Dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
Vivien Leigh won her first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1939’s Gone With the Wind playing Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled Southern belle who, through tragedy, discovers her own inner steel. She won her second Academy Award for Best Actress for 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire playing another Southern belle, but this time one whose emotional core is much more fragile.
Leigh’s Blanche DuBois alights nervously in
She finds her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) living in a run-down apartment in the
seedy French Quarter. He home was a once-grand mansion, now compartmentalised
into separate small units, through the walls of which every argument, every
smash and every gurgling laugh can be heard. Like the house itself Blanche is a
stately reminder of long-gone glory. Her childhood home has been “lost” under generations of debts. Her
looks too are slipping away. Whereas once she was admired and courted she now
has nothing but a trunk full of fine dresses and a pile of yellowed love
letters. Yet despite her straightened circumstances she attempts to keep up the
illusion that she is still young, genteel and desirable. She is like her
rhinestone tiara – looks like diamonds, but in reality is “next door to glass”. In this charade her doting sister Stella connives.
The one variable is Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski.
is the most alpha of alpha males – he’s played by a young actor by the name of
Marlon Brando, all bulging biceps and skin-tight t-shirts. Blanche cannot
pretend that she is still living in some courtly romance with Stanley filling up the space. He swaggers, he
drinks, he goes bowling and plays poker with his buddies, and he holds an
irresistible sexual power over Stella. He is wild and animalistic – Stella
giggles as she tells Blanche that “ ’s always smashed
things. Why, on our wedding night, as soon as we came in here, he snatched off
one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it…
I was sort of thrilled by it.” For her his earthy – “common” as Blanche has it – machismo is a potent turn on. In turn
he sees things very simply; those things that annoy his he lashes out at, be it
the light bulbs (smashed), the radio (thrown out the window) or people he
disagrees with (with whom he brawls). Blanche is the latest annoyance, but he
has to tread more warily than he is used to, because she is his wife’s sister.
He handles people by cowing them into submission, but Blanche refuses to be
cowed. Blanche handles people by casting a spell over them, but Stanley Stanley refuses to be
seduced. Events head towards another smash.
|Guess who's coming to dinner?|
Stanley and Blanche head towards a smash
This is a powerful, intense, visceral drama.
The passing of former glories is a major theme here; a passing of glories and death. Stella refuses to talk to Blanche when she is being “morbid”. But death plays a central role. Blanche talks about being trapped in Belle Rive, the DuBois’s ancestral
home, with an entire family of people dying. The cost of the funerals
contributed to the losing of the house. She is more haunted though by the
suicide of her husband. She mocked him at a dance and he went out and shot
himself. She still hears the polka and the gunshot in her head, no matter how
much she tries to pretend the event never happened (she largely convinces
herself that “deliberate cruelty… is the
one unforgivable thing, in my opinion, and the one thing of which I have never,
never been guilty”). Mitch has to escape from his house where his mother,
too, is dying. And Blanche’s increasing hysteria is reflected in the old
Spanish lady in the fogbound night-time streets selling flowers for the dead.
In contrast New Orleans
is fecund and fertile. It is hot and steamy, choked with sailors and drunks, a
bar on every corner. Its inhabitants fight and make up. Stella herself is
blooming with new life. To reach safety with Stella, bedazzled by the city,
Blanche has to “take a streetcar named
Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery”. Passion and death are all
The film comes across maybe a bit too stagey at times. There are occasionally phrases used that could only be a playwright’s words, phrases that would never be used in real life, not even by someone like Blanche DuBois. The lighting could have been better; shadows fall across faces. But it is stagey. It is an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, and the actors are drawn from the casts of the stage productions. Elia Kazan (who later directed Splendor in the Grass) directed the play on Broadway. Its cast included Brando, Hunter and
Malden. None of these
were Hollywood stars; that is why the British Leigh, star of the West End production, was brought in to provide a marquee
name. Leigh’s experience as an outsider, dropped into a cast that had already
gelled, must have reflected those of Blanche. But how often does a stage smash
transfer to the cinema these days? I can only think of War Horse as a modern-day comparison. But even then War Horse was recast. Streetcar sees the stage production
largely transferred wholesale to a larger set. The belief that there is a
difference between stage acting and film acting is exploded. Of the stage stars
Leigh, Hunter and Malden
won their respective Oscars; Brando was nominated by lost out to Humphrey
Bogart in The African Queen. Director
Elias Kazan was also nominated for his work here but missed out.
What have I learnt about
Now they got there in the state of
what’s known as the Napoleonic Code. Now according to that, what belongs to the
wife belongs to the husband, and vice versa… This partly explains Stanley’s antipathy
towards Blanche. If Belle Rive has, as he initially suspects, been sold, half
of the proceeds should come to Stella, and through her to him. He looks at
Blanche’s “solid gold” dresses and
ropes of pearls and asks himself where Stella’s dresses and pearls are. And
swindle perpetrated against Stella is a swindle against him too.
But mostly, from this film we see
New Orleans, not Louisiana. Nawlins is its own unique
location, full of decayed and crumbling mansions, drunken sailors stumbling out
of bars, crowds and taxis and bright lights. The city has a seedy, tawdry
glamour where couples quarrel openly, where people sit out in the open on sofas
on hot muggy nights, and where old ladies sell flowers for the dead. This noise
and urgency and life must be quite an assault on the senses of a delicate woman
down from the decaying plantations of old Mississippi.
Can we go there?
A Streetcar Named Desire is set in the decaying French Quarter of New Orleans, on
Fields Avenue. Only initial establishing shots of
Blanche’s arrival were actually filmed there, however; the remainder of the
movie was shot on set in Hollywood.
You will no longer arrive at the same station as Blanche DuBois. Union Station was demolished in 1954 and replaced by Union Passenger Terminal. In
Orleans, the famous streetcars only run on a couple of lines these days. The St Charles line from the French Quarter is
composed of historic Perley Thomas rolling stock like that shown in the film.
In particular car #922 runs on this route, and is the one seen in the movie.
The Canal Street
and Riverfront lines use newer cars modelled on the Perley Thomases. No lines
run to Elysian Fields these days (in fact the Desire line converted from
streetcars to buses in 1948, prior to the film being released, and only a year
after Tennessee Williams’ original play opened).
Overall Rating: 4/5