The International Writers Magazine
: DVD Review

A Streetcar Named Desire (Dir Elia Kazan, 1951)
adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams
Gabriella Davies

The desperate cry "hey Stella!" is the same, and as the trademark of the original play, it must be uttered with the same intensity and desperation as it was done in the very first performance of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. The play, written by the American playwright Tennessee Williams, first starred Marlon Brando playing the part of Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Tandy playing the part of Blanche du Bois, on Broadway in 1947.

Stanley, Blanche and the supporting role of Stella have become three of the most recognizable characters in the history of American drama. The plot shows the relationship between the immigrants of the Deep South and the emerging social classes of New Orleans in America during the immediate post-second world war era, and the stifled sexuality of the two main characters. Family problems and resentment arise as Blanche moves into Stanley and Stella's cramped lives with all her 'expectations'. Williams was concerned mainly with the memories of his own upbringing, his themes were very much an exploration of his own personal life; his father was a working-class, hard drinking man, and his mother was an unhappily married woman of aristocratic pedigree. The director Elia Kazan worked closely with Williams in the production of the film, released in 1951, and although he was present on set during most of the filming days, Williams trusted Kazan to make his own judgements and to depart from the script if necessary.

A film version of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' was a great challenge to make; it had to live up to the play's polemical reputation. This it does successfully, it won four Academy Awards in 1952 and other prizes including a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 for Kazan "For having produced a stage play on screen, poetically interpreting the humanity of the characters, thanks to masterly direction." Some camera tricks were used to reinforce the intensity of the theatre version, Kazan deceived the eye by making the set of the Kowalski’s apartment smaller as the film progressed. This makes Blanche feel even more stifled, as the scenery stays the same the space between the apartment’s walls gets smaller, and Kazan’s camera creeps up closer and closer to the characters.

Another trick was zooming in on Blanche, when she dreads anyone seeing her close up. The camera is in constant movement and shoots from various angles, reminding us that this is a film, and you can see things clearer than from the static atmosphere of a stage setting. Facial expressions, slight twitches and cringes are all much more visible on film than on stage. It gives a much more intense performance, the time spent watching this film is a time in which the viewer leaves the seat of the cinema and transports herself back in to the jazzy ghettos of New Orleans in the 1940's.

The film also brings us Marlon Brando, the rebellious bad boy that we all know and love, who played the character of Stanley Kowalski so well on stage that Kazan sent him straight to Williams for an informal audition for the film. His portrayal of Stanley was his breakthrough on Broadway and he continued to deliver a fantastic performance in the film version. In need of some stardom, Kazan cast Vivien Leigh as Blanche du Bois. Leigh plays Blanche with astonishing confidence, representing the vulnerable, decadent woman of society with such strong presence that she is not overshadowed at any point by the loud, animalesque Stanley.

The stage directions and descriptions first made by Williams are very detailed and crucial to the outline of the plot. Williams has some trademark characters, the typical macho struggling with his sexuality, the frail upper class woman who is being dragged down by the working class, the chauvinistic, primitive and very masculine man, the character who goes insane by the end of the play, among others. Kazan manages to maintain the same intensity of the characters, but does this with portentous symbolism, and not the straightforwardness of Williams’ play, due to the censorship that it encountered. The scene of Stanley raping Blanche, the moment near the end of the film that the whole plot builds up to, was too visual for the cinema and had to be edited down. The rape is elided while we watch a hose washing away some garbage, a strongly phallic image that could seem harmless but is in fact highly sexual.

The film had to undergo some last minute changes due to censorship. Although the symbolic script allowed certain elements of the plot to pass unnoticed, the CLD (Catholic Legion of Decency) decided to give ‘Streetcar’ a ‘Condemned’ rating, meaning that Catholics would be discouraged from seeing the film, due to the violent sexual issues and the polemic themes. Several cuts were made, mainly to the parts concerning the doubtful sexuality of Blanche’s husband and the scene where Stanley rapes Blanche, as mentioned above. Luckily for Kazan and Williams, the objections of the CLD were only on the plot and words in the script, so Kazan could still work with metaphorical images that could not have been done on stage. Kazan re-edited parts of the screenplay, none of which cause major changes to its original version. After some alterations, the CLD finally accepted the film and it was able to reach the cinemas. The notorious ending of the stage version, where Blanche gets escorted out of the apartment by the doctor and says, "Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" had to be changed. The CLD believed that Stanley should be punished for his actions, and the film ends with Stella and the newborn baby leaving him.

In a recent interview Kazan claims that remaking the play into a film had seemed to him at first like "marrying the same woman twice, there are no surprises." The technical changes and editions make the film even more cinematic, and the changes in script due to censorship only mean that the film has more symbolic power. Kazan manages to fool the eyes of censorship that would dog him throughout the McCarthy era, yet left us with a film that is strong, wild, sexual, innovative, scandalous, and definitely unforgettable.
© Gabriella Davies November 2005

Gabriella is a Creative Arts 2nd Year student at the University of Portsmouth

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