Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Elia Kazan was practically a magnet for greatness in the late forties, a directing talent doing top stage work on Broadway and enjoying special status helming movies under Darryl Zanuck at Fox. Tennessee Williams' 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire turned out to be the biggest stage drama ever, winning just about every award imaginable including a Pulitzer Prize. When Hollywood finally dared make a film out of it Kazan came along, for all good reasons.
The movie practically transplanted Broadway to Warner Bros., with only the original Blanche DuBois Jessica Tandy left behind in favor of the bankable star Vivien Leigh, who had headlined in her husband Laurence Olivier's altered version of the play in London. The resulting film is possibly the best play ever put to film and the best work of all the greats involved, including phenomenon Marlon Brando. Warner's 2-Disc Special Edition, part of their new Tennessee Williams Film Collection box set, adds extras by Richard Schickel and DVD added value specialist Laurent Bouzereau that make the full story of this classic accessible to all.
Emotionally unstable schoolteacher Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) shows up at her sister Stella's in New Orleans with the bad news that she's lost her job and the family plantation once known as Bel Reve. Stella (Kim Hunter) is happily married to the slovernly and violent Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), and the unexpected guest proves to be a real problem in the confines of their small apartment -- Blanche affects unrealistic airs and avoids direct discussion of unpleasant topics, whereas Stanley expects plain talk and becomes hostile and suspicious about Blanche's true background. Stanley's buddy Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (Karl Malden) is attracted to Blanche, and she trifles with his affections, as if in denial of the desperate nature of her situation. Harold's ready to propose to Blanche, but her reputation catches up with her.
Tennessee Williams' most famous play is also his most successful movie adaptation; Hollywood didn't adapt the play as much as Broadway invaded Hollywood, led by director Kazan, who had top-notch experience in both entertainment capitols. Streetcar the film doesn't look like any Warners' picture from 1951, and it runs an almost perfect circle around Hollywood ideas of tasteful film content. The story takes place in a cramped and steamy flat on a disrespectable New Orleans street, and the people who live there can be described as both "earthy" and as a pack of lowlifes. The men are totally lacking in manners and the women have no pretenses toward culture ... until the ultra-refined Blanche arrives, as the 'greasy Polack' Stanley Kowalski would say, "putting on airs."
The overheated setting proves perfect for Williams' brand of stylized, poetic language. Even the uncouth Stanley naturally speaks dialogue that sounds both composed and completely spontaneous. With everyone so open on touchy subjects like marital relations, the shocked Blanche and the slightly uptight Mitch seem to be the ones with personal problems. When Stella asks Blanche if she's never been on a streetcar named Desire, she's really asking about her sister's love life.
Blanche turns out to have more than a few personal problems. An unhealthy attraction to young men -- specifically, a 17 year-old student has prompted a dismissal from her teaching post. She's also apparently led a loose life at the Hotel Flamingo that was too much for even that establishment's weak reputation. This film version generates plenty of perverse heat even though it obscures the reason Blanche rejected her long-lost boyfriend, and started to lose her mind. It's famous for an early and really savage implied rape scene, but the sexiest material is the steamy relationship between the married Stella and Stanley. Kim Hunter's Stella is clearly aroused by her man even when he's not there, and shows it in ways that 50s movies try to pretend didn't exist, at least among respectable people.
Kazan dotes on antagonism and interpersonal conflict, and his camera covers the crisscrossing dramas in Streetcar with an intimacy rarely seen before or since. The special attention given the Blanche DuBois character rebalances the play's natural emphasis on the magnetic Brando; editing can keep Stanley and his sweaty T-shirts from dominating every dramatic moment.
Streetcar ended up challenging Hollywood to take up more adult subject matter, an issue that the movies struggled with for almost twenty years.
Warners' 2-disc Special Edition of A Streetcar Named Desire replaces a no-extras disc from 1997, one of the first DVDs released. The crisp B&W transfer is much improved. There's almost no grain and the brassy Alex North score just seems to get better with the passing years.
Disc extras producer Laurent Bouzereau hosts a commentary with critic Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young, joined by actor Karl Malden. I'm really growing to appreciate Mr. Behlmer's DVD work, as he's an excellent communicator with good information and well-reasoned opinions. The second disc has a stack of mini-docus that divide the subject up into five topics: The play on Broadway, the filming, the censorship issue, Alex North's score and Marlon Brando. Richard Shickel and Rudy Behlmer explain the tricky censorship history of the film, backed up with actual documents. The 'unfilmable' play was adapted and compromised to get by the Breen Office of the Production Code. Then, at the eleventh hour, the Catholic Legion of Decency stepped in and to make its voice heard, even though the studio had dealt with the Breen Office were supposed to pre-empt such maneuvers. To avoid receiving a "Condemned" rating Jack Warner made more concessions. The 1951 Streetcar was changed without Kazan's knowledge. The featurette shows exactly what the changes were and how they attempted to curb the play's purported immorality. The extra alterations ended up being the kinds of petty details that censors impose to prove their power.
In the early 1990s, the same Warners special projects producer who rescued many of the studios' lost 1950s stereophonic tracks found the missing negative sections of Streetcar and carefully rebuilt Kazan's original director's cut, just in time for the debut of the DVD format.
The biggest extra on the disc is a feature-length 1994 Elia Kazan career docu by Richard Shickel. He touches upon the director's most prominent films, which are represented by clips from several studios, and gives a rare appreciation of the wonderful and unheralded Wild River. Shickel treads as lightly as he can on Kazan's experience with the HUAC committees and the blacklist. He also sidesteps the patently false historical basis of Kazan and John Steinbeck's Viva Zapata! -- Emiliano Zapata was not an illiterate and he wasn't assassinated by vengeful Communist enemies, but by bounty-hunting guards of a Government colonel.
Shickel's docu is bound to become the authoritative piece on the great Kazan because of its excellent director interview. Pieces of this key interview are re-used in the Bouzereau featurettes, along with great insights from Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. Some of the clips are sure to be spoilers if one hasn't seen all of his great pictures, particularly America America.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Streetcar Named Desire rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Karl Malden and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young; Elia Kazan movie trailer gallery; Feature-length documentary Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey; Movie and audio outtakes; Marlon Brando screen test; New documentaries A Streetcar on Broadway, A Streetcar in Hollywood, Censorship and Desire, North and the Music of the South and An Actor Named Brando
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 20, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson