"Stella! Hey, Stella! Hey, Steeelllaaaaaaa!"
A lot of viewers today probably forget that WB's 1951 film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning four. They probably forget the movie was based on the popular and influential stage play by Tennessee Williams. They forget Elia Kazan's brilliant direction. They forget the equally brilliant music and set designs. They forget the stunning performances by Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Why? Because there's Brando.
Marlon Brando had starred in the Broadway production of "Streetcar," and he made his mark in Hollywood after just one film, establishing himself as a Tinseltown icon and cementing it forever with films like "On the Waterfront," "The Wild One," "The Young Lions," and "The Fugitive Kind." For a time during the 1950s, people considered him America's greatest actor. Of course, we know his star faded more quickly than most, as his temperamental personality and poor movie choices (he turned down the lead in "Lawrence of Arabia") got the better of him; but in the early 1970s he experienced a resurgence of popularity with "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris." Then he pretty much hung it all up for tropical islands and junk food.
How good was he? When he was performing in the Broadway production of "Streetcar," the director had to re-block his scenes to put him closer to the other actors because the audience couldn't keep their eyes off him, and it was distracting them from everyone else. Opinions vary as to how Brando managed to be so convincing in his roles. Some said it was his "method" acting training, drawing upon his own experience to create a character; some said it was hard work and careful preparation; while still others said it was pure instinct, gut feeling, and improvisation. Maybe it was a little of each. Whatever it was, it influenced a whole generation of actors that followed him, folks like James Dean, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson.
Anyway, "Streetcar" should have been Vivien Leigh's picture, she's the main character, but it's Brando who steals every scene he's in. He plays a brute named Stanley Kowalski, a man described in the story as a kind of Neanderthal. When he's drunk, Stanley is a positive thug. Yet, the way Brando portrays him, no matter how crudely he behaves, he seems to gain our sympathy. This was not exactly what playwright Tennessee Williams intended when he wrote the thing, but he and everybody else loved it, and who could deny Brando's power to persuade? Ironically, of the four lead actors in the movie, it was only Brando who did not win an Oscar. Go figure.
"Streetcar" is the story of a woman, Blanche DuBois (Leigh), a fading Southern belle, who is clinging to a fantasy, a threadbare illusion of beauty and respectability, and who is now looking for a safe haven to live out her dreams. As the movie opens, we see Blanche stepping off a train from Mississippi to go and live with her sister, Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter), and Stella's husband, Stanley, in a tawdry section of the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche takes a streetcar to her sister's apartment, a streetcar named "Desire" (which turns out to be the actual name of a New Orleans streetcar that always fascinated the author).
Ms. Leigh's performance is almost the dead opposite of Brando's in style. Brando is all mumbling naturalism and animal magnetism; Leigh is all preening, affected, and theatrical. Yes, it is Brando's character who is supposed to be the natural man, and Leigh's character who is supposed to be all phony facade, yet the differences do make a startling contrast, one that may be rather difficult for modern audiences to accept. Put it another way: If you found Ms. Leigh hard to take as Scarlet O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind," you'll probably not care overmuch for her Blanche DuBois.
Blanche and her sister grew up on an "aristocratic" Southern estate and were taught to be refined ladies. Blanche is shocked to see that Stella is married to a crude commoner and living in a dumpy two-room apartment. She feels it is beneath their dignity, a dignity we soon learn she lost many years before but to the last remnants of which she is still clinging, at least in her own mind. Blanche explains that she is a former English teacher on leave because of her nerves, having to come and live with her sister because of the loss of her property. Stanley, not bright but extremely intuitive, knows better and sees through the charade at once.
Tensions arise from the first minute Blanche and Stanley meet. It is clear that Blanche is suffering from far more than fragile nerves. She is mentally unstable, and Stanley does everything he can, knowingly and unknowingly, to drive her over the edge. Blanche tells Stanley that "a woman's charm is fifty percent illusion," but he sees her as entirely illusion. He mistrusts and dislikes her from the very beginning, just as she is repulsed by (yet attracted to) him. Stanley feels Blanche will come between him and his wife, and he's protecting his home against this perceived intruder. She is also clearly a woman with a past, and he is determined to find out what it is. The tension between them builds over the coming months, and it only increases when Blanche begins dating one of Stanley's poker buddies, her one hope, a seeming gentleman named Mitch (Karl Malden), in reality a mama's boy. Everything comes to a head in a penultimate rape scene that is only hinted at in the film.
The censorship laws in 1951 required any number of changes in the play when it was translated to the screen, but there is still a raw sexuality about the story that is communicated in the characters' actions, their looks, the squalid setting, and the steamy music. The movie was quite forward for its time and retains a degree of heat even today, especially as Warner Bros. were able to reissue the film on laser disc in 1993 as they do here with several minutes of restored cuts.
On a trivia note, John Eastman writes in "Retakes" (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989) that "Almost any Tennessee Williams play that has emerged on screen is a gutted, sanitized version, a situation that Williams himself bore with bemused tolerance. In the case of 'Streetcar,' some sixty-eight script changes from the Broadway staging were required by production code censors; and negotiations with the Catholic Legion of Decency resulted in further cuts, most having to do with homosexuality and rape, the key elements crucial to the behavior of Vivien Leigh's character Blanche.... She (Leigh) thought Marlon Brando affected, and he thought her impossibly stuff and prim--but they soon became friends, and the cast worked together smoothly. Brando's role as the crude Stanley Kowalski was only his second film appearance. Though he purportedly detested the character, the film brought him instant stardom.... Even Tennessee Williams liked this expurgated version of his play."
The black-and-white transfer is typical of the excellent work Warner Bros. have done over the years, clear and clean, a remarkably good print cleaned up to remarkably high standards. The 1.33:1 standard-screen probably never looked better, with not a scratch, line, smudge, or flaw in sight. The image is a tad soft, and B&W contrasts are not as strong as some I have seen, but it's quite good, nevertheless.
The audio engineers reprocessed the monaural soundtrack in Dolby Digital 1.0, and while there is nothing spectacular about, it is just as clean as the image transfer. Since the sound is virtually all dialogue, and since Brando is noted for his mumbling delivery, you can understand how important it was to clarify the midrange. It comes across admirably, and every word Brando utters rings clearly and distinctly. Needless to say, there is virtually no background noise whatsoever, although I did notice that I had to turn up the gain more than usual.
Disc one contains the feature presentation and two main bonus items. The primary bonus is an audio commentary by co-star Karl Malden and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young. Each of these men appear to have recorded their comments separately because they are introduced in turn and have no interaction. Often their comments have little to do with the action on screen, either, being mostly reminiscences, observations, and historical perspective. So it isn't your average audio commentary but more like a long lecture on the playwright, actors, and director.
The second bonus item is an Elia Kazan trailer gallery, with three different trailers for "Streetcar"--the original and two reissues; plus trailers for "East of Eden," "Baby Doll," "A Face in the Crowd," "Splendor in the Grass," and "America, America." The extras on disc one conclude with twenty-eight scene selections, but no chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two is where we get more of WB's superlative background treatments on the movie and its filmmakers. First up, we get a 1994, seventy-five minute, feature-length profile of the director, "Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey," divided into sixteen chapters. After that are five newly made documentaries. "A Streetcar on Broadway," recounts the history of the play; it's twenty-one minutes long and contains comments by director Kazan, costars Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, film historian Rudy Behlmer, and author Richard Schickel. "A Streetcar in Hollywood," recounting the making of the film version, is twenty-eight minutes long and features the same group as above. "Desire and Censorship" recalls how Kazan tried in the movie to hide or merely hint at some of the things in the play that the Catholic and Hollywood censors objected to. It also contains some fascinating comparisons of the original 1951 theatrical release and the 1993 restored reissue. "North and the Music of the South" is a nine-minute segment on Alex North's musical score, and "An Actor Named Brando" is eight minutes on the famed performer, along with a few outtakes from the movie. The disc-two bonuses conclude with a four-minute Marlon Brando screen test for "Rebel Without a Cause"; and about fifteen minutes of video outtakes and sixteen minutes of audio outtakes from "Streetcar."
"A Streetcar Named Desire" was nominated for twelve Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Best Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, Best Music, and Best Sound. The winners were Vivien Leigh, Best Actress; Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actor; Kim Hunter, Best Supporting Actress; and Richard Day and George James Hopkins, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.
Warner Bros. have made the Special Edition of "A Streetcar Named Desire" available individually or in a six-movie box set, "The Tennessee Williams Film Collection," which also includes "Baby Doll," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Deluxe Edition," "The Night of the Iguana," "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," and "Sweet Bird of Youth."
"Thank you for being so kind. I need kindness now.... Whoever you are, I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."