Broadway plays, even in the 1940s and 1950s, were not subject to much censorship. Tennessee Williams’ controversial play “A Streetcar Named Desire” was quite popular on stage in the later years of the 1940s. However, the 1950s brought with it a new era of Hollywood filmmakers looking to push the status quo. Among them was Elia Kazan, by that time already an Academy Award winner and two-time Tony Award-winning director not afraid of telling controversial stories. In 1951, he helped turn A Streetcar Named Desire into what would become one of the most highly-regarded classics in American cinema.
But despite Kazan’s penchant for pushing the limits of acceptability on film, the version of A Streetcar Named Desire he filmed isn’t the same as the one audiences saw live on the stage. While directors like Kazan helped pave the way for the eventual destruction of the censorship mandates active in 1951, Streetcar was still under the thumb of censorship that mirrored the whims of conservative American society, and forced changes to some of the narrative’s key plot points. The rules were known as The Hays Code, which dictated three basic tenants that all films were to follow:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
“By sanitizing controversial material for film audiences, however, the [Hays] Production Code did viewers a grave disservice; in the case of A Streetcar Named Desire, the adult nature of the original story was watered down into something decidedly blander and less powerful. Ultimately, the differences between Williams’ original play and the bowdlerized screen version demonstrate the limits censorship places on filmmakers and artists who strive to portray the sometimes brutal honesty of reality. At the same time, these differences also illustrate the ways in which filmmakers could creatively side-step the restrictions placed upon them and still get “salacious” or “troublesome” points across to viewers.” - TrueClassics.net
What the Hays Code also did was require filmmakers to come up with creative ways to bypass the censorship. Directors and writers were forced to use ingenuity, metaphor, and subtext to say the things they wanted to say without being outright about them, leading to an emergence of hidden messages and clever film moments.
At the time of Streetcar’s production, arch-conservative Joseph Breen headed the Production Code Administration (PCA), the official censoring body for Hollywood films. Colloquially, the PCA was known as the Breen Office thanks to Breen’s extreme power over film content. After seeing the A Streetcar Named Desire adaptation presented by Oscar Saul, who adapted the material for the screen, Breen insisted on a list of major and minor changes from the original Broadway play’s content. Not surprised, Williams and Kazan were concerned these changes would destroy the artistic integrity of the film. What were they? Among the most substantial alterations were:
Eliminating references to homosexuality. In the play, Blanche’s husband is identified as a homosexual. In the sixth scene, when Blanche is out for the evening with Mitch, she tells him about the evening she found her husband, Allan, in bed with another man.
“After pretending that nothing had happened, the trio went dancing, and as a polka played (the “Varsouviana,” the same tune that recurs throughout the play as Blanche slips closer to madness), she snapped, telling Allan, “You disgust me,” and causing him to run out of the room and shoot himself in the head. Blanche’s judgment of her husband’s sexuality reflects the same judgment faced by other gay men in the 1950s—including the playwright himself—and her attitude would not have been an unfamiliar one to audiences of the time. But the idea of allowing a reference—even a judgmental, biased one—to a homosexual character was verboten according to the rules of the Code.”
In the film version’s take on this scene, Blanche indefinitely tells Mitch “the boy was tender” as she recollects on the memory, verbiage which carefully expresses he was gay. She also notes him crying himself to sleep, likely commenting on his inability to make love to her. Those familiar with the material would pick up on the hinting dialogue, but the unaware would likely brush past the statements without an inference of homosexuality.
Eliminating or considerably weaking the rape. On stage, though the action happens offstage, it’s clear that Stanley rapes Blanche late in the story. The film renders the attack more ambiguous - maybe Stanley just roughed her up, maybe it was a rape - the details are in the editing.
Kazan chose to utilize a series of symbols that carry various sexual overtones. As Stanley is threatening Blanche, she hurls a whiskey bottle at him, which crashes into a mirror. The resulting motions are seen through reflections in the busted glass, as Stanley picks up Blanche in his arms. The screen goes dark, and transitions to a street cleaner washing debris with a powerful spray, which fades into a drizzle. This phallic symbol is a forceful cut that underlines the rape implicitly without ever showing any component of the physical act.
Omitting the rape was Kazan and Williams' greatest point of contention with the Breen office. In an August 1950 missive to Joseph Breen, Williams wrote, "The rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society. It is a poetic plea for comprehension..."
Outlawing erotic behavior in Blanche or Stanley’s conduct. Stanley and Stella were obviously a sexually active couple, but neither engaged in any form of erotic contact with one another. Similarly, while Blanche breezes past the details of her sexual promiscuity with colorful language, her nymphomania was not to be addressed specifically or acted upon in any way. Those who don’t pay attention to the language of Blanche’s stories may not even grasp the reality of what she’s confessing in regards to her promiscuous past, and that is in direct accordance with censorship guidelines.
Punishing Stanley for the rape. Finally, one of the largest alterations was changing the end of the film. The Breen office felt that Stanley needed to be punished for the rape of Blanche, even though the rape itself isn’t shown or directly mentioned in the narrative. Those who understood what happened deserve closure, and the decision was that Stanley should not be allowed to get away with the rape. The censors felt that Williams’ original stage ending, in which Stella embraces Stanley as the final action, conclusively dismisses the act and lets Stanley get away with the crime. The film has Stella run upstairs to a neighboring apartment, child in arms, declaring to the child they’ll never again go home.
This ending punishes Stanley, but is undermined by Stella’s weakened resolve, already advertised in an earlier scene where she runs to the same apartment after he gets eruptive during a poker game. In the film’s famous “Stella!” shouting scene, she breaks down and goes back to him after just a few minutes. It’s easy to assume she’ll do the same again.
What Kazan did with the censor requests was an attempt to turn their potentially damaging repression of the play’s content into clever beats that worked practically in the movie. Aside from the opaque ending the filmmakers were forced to live with, the clues to the play’s controversial core material were embedded within the film's clever subterfuge.
It’s been ages since I wanted to see A Streetcar Named Desire, not sure why I’ve put it off. I feel like I have watched it as one day I actually watched a bunch of clips from this film on youtube. There’s of course the famous scene where Brando yelled ‘Stellaaaaaaa…!’ that’s been parodied many times over, but I definitely need to see it to understand the significance of this steamy Southern classic.
Based on a hit play by Tennessee Williams, it’s one of those rare films that happen to be directed by the same person who did the original Broadway production, Elia Kazan. It’s interesting to see Vivien Leigh as yet another Southern belle, as I’ve only seen her in Gone With The Wind (1939), but really, the appeal of this film for me is Marlon Brando, whose brutish performance is the quintessential sexy bad boy.
As with any of my blindspot reviews, there are definitely spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film yet, proceed with caution.
Well, what can I say… my first impression had more to do with Marlon Brando. Can you blame me? I mean look. at. him.
From the first moment he came on to the screen when he saw his sister in-law Blanche at his house, Brando’s definitely got a magnetic presence like nobody’s business.
The trivia section of this movie on IMDb is filled with interesting tidbits. So apparently fitted t-shirts could not be bought at the time, so Brando’s apparel had to be washed several times and then the back stitched up, to appear tightly over the actor’s chest.
Err, what was I talking about again?
Ok so obviously there’s SO much more to the movie than Brando’s immense sex appeal, though obviously this role cemented his sex-symbol status.
A classic story adapted beautifully on the big screen
I could see why there are still countless stage adaptations of Williams’ classic story all over the world. Even though time has changed and to a certain degree, gender roles and social norms have evolved, the very core of the human condition still remains. Stories that deals with obsession, distorted reality, fears of aging, etc. are still relevant today and will always remain so. The film version underwent a major change in terms of the homosexuality of Blanche’s late husband, due to the Production Code demands that the film toned it down. The same with the depiction of rape, though it’s implied that Stanley did rape Blanche with the scene of smashed mirror and a firehose spurting onto the street.
It was a clever way Kazan dealt with the strict Code, and also when Stella was in bed the morning after Stanley hit her. She had a big, gleeful grin on her face that indicated they had um, a very satisfying make-up sex.
Kazan’s big screen adaptation not only look beautiful in black and white, but it has an atmospheric and moody feel to it. I read that he worked closely with the production designer to create the authentically sordid look and literally had the walls around Brando and Leigh closed in on them during filming to create a claustrophobic tension within the space. Well that worked because that constricted feeling practically ricochets off the screen and into my living room!
Blanche and Stanley are such an interesting pair to watch on screen because there’s all this nervous energy around them. They’re attracted as well as repulsed by each other at the same time, at times they couldn’t even reconcile the two, which creates such interesting dynamic.
Kazan doesn’t immediately expose that Blanche’s dark past and the fact that she’s got mental issues, but it’s more of a steady buildup that escalates to the boiling point. The more her brutish brother in-law relentlessly torments her, the more she goes off the rails.
I’m constantly torn in how I feel for the characters as well, which is what a good movie should. A good character is not simple, one-dimensional and how we feel about a character could (and perhaps should) change as the movie progresses. Well, I initially feels sorry for Blanche but also exasperated by her, even if she couldn’t control it. As with Stanley, what starts out as a carnal attraction to this brooding, hunky man (as any full-blooded woman would) quickly changes to disgust and repulsion. I literally want to strangle him many times as I watch the movie, especially his treatment of his pregnant wife!
Performance wise, the film definitely belonged to Leigh and Brando. The British actress played yet another American Southern belle but in a completely different role. Leigh definitely got to display her vulnerability even more, especially towards the end when Blanche’s gone completely mental. It’s interesting that she had played the character in the London production under her husband Laurence Olivier’s direction. Per IMDb, she later said that Olivier’s direction of that production influenced her performance in the film more than Elia Kazan’s in this film.
Brando has had many memorable roles in his illustrious career, but no doubt this is one of the earlier ones he’s most remembered for. His intensity is second to none, there’s few actors who are as explosive on screen in terms of presence and charisma as Brando.
Kim Hunter was pretty memorable as Stella, but I think every cast member was practically outshone by the two leads. So was Karl Malden as Blanche’s potential suitor. I think both were believable in the roles, it just didn’t leave a lasting impression to me. I guess it has less to do with their performances, but more about the strength of the two leads. I wish Brando had won Best Actor as well, but then again I hadn’t seen the other male performers of that year.
Does it live up to the hype?
The film won four Oscars out of twelve nominations and also rank #47 in AFI Top 100 Films. Elia Kazan was certainly one of those stellar directors who have won acclaimed in film AND on broadway, winning multiple Oscars as well as Tony awards. I’m always astonished when a story could work as well on stage as on screen.
I have never seen the stage adaptation, but my impression of the film was that it was sexy, gritty, but deeply unsettling to the point that by the end I was just quite revolted by the whole thing. None of the characters are likable except for Stella, Blanche DuBois’ devoted younger sister. I think that was the point though. This wasn’t going to be a cheerful movie with a happy ending and there’s also very little humor to give you relief from all that tension.
I’m glad I’ve finally watched this film from start to finish. It’s one that won’t easily escape from one’s memory. I have to say though, compared to other classics like say, Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or Roman Holiday, I’m not sure this is something I’m keen on watching again. It’s just not a pleasant film overall, and I don’t find it to be an emotionally-gratifying film either as it’s hard to care for any of the characters. That said, it’s definitely essential viewing for cinephiles. The story is such an intriguing character study that is chock full of riveting-but-inherently-imperfect relationships.
The film ending is apparently different from the stage version. In the film, Stella no longer trusts her husband and she took her baby and leaves. We hear Stanley yelling ‘Stellaaaa….’ again as he did in the most famous scene in the film. I read that in the stage version, Stella chooses to be with Stanley as her sister is escorted to a mental institution. I’m not sure which version I prefer, I think it’s riskier to have an ending that isn’t tied neatly with a big red bow, though not necessarily better.
Regardless of the different ending, there are certainly plenty of thought provoking themes to grapple with. Delusion, denial, forbidden passion, and tragic irony… Williams’ timeless play has all the ingredients for an engrossing story, and Elia Kazan certainly had what it takes to do it justice… both on stage AND on screen.
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Have you seen A Streetcar Named Desire? I’d love to hear what you think!