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A Streetcar Named Desire

(United States, 1951, 122 minutes, b&w, 16mm)

Directed by Elia Kazan

Marlon Brando . . . . . . . . . . Stanley Kowalski
Kim Hunter . . . . . . . . . .Stella Kowalski
Vivien Leigh . . . . . . . . . . Blanche Dubois
Karl Malden . . . . . . . . . . Harold 'Mitch' Mitchell

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

When Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway in December 1947, the American theater was forever changed. But where Broadway saw a revolutionary form of intimate drama, the Hollywood film studios saw what they liked to see - money. Streetcar's popularity as a stage production, and, more important, its instant notoriety as a major event in American culture, gave promise of a feast at the box office. And yet, Hollywood couldn't help feeling schizophrenic about the prospect of adapting Streetcar to the screen.

The drama of A Streetcar Named Desire rests on a bedrock of distinctly American sexual and social decadence. In the years 1945-1950, Hollywood was struggling with the question of how it really felt about the American Dream. Could it still endorse the Main Street world of Andy Hardy's Carmel, or fantasies like The Wizard of Oz, where troubles seemed to melt like lemon drops? Or, had the war invalidated Hollywood's late 1930s optimism with horrible truths about the dark capabilities of the human soul, with Auschwitz and Nanking and Katyn and the Chancellory Bunker?

Those five years after World War II saw the ground under Hollywood shift. The ever-climbing audience graph for Hollywood films stalled in 1946, and then headed rapidly downward, as television purchases grew exponentially. In 1947, the first of two tides of Congressional investigations into Hollywood's ostensible infiltration by Communists tore the industry apart. It was a dismayingly uncertain world, and it even nurtured its own film genre: the film noir, stories of murderous deceit, lust, and criminality told in suitably dark, expressionist visual terms.

A Streetcar Named Desire enfolded all the anxieties of the era in its story of perverse gentility colliding with the earthy truths of the working class. Most emblematic of these was sex, for Streetcar is not about "sexuality" - it is about sex. Hollywood's Breen Office, charged by the studios with policing their projects for what we now call "family values," let it be known that Streetcar, no matter how potentially profitable, would be the diciest of properties to adapt to the screen. In choosing to make Streetcar against its own best wishes, Hollywood would be affirming its adulthood, and acknowledging its responsibility to portray society with warts intact. The story of Stanley Kowalski's brutal conquest of brittle, tragic Blanche Dubois was a test to see whether Hollywood had grown up with its audience.

And so it was that the Hollywood studios struggled for three years with Streetcar, and the nation's great theatrical hit remained stalled in the pipeline. Finally, in April of 1950, a first draft of a screenplay was ready; independent producer Charles Feldman was producing the film for Warner Brothers. Still, the Breen Office fretted. The story still turned on rape, and the play's intimation of homosexuality remained prominent, and Blanche still seemed vaguely nymphomaniacal. Director Elia Kazan watered down Blanche's lustful past and the remembered homosexuality of her first husband, but he was adamant on Stanley's rape of Blanche. As Tennessee Williams put it eloquently in a letter to the Breen Office, any further changes would be crass, because A Streetcar Named Desire was already "an extremely and peculiarly moral play, in the deepest and truest sense of the word." Williams announced to Breen that he and director Elia Kazan would stand for no changes that tampered with the fact of Stanley's rape of Blanche, warning Breen that the simplistic moralizing of prewar Hollywood was hypocritical in the wake of new realities:

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…

In the end, the Breen Office capitulated. Geoffrey Shurlock, later to be head of the Breen's Production Code office, remembered, "For the first time we were confronted with a picture that was obviously not family entertainment… Streetcar broke the barrier… [and] made us think things through… It began with Streetcar."

The old order waged a rearguard action, however. According to film historian Rudy Behlmer's exceptional recounting of Streetcar's production, the film got into the hands of Martin Quigley, an informal but powerful intermediary between the film industry and the Catholic Legion of Decency, a religious "watchdog group" which had its own parallel censorship regime to that of the Breen Office. A "C" (for "condemned") rating from the Legion of Decency could, it was believed, ruin a film at the box office, for Catholics would be urged not to see the film. Without consulting Williams or Kazan, Warner Brothers ordered an editor to trim three or four minutes of footage from various parts of the film, 12 cuts in all, including a crucial passage of music which underscores the erotic nature of Stanley's hold over the women of the story, and an exchange of glances between Stanley and his wife, Stella. The effect was to imply a kind of punishment for the act of rape which is central to the plot. Kazan was bitter as he went on to his next project, Viva Zapata! at Twentieth Century-Fox. The cuts, he said, were "directly opposed to Tennessee Williams' thought. All his characters are a mixture of the qualities we label `good' and `bad,' and that is their humanity…"

Still, everyone involved understood that a corner had been turned in the history of censorship. In the next decade a flood of intelligent foreign films from France, Sweden, and Italy would confirm Streetcar's complex picture of morality. Hollywood would return to Williams' work again and again, each time with a growing willingness to let his beautifully jaundiced view of the human condition express itself. There followed films like The Rose Tattoo and The Fugitive Kind, and notoriously, Baby Doll, where the Legion of Decency would at last be vanquished.

Finally, Williams and Kazan would have their revenge, though Williams would not live to see it. Those short but telling cuts in A Streetcar Named Desire cooked up to satisfy a powerful censorship agency have been restored, and A Streetcar Named Desire now speaks as eloquently about human frailty and passion as it did more than fifty years ago. The censors are long dead, but a great film lives.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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