be fishing for compliments:

I never met a dame yet that didn't know if she was good-lookin' or not without being told. And there's some of them that give themselves credit for more than they've got. I once went out with a dame who told me, 'I'm the glamorous type.' She says, 'I am the glamorous type.' I said, 'So what?'

He boasts to Blanche that when he said that, it "shut her up like a clam...it ended the conversation, that was all." He isn't "taken in by this Hollywood glamour stuff." Blanche describes his attitude: "You're simple, straightforward, and honest. A little bit on the, uh, primitive side, I should think."

Blanche encourages him to ask any questions, because she claims that she has nothing to hide. Suspicious of her, Stanley explains the Louisiana Napoleonic Code to her: "...what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also and vice versa." He clashes with her by not believing her stories:

Blanche: My, but you have an impressive, judicial air.
Stanley: You know, if I didn't know that you was my wife's sister, I would get ideas about you...Don't play so dumb. You know what.

Laying her "cards on the table" [like his poker buddies], she admits to Stanley that she doesn't always tell the truth, but when veracity matters, she does:

I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman's charm is fifty percent illusion, but when a thing is important I tell the truth...


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