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A Streetcar Named Desire
Savant Blu-ray Review

A Streetcar Named Desire
Warner Home Video
1951 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 125 min. / Street Date April 10. 2012 / 34.99
Starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis
Cinematography Harry Stradling
Art Direction Richard Day
Film Editor David Weisbart
Original Music Alex North
Written by Oscar Saul, Tennessee Williams from his play
Produced by Charles K. Feldman
Directed by Elia Kazan

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

To revisit A Streetcar Named Desire is to be reminded just how far ahead of the Hollywood curve Elia Kazan was in 1951. Practically a magnet for greatness in the late forties, the ace director was doing top 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 adaptation Kazan came along as part of the deal, for all good reasons.

A big piece of Broadway was transplanted to Warner Bros., with only actress Jessica Tandy, the original Blanche DuBois, left behind in favor of a more bankable star. Vivien Leigh had headlined in her husband Laurence Olivier's altered version of the play in London. Kazan's movie is possibly the best play ever put to film and the best work of all the greats involved, including phenomenon Marlon Brando. Warners' Blu-ray adds extras by Richard Schickel and DVD added value specialist Laurent Bouzereau that make the full story of this classic accessible to all.

The famous story is steeped in the world of Tennessee Williams. 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 both 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). The unexpected guest proves a 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 is ready to propose to Blanche when her reputation catches up with her.

Hollywood didn't adapt Tennessee Williams' most famous play as much as Broadway invaded Hollywood. Director Kazan had top-notch experience in both entertainment capitols. Streetcar the film doesn't look like any Warners' picture from 1951. 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's personal problems prove to be overwhelming. An unhealthy attraction to young men -- specifically, a 17 year-old student -- has prompted her dismissal from her teaching post. Blanche's loose life at the Hotel Flamingo was apparently 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. The film is famous for its implied rape scene, but its 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 he 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.

Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of A Streetcar Named Desire pretty much matches a special edition from a few years ago, but with a terrific HD transfer that increases the film's physical impact. The New Orleans set looks steamy and dirty, and all the actors look as if they could use a fresh change of clothing. The nervous, brassy Alex North score just seems to get better with the passing years. It really makes an impact on the full-range audio track

The excellent earlier features are all here, in a souvenir book presentation that gathers rare photos, quote and publicity material. The commentary features critic Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young, joined by actor Karl Malden. Mr. Behlmer is an excellent communicator with good information and well-reasoned opinions. A stack of mini-docus divide the subject 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 authority of the Breen Office was supposed to pre-empt such maneuvers. To avoid receiving a "Condemned" rating Jack Warner made more concessions, and 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 uncut movie is present here, in great condition.

The disc's biggest extra 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 false historical basis of Kazan and John Steinbeck's Viva Zapata! Emiliano Zapata was not an illiterate. He wasn't assassinated by vengeful Communist enemies, but by bounty hunters hired by 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 Kazan's great pictures, particularly America America.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Streetcar Named Desire Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Supplements: Commentary by Karl Malden and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young; Feature-length documentary Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey; Movie and audio outtakes; Marlon Brando screen test; 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: book style disk holder with souvenir book.
Reviewed: June 30, 2012

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.

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