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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is a controversial film classic, adapted from Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of 1947. This film masterpiece was directed by Elia Kazan (his first piece of work with Williams), a socially conscious director who insisted that the film be true to the play. The film challenged the Production Code’s censors with its bold adult drama and sexual subjects (rape, domestic violence, homosexuality, and female promiscuity or nymphomania) – it is the story of the pathetic mental and emotional demise of a determined, yet fragile, repressed and delicate Southern lady born to a once-wealthy family of Mississippi planters. Her downfall in the squalid French Quarter apartment of her married sister and animalistic husband is at the hands of savage, brutal forces in modern society. In her search for refuge, she finds that her sister lives (approvingly) with drunkenness, violence, lust, and ignorance.
The main character roles were played with remarkable performances – the Southern belle heroine was sensitively portrayed by Vivien Leigh who recreated her role from the London production of the play (which was directed by her husband Laurence Olivier). [Vivien Leigh's character was a logical extension from her Scarlett O'Hara role in Gone With The Wind (1939) - a post-Rhett Butler Southern belle.] Kim Hunter’s role as her sister (a role she originally played on Broadway) was pivotal, and Marlon Brando, in his second screen appearance and recreating his Broadway role, delivers an overpowering, memorable performance.
The film was nominated for twelve nominations and awarded four Oscars: Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, and Best Supporting roles to Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. In addition, Best B & W Art Direction/Set Direction was given to Richard Day and George James Hopkins. Remarkably, Tennessee Williams’ Best Screenplay nomination, Marlon Brando’s Best Actor nomination, and Elia Kazan’s Best Director nomination were defeated. And the hotly-contested, competitive year saw the Best Picture Award presented instead to Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951). Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951) took the Best Actor Award away from Marlon Brando. And George Stevens was awarded Best Director for his work on A Place in the Sun (1951).
Set in New Orleans, the film opens with the arrival of a train and a pretentious southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) – she has taken the train to the city. As a joyous wedding party runs by in the station, Blanche appears like an apparition out of a cloud of steam emitted by the train engine, carrying her battered suitcase. Blanche is frail and in a neurotic emotional state, a faded-beauty with superficial genteel Southern propriety. In her very first lines, she expresses her confusion to a young sailor, mentioning three streetcar stops which symbolize her desperate situation. She has come as a result of her sordid ‘desires’ to the last stop available to her:
They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.
The streetcar (named Desire after Desire Street) takes her to her sister Stella DuBois Kowalski’s (Kim Hunter) apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter. There at Elysian Fields [symbolizing paradise beyond death from ancient lore] where she has come for a visit, she is surprised at the downstairs living accommodations of her sister, a small, shabby two-room place in a run-down neighborhood: “Can this be her home?” She finds her sister at the local bowling alley where her brother-in-law Stanley is bowling. After hugging each other, Blanche worries about her appearance: “Oh no, no, no. I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare,” and is concerned about where her sister lives: “Only Poe. Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do justice to it. What are you doing in that horrible place?”
Stella has turned her back on her aristocratic background, and found happiness by marrying a working class, Polish immigrant husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche’s first glimpse of the loud, coarse, and brutish Stanley is on the bowling lanes. A fight erupts – and Stanley is in the middle of a rough and tumble controversy with some of the other players – but Stella admires him: “Oh isn’t he wonderful looking?”
While sipping on a cold drink (Blanche’s preferred drink is scotch, not soda ‘pop’) in one of the alley’s booths, Blanche tells her sister why she had to leave her poorly-paid, high-school English teaching position in Laurel, Mississippi before the spring term ended – she took “a leave of absence.” Holding on to reality and her struggles in life in an unreal world of her imagination, she just had to leave for a while, finding nowhere else to go but to her sister’s for protection. She directs the lights away from her face, lamenting: “Daylight never exposed so total a ruin.”
Back at the cramped, two-room apartment, Blanche expresses her need for human contact to find solace: “I’m not going to put up in a hotel. I’ve got to be near you Stella. I’ve got to be with people. I can’t be alone…” She is also nervous about Stella’s husband, as her main intention is to win back Stella’s devotion to her and her Southern aristocratic attitudes:
Blanche: Will Stanley like me or, or will I just be a visiting in-law? I couldn’t stand that Stella! (She looks at a picture on the dresser of Stanley in his military uniform)
Stella: You’ll get along fine together. You just try not to compare…
Blanche: (interrupting) Oh, he was an officer?
Stella: He was a Master Sergeant in the Engineers Corp. (proudly) Decorated four times.
Blanche: He had those on when you met him?
Stella: Surely I wasn’t blinded by all the brass…Of course, there, there were things to adjust myself to later on.
Blanche: Such as his, uh, civilian background. How did he take it when you said I was coming?
Stella: Oh, he’s on the road a good deal.
Blanche: Oh, he travels?
Stella: Umm, mmm.
A returning World War II veteran, Stanley was decorated for his service but now his job takes him on the road a good deal. Judging everything by the standards of Old Southern gentility, Blanche finds Stella’s love for Stanley severely lacking and somewhat incomprehensible.
Seeking to minimize her sister’s “reproach,” Blanche quickly explains how she tried to preserve everything by sticking to their home and struggling to salvage what she could:
…take into consideration you left. I stayed and struggled. You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself. I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together. Oh, I’m not meaning this in any reproachful way. But all the burdens descended on my shoulders…You were the one that abandoned Belle Reve, not I. I stayed and fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it.
Blanche rationalizes about “the loss” – the fate of their old family estate, a beautiful dream mansion named Belle Reve (’Beautiful Dream’), the aristocratic DuBois homestead. Blanche had been left to care for the family holdings, but soon lost her home, her job, and her respect. Due to the family squandering its fortune, it was lost to creditors. Family deaths had also left her alone and penniless, while Stella was in bed with her husband:
I, I, I took the blows in my face and my body. All of those deaths. The long parade to the graveyard. Father, mother…You just came home in time for funerals Stella, and funerals are pretty compared to deaths. How did you think all that sickness and dying was paid for? Death is expensive, Miss Stella. And I, on my pitiful salary at the school. Yes, accuse me! Stand there and stare at me, thinking I let the place go. I let the place go! Where were you? In there with your Pollack!
When Blanche first meets Stanley, he has just returned home from bowling. They stare at each other for a short while and then she introduces herself: “You must be Stanley. I’m Blanche.” He offers her a drink, but she declines, explaining she rarely touches it. He comments:
Well, there are some people that rarely touch it, but it touches them often.
Animalistic and exhibitionistic, he removes his hot sticky T-shirt in front of her, and changes into a clean one. She covertly sneaks a peek at his massive biceps. While they size each other up, he asks if she is planning to stay for a while: “You gonna shack up here?” And then he senses her distance from him – she is from an entirely antithetical culture:
Well, I guess I’m gonna strike you as being the unrefined type, huh?
Stanley knows from Stella that Blanche was married once when she was younger. Blanche explains what happened as she hears polka music, associating the music with her dead husband. A distant gunshot in her head silences the music: “The boy…the boy died. I’m afraid I’m, I’m gonna be sick.” [In the stage version of the play, her socially-proper young husband committed suicide because he had been caught in a homosexual encounter - it is retained only through vague suggestion in the film.]
Blanche’s large steamer trunks arrive, implying that she will be remaining for an extended stay. Because it is Stanley’s poker night and the disruption might upset Blanche, Stella plans to take her out to dinner, leaving Stanley with a cold plate on ice. With endearing kisses, she tries to persuade Stanley to be nice to Blanche who seems to be upset by everything. Stella suggests that Stanley tell her that she looks good: “Honey, when she comes in, be sure and say something nice about her appearance…and try to understand and be nice to her, honey. She wasn’t expecting to find us in such a place…And admire her dress. Tell her she’s looking wonderful. It’s important to Blanche. A little weakness.”
Stanley is very suspicious of Blanche’s account of the demise of Belle Reve, thinking both of them have been swindled out of an inheritance:
How about a few more details on that subject…Let’s cop a gander at the bill of sale…What do you mean? She didn’t show you no papers, no deed of sale or nothin’ like that?…Well then, what was it then? Given away to charity?…Oh I don’t care if she hears me. Now let’s see the papers…Now listen. Did you ever hear of the Napoleonic code, Stella?…Now just let me enlighten you on a point or two…Now we got here in the state of Louisiana what’s known as the Napoleonic code. You see, now according to that, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also, and vice versa…It looks to me like you’ve been swindled baby. And when you get swindled under Napoleonic code, I get swindled too and I don’t like to get swindled…Where’s the money if the place was sold?
He sees all her fancy clothing and jewelry in the trunk and gets all worked up, refusing to pamper her as Stella would have him. He throws Blanche’s possessions around, violating her trunk with all its clothes, jewelry (and her love letters):
Now will you just open your eyes to this stuff here. Now I mean, what – has she got this stuff out of teacher’s pay?…Will you look at these fine feathers and furs that she comes to bring herself in here. What is this article? That’s a solid gold dress, I believe…Now what is that? There’s a treasure chest of a pirate…That’s pearls, Stella, ropes of ‘em. What is your sister – a deep sea diver? Bracelets, solid gold. (To Stella) Where are your pearls and gold bracelets?…And here you are. Diamonds. A crown for an empress…Here’s your plantation Stella, right here…Well, the Kowalskis and the DuBois – there’s just a different notion on this.
When Blanche comes out of the bathroom from a hot bath (where she was “soaking in a hot tub to quiet her nerves” – and compulsively cleansing herself of her past), Stanley is waiting for her like she is his prey. Her lady-like affectations rub Stanley the wrong way. She notices her trunk has been partly unpacked (”exploded”), and he starts questioning her about her expensive-looking clothing (”It certainly looks like you raided some stylish shops in Paris, Blanche”). Stanley can’t believe Blanche’s pretentious attitude or her tales of rich and handsome suitors. He tells Blanche that he doesn’t believe in complimenting women about their looks, when she appears to be fishing for compliments:
I never met a dame yet that didn’t know if she was good-lookin’ or not without being told. And there’s some of them that give themselves credit for more than they’ve got. I once went out with a dame who told me, ‘I’m the glamorous type.’ She says, ‘I am the glamorous type.’ I said, ‘So what?’
He boasts to Blanche that when he said that, it “shut her up like a clam…it ended the conversation, that was all.” He isn’t “taken in by this Hollywood glamour stuff.” Blanche describes his attitude: “You’re simple, straightforward, and honest. A little bit on the, uh, primitive side, I should think.”
Blanche encourages him to ask any questions, because she claims that she has nothing to hide. Suspicious of her, Stanley explains the Louisiana Napoleonic Code to her: “…what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also and vice versa.” He clashes with her, not believing her stories:
Blanche: My, but you have an impressive, judicial air.
Stanley: You know, if I didn’t know that you was my wife’s sister, I would get ideas about you…Don’t play so dumb. You know what.
Laying her “cards on the table” [like his poker buddies], she admits to Stanley that she doesn’t always tell the truth, but when veracity matters, she does:
I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion, but when a thing is important I tell the truth…
Blanche swears that she never cheated her sister, or Stanley, or anyone else on earth. He insists on knowing where her papers are, insensitive to her frail emotional condition. In a tin box which contains most of her papers, he first finds her love letters, snatching them from her and tossing them around the room. She attempts to reclaim them from being durtied:
These are love letters, yellowing with antiquity, all from one boy. Give them back to me!…The touch of your hand insults them!…Now that you’ve touched them I’ll burn them…Poems a dead boy wrote. I hurt him the way that you would like to hurt me, but you can’t! I’m not young and vulnerable any more. But my young husband was…Everyone has something they won’t let others touch because of their intimate nature.
Then, Blanche locates the many Belle Reve papers (”there are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years affecting Belle Reve”), explaining its loss and how her family had squandered the fortune on ‘epic debaucheries.’ Her ancestors had lived animalistically [similar to Stanley's uncontrolled physical nature and libidinous way of life]:
Piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers exchanged the land for their epic debauches, to put it mildly, ’til finally all that was left – and Stella can verify that! – was the house itself and about 20 acres of ground, including a graveyard, to which now all but Stella and I have retreated.
She defiantly thrusts the papers of her family estate at Stanley:
Here they are. All of them! All papers! I hereby endow you with them! Take them. Peruse them. Commit them to memory, even! I think it’s wonderfully fitting that Belle Reve should finally be this bunch of old papers in your big capable hands.
And then Stanley announces the underlying reason for his interest in her papers: “Under the Napoleonic code, a man has got to take an interest in his wife’s affairs. I mean, especially now that she’s gonna have a baby.” The news is a shocking revelation to Blanche. The sisters are restored to each other after the confrontation between Blanche and her brother-in-law over the lost home:
…maybe he’s what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve. We’re gonna have to go on without Belle Reve to protect us.
That night, as Stanley’s friends gather to play poker in the cramped apartment, Stella leads Blanche away: “The blind are leading the blind!”
One of Stanley’s poker game buddies in the sweaty, boozy game is shy, middle-aged Harold “Mitch” Mitchell (Karl Malden) who often mentions his attachment to his sick mother that he must attend to: “I’ve gotta sick mother and she don’t go to sleep until I get home at night.” The two sisters appear back at home after a show, but before she enters, Blanche hesitates: “Wait till I powder. I feel so hot and frazzled.” Blanche meets Mitch as he comes out of the bathroom – she is slightly attracted to Mitch’s sensitive nature. Stanley is in a foul mood, half-drunk, domineering toward his wife, and angry that Blanche has turned on loud rhumba music on the radio.
Before leaving, Mitch strikes up a conversation with Blanche in the back room, naively admiring her genteel ways and impressed that she knows a quote from a “favorite sonnet” by Mrs. Browning inscribed in his silver cigarette case given to him by a dying girl: “And if God choose, I shall but love thee better – after – death.” A coquettish Blanche explains her name for him:
It’s a French name. It means woods, and Blanche means white, so the two together mean white woods. Like an orchard in spring. You can remember it by that, if you care to.
Mitch is most impressed by Blanche and behaves like a gallant gentleman, putting a protective “adorable little paper lantern” on one of the bare light bulbs at her request to soften the glare: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” With the paper lampshade and the proper atmosphere of subdued lighting, Blanche creates a soft, exotic, romantic dream-like world in the room: “We’ve made enchantment.” Symbolically, she is physically, psychologically, and emotionally fragile – and hypersensitive to glaring bright lights which would reveal her declining beauty. With the radio playing waltz music, Blanche dances while gesturing romantically in the air – Mitch moves next to her like a dancing bear.
Suddenly, after losing a poker hand, a drunken Stanley bursts into the room, and throws the music-playing radio crashing out the window. Stella thinks he has gone completely beserk: “Drunk, Drunk, animal thing you!” Stanley charges after his wife and assaults her with a few blows, causing a fight to break out to control his “lunacy.” His poker buddies hold him under a cold shower to sober him up.
Dripping wet with water, Stanley realizes he has struck and abused Stella, and feeling repentant, he searches for her. Stella and Blanche have sought protective refuge in the upstairs apartment. Animalistic and virile in a wet, torn T-shirt, he bellows repeatedly for Stella from the street in front of their building, begging for her return:
Hey Stell – Lahhhhh!
This scene is one of the most regularly-chosen clips played in film excerpts from cinematic history. With the low moan of a clarinet, Stella finally responds to her contradictory impulses – her anger melts into forgiveness, her fear into desire. She leaves the shelter of the upstairs apartment and stands staring down at him from the upper landing. Then, she surrenders herself to him – she slowly descends the spiraling stairs to him and comes down to his level. He drops to his knees, crying. She sympathizes with him as he presses his face to her pregnant belly, and they embrace and kiss. Stanley begs: “Don’t ever leave me, baby,” and then literally sweeps her off her feet – he carries her into their dark apartment.
Blanche comes looking for them, and finds them inside – she stops and catches herself before entering into the flat. Outside the building, she finds Mitch, who asks if everything is “all quiet along the Potomac now?” He assures Blanche that the feuding couple are “crazy about each other,” and things will be fine between them. Blanche thanks Mitch for his concern: “…so much confusion in the world. Thank you for being so kind. I need kindness now.” Blanche has found that Mitch offers her one final chance to realize her self-preserving fantasy.
The following morning, Blanche (who has spent a sleepless night upstairs) is surprised to find that Stella has forgiven Stanley so quickly: “He was as good as a lamb when I came back. He’s really very, very ashamed of himself.” Still lying in her bed under a sheet, lounging there following blissful submission to Stanley the night before, Stella winsomely reminisces about Stanley as a destructive smasher – he had smashed things before, like on their wedding night when he triumphantly broke all the light bulbs in their place with Stella’s slipper: “I was sort of thrilled by it.”
Blanche suggests a plan to get them away from the mad, crazy man (”You’re married to a madman”) but Stella defends him and their love – not willing to sacrifice the stability she has found in her life with Stanley: “I wish you’d stop taking it for granted that I’m in something I want to get out of.”
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