Streetcar Named Desire: The Polish Brute and the Southern Belle

… WHEN SHE GOT THERE SHE MET THE BRUTE STAN, AND THE SIDE OF NEW ORLEANS SHE HARDLY KNEW EXISTED.

Tennessee Williams’s play ”A Streetcar Named Desire” opened on Broadway in 1947 to rave reviews, earning Williams a Pulitzer Prize the following year. The original production must have been something to behold – that was the same year when Elia Kazan founded the Actors Studio and two stars connected to it, Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, appeared on stage. In later interviews, Brando said that Stella Adler was the first person to teach him how to act, then came Kazan. ”Streetcar” became Brando’s breakthrough.

Amazingly, Kazan was also the person who turned the actor into a movie star. Because this is a rare example of a story having the same groundbreaking impact on screen as on stage.

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) leaves her home in Laurel, Mississippi and arrives in New Orleans where her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) lives with her husband, Stanley Kowalski (Brando). Blanche tells Stella that she’s temporarily left her job as a teacher – the home where the sisters grew up has also been lost to creditors. Blanche doesn’t really like the shabby quarters where Stella and Stan live, but is hardly in a position to complain; she doesn’t have any money and her state of mind is fragile. Stanley doesn’t like Blanche’s haughtiness and refuses to accept that the family home has just been ”lost” – he’s part of this family and demands to see documents. Blanche cares more about the letters she still keeps from her dead husband. Eventually, Blanche strikes up a relationship with Mitch (Malden), one of Stan’s poker buddies…

Kazan’s original mistake
Malden and Kim Hunter, part of the original Broadway production, followed Brando and Kazan to  Hollywood, but Jessica Tandy was replaced as Blanche. Initially, the director made a mistake in the transfer. Kazan was not an inexperienced man, having several prominent Hollywood movies and Broadway plays behind him. The traditional advantage of making a movie out of a play is that you can open up the setting and do things differently. That was Kazan’s original thought. But then he realized that if you do that the story loses some of its impact.

Over the course of the production, the film ended up staying as close to the play as possible, maintaining the impression that the characters are stuck with each other. In fact, along with art director Richard Day and cinematographer Harry Stradling, Kazan kept shrinking the set. The film made a few changes to accommodate the Production Code (hiding the fact that Blanche’s ex-husband was gay), but its power is still undeniable more than 60 years later. Brando is magnificent as Stanley, who could easily be seen as the villain of the piece. But Williams makes all his characters complex. Stan is a man who’s proud of his working-class heritage and refuses to accept Blanche’s condescending tone; at the same time, he uses his intimidating masculinity to suppress the sisters. Leigh also gives an incredible performance as the frail, sad Blanche, the aristocrat who tries to maintain the illusion of her upbringing even though it is under attack by a ”brute” like Stanley.

As much as this is a story about the struggle between classes, it’s a battle between men and women, furious, intense and tragic throughout. Alex North’s music score is one of his best; relying heavily on jazz (this is New Orleans after all), it is as vibrant as the story itself.

The ending is more positive than the one Williams had on stage. Should Stella build the courage to leave Stanley, a more inspiring choice, or should she stay with him, which is perhaps sadly a more realistic ending? The Broadway version is the more challenging one, but Kazan handles the Hollywood option as well as can be expected. 

A Streetcar Named Desire 1951-U.S. 122 min. B/W. Produced by Charles K. Feldman. Directed by Elia Kazan. Screenplay, Play: Tennessee Williams. Cinematography: Harry Stradling. Music: Alex North. Art Direction: Richard Day. Cast: Marlon Brando (Stanley Kowalski), Vivien Leigh (Blanche DuBois), Kim Hunter (Stella Kowalski), Karl Malden (Harold ”Mitch” Mitchell).

Trivia: Olivia de Havilland was allegedly considered as Blanche; Robert Mitchum as Stan. Remade for television in several countries; in the U.S., TV movies were made in 1984 and 1995.

Oscars: Best Actress (Leigh), Supporting Actor (Malden), Supporting Actress (Hunter), Art Direction-Set Decoration. Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Hunter). BAFTA: Best British Actress (Leigh). Venice: Best Actress (Leigh).

Quote: “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” (Leigh)

Last word: “In many ways she was Blanche. She was memorably beautiful, one of the great beauties of the screen, but she was also vulnerable, and her own life had been very much like that of Tennessee’s wounded butterfly… Like Blanche, she slept with almost everybody and was beginning to dissolve mentally and to fray at the ends physically. I might have given her a tumble if it hadn’t been for Larry Olivier.” (Brando on Leigh, “Songs My Mother Taught Me”)

 

IMDb

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