: Elia Kazan
Oscar Saul (adaptation)
: September, 1951
: Marlon Brando
, Vivien Leigh
, Karl Malden
, Kim Hunter
We've Created Enchantment:
Departures From Stage to Film and What They're All About
Elia Kazan, having directed a successful stage production of Tennessee Williams’s "A Streetcar Named Desire", was the logical pick to tell the film version of the same stunning story, and the choice in director proved to be an intelligent one. Transplanting multiple members of the original stage cast to the silver screen, Kazan’s film works well as an interpretation and production of the play, rarely departing at all in terms of dialogue and setting. He walks a fine line at moments, particularly in regards to certain plot points. It's in that respect that the transition from stage to film becomes interesting, as we can trace quite clearly the hand of the censors. Furthermore, comparing the 1951 version with a re-release in 1993 (featuring additional footage censored from the earlier version) reveals places in which Kazan's vision was stifled.
Departures in Setting
The film holds true to Williams’s directions as far as setting go, but only to an extent. The bluesy jazz music described in the text is a joy to hear transferred successfully, permeating nearly every scene to the point that it’s faintly audible within the Kowalski residence. The same applies to the sounds of the trains, which appear during moments of emotional tension and at times increase to the level of a low roar. The film does have its departures from the play, however. It’s difficult to know why the film was shot in black and white, since Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz employed color techniques as early as 1939, a full decade before A Streetcar Named Desire. The fact of the matter is that even in 1951 dramatic films were commonly shot without color, but the lack of color makes it impossible to employ the prescribed blue, hazy lighting prescribed for the stage. Fog is introduced during Blanche’s date with Mitch as she sits on a dock and tells the story of her husband’s death, enhancing the feeling of Blanche stumbling haphazardly through painful memories. The dock also brings up another important point: the film uses locations outside of the Kowalski home which are not present in the play. The bowling alley, the dock, and a brief scene in the factory that Stanley works at are all present, as well as early larger shots of New Orleans at large. While they give the audience a better feel for the mood of New Orleans, staging the entire play around a relatively small space created a cramped, stuffy atmosphere appropriate for the humid, hot climate and the tension of the play at large. We do still get this, to an extent, however — Stanley sweats profusely throughout the film, and the walls of the Kowalski home literally close in on Blanche from scene to scene.
Departures in Characterization
Despite any changes made for the film version, all of the characters in Kazan’s film admirably bring to life the roles assigned to them, from the minor characters to the two most important roles of Stanley and Blanche. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden perform commendably, portraying Stella as a woman completely dependant and submissive to her husband’s aggressive desires and Mitch as a sensitive, well-meaning man who is nonetheless prone to frustration when lied to. The two characters most interestingly portrayed, however, are that of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois.
Stanley is first present during an altercation at the bowling alley, an image not seen in Williams’s original text. His first impression is one of imposing physicality and unquestionable attractiveness. Marlon Brando looks exactly like what he later became, a movie star, and the other bowlers are older, out of shape, and are clearly meant to stand in sharp contrast to the young, muscular Brando. Stanley’s volatile nature becomes a defining character trait. When Stella speaks of the combination of men, alcohol, and poker as a “powder keg,” she’s not speaking in generalities – she means Stanley. Appropriately, Stanley comes across as something of a ticking time bomb, reasonable and cool one moment, roaring the next. Prone to vocal outbursts and acts of physical violence (whether it’s hitting Stella, smashing plates, or simply slamming a drawer closed), Stanley is liable to erupt at any moment. It's a brilliant performance, visceral and animal.1
Were this the only imposing aspect of his character, he would come across as one-dimensional, but Brando wisely chooses to accentuate the quiet moments as well as the loud ones. For every violent moment, there’s an equally tense moment of silence, a savage calm that seems just as dangerous. There are still other moments, however, in which the intimidating, potentially harmful Stanley breaks down and shows a more vulnerable side. When Blanche claims she’ll need to burn the love letters and poems that he pulls from her trunk, Brando’s facial expressions and tone of voice clearly convey that his feelings have been hurt. Shortly thereafter, he apologetically explains to Blanche that, “under the Napoleonic code, a man has to take interest in his wife’s affairs.” Most notably, however, he bares himself in full in the street in front of his home, crying out Stella’s name at the top of his lungs, his shirt ripped, hanging off of one shoulder like a caveman’s fur garment. The pure emotion resonant in his voice is piercing, and though we only see his face briefly, it’s contorted in pain and frustration.
Vivien Leigh’s treatment of Blanche is eloquent and thoughtful, accurately capturing her nervousness and mental instability. As is directed in the original text, she coyly hides her face whenever it’s in the light, and has occasional bouts of uncalled for hysteria, screaming when Stella drops a glass of cola or hurriedly covering her ears over the sound of the trains. In moments of particular mental anguish, phrases repeated by other characters echo in her mind, their voices growing distant while her body tenses, her face revealing nothing but pain attached to a distant memory. This first occurs when Mitch asks her, “you were married once, weren’t you?”, but persists throughout the film, coming to a climax near the end when entire conversations reverberate inside her head, sending her further into her own delusional state. The times she seems most relaxed are the times in which she’s playing the part of the flirtatious coquette, a role that Blanche repeatedly falls into as a way of compensating for her own aging and lack of control over her life. Her fragility is evident throughout the film, a product of the delivery of her lines and a broad collection of nervous movements and furtive glances. Her delusional state is the twisted culmination of her desire for magic and fantasy, and when she dances in the dim illumination of her paper lantern, her exclamation that she and Mitch have “created enchantment,” a statement not found in the original play, serves as a haunting foreshadowing of her mental state in the play’s final moments.
The Cutting Room Floor and the 1993 Re-release
Interestingly, the rape scene is cut short. In the original text, two pivotal things occur that are absent from the movie: Firstly, Stanley says the famous line, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning,” and secondly, he physically picks her up and carries her to the bed. The words are a blatant indication of his intentions, and picking her up works as an exhibition of total physical domination and her surrender to his will. The movie leaves this out, to an extent cutting the legs out from under the scene. To a mature and engaged audience, rape is the natural assumption and the strong implication, but a reasonable argument can still be made that it didn’t occur at all. The audience knows only that Blanche and Stanley were drunk, that they had a violent argument, and that it had a vicious effect on her psyche. This is arguably the most blatant example of censorship, toning down the harsh reality of the scene Williams called for. Similarly, the film version doesn’t let Stanley off the hook for his abuse of Blanche, ending in Stella’s retreat up the stairs to Eunice’s home.
The invisible hand of the censors is shown more concretely in Blanche’s recounting of her young husband’s death, which is utterly devoid of any homosexual themes. On the dance floor, just moments before his suicide, instead of saying, “I saw! I know! You disgust me!” (96) as she does in the play, she claims to have said, “You are weak. I have lost all respect for you. You disgust me.” Again, the audience may still conclude from her descriptions of him and his troubles that he was, in fact, gay, but the assumption is in this case a larger leap.
These are changes mandated by the social context and time frame of the film’s creation, a sometimes necessary evil arising from the transition from stage to film, but here they undermine the larger goals of the play. Sex is repeatedly linked with tragedy and death, and this fundamental truth helps drive the play from the very beginning. Blanche travels on a streetcar named “Desire” to one called “Cemeteries,” finally arriving at Elysian Fields, the Greek land of the dead. Her husband’s death comes as a result of the pain he feels from his own sexuality. Blanche’s own past is defined by systematically chasing after her own wild desires and gaining nothing but more pain. The only things left for her at home are a bad reputation, no home, and a graveyard full of relatives and acquaintances. Running from this past, she attempts to hide from her future by concealing her face in light, lying about her age, and asserting her sexuality. This is especially evident in the scene in which she seduces the young man taking collections for The Evening Star, only to immediately send him away. Here, her repetition of the word “young” and her use of the word “children” divulge her real motivation — she doesn’t want the young man, she just wants to know she could have him if she did. She is conquering the aging process. The movie version of the work treats this scene well; the young man seems a bit unsure of how to respond, but allows himself to be commanded by her, and she in turn lures him in and then sends him home.
The cuts later added back into the 1993 re-release of the film are short but critical, showing the full film for what it was: a braver exploration into realms of desire and thought that the movie industry was not ready to allow. During the scene in which Blanche seduces The Evening Star's donation collector, lines of dialogue make it clear that her husband was gay and that her insults are what drove him to suicide. Furthermore, it is suggested that not only is Blanche somewhat obsessed with sex (and may even indulge compulsively), but also that she might feel an especially strong attraction to young boys.
Additionally, Stella's relationship with Stanley becomes even more tumultuous, complicated, and intriguing. In a conversation with Blanche, Stella remarks: "Stanley's always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night, as soon as we came in here, he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it." After a moment's pause, she adds: "I was sort of thrilled by it." It's a small addition, but one that makes all the difference in the context of the film — there's a sexual element to the power struggles Stanley creates, and Stella is excited by it.
In the final analysis, Kazan’s film is remarkably true to the play's spirit despite the changes made. The vast majority of the differences between the play and the film arise not from a desire on Kazan’s part to stray from the text, but to successfully make the movie. It’s a harsh reality that creativity within a complex industry is not always unlimited, and the impression one gets is that Kazan stayed as true as possible, making a few concessions where it was absolutely necessary. What the audience is left with is a raw masterpiece (despite the pulled punches), and the restored scenes in the re-release only make it better.
Brando was passed over for the Academy Award
in 1951, but he was up against some legendary competition. Humphrey Bogart
took the prize for The African Queen
A Streetcar Named Desire. Dir. Elia Kazan. Perf. Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. 1951/1993.
"A Streetcar Named Desire." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). .