Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire tells the tragic tale of Blanche DuBois, a woman so overwhelmed by her life that she desperately grabs for any moment of refuge without considering the consequences. Four years later, the play was adapted into a film, bringing with it from Broadway: Williams, who co-wrote the script with Oscar Saul; director Elia Kazan; and main cast members Marlon Brando (Stanley), Kim Hunter (Stella), and Karl Malden (Mitch). Because Jessica Tandy wasn’t considered a big enough name, the producers went with Vivien Leigh, who played Blanche in the London production.
To get A Streetcar Named Desire made under the Motion Picture Production Code of the time, changes were required. The sexuality needed to be toned down, and the ending had to be altered. Yet even then, the film had to be approved by the Legion of Decency, a powerful Roman Catholic Church group in the United States that could impact business if they weren’t satisfied. They had objections and further cuts were made. In 1993 with the Legion long since disbanded, A Streetcar Named Desire was restored to its original version and that’s what Warner Brothers has released on Blu-ray.
The film opens with Blanche taking a leave of absence from her teaching job in Oriole, Mississippi (changed from Laurel in the play) to stay with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley in New Orleans. She’s a frail, nervous woman who doesn’t enjoy the daylight or the heat, preferring to go out in the evenings and taking long baths. She wears an air of sophistication like a shield to protect herself from people and to hide behind so others can’t see her true nature.
Blanche and Stanley clash. She always taking subtle digs at him when he’s around and more direct when speaking alone with her sister, finding him common and brutish. Stanley can’t stand her better-than attitude. Blanche was in charge of the family property, Belle Rive, but lost it. When Stanley sees all the fine things Blanche has, he questions her story and is worried Stella, and thereby him under the Napoleonic code, have been swindled. He begins to investigate her.
Stella is caught up between her sister and husband, but she’s no longer the Southern belle that Blanche is. Though physically abused by Stanley, the make-up sex appears to make it all tolerable for her and she’s expecting their baby, making it harder for her to get away, like Blanche wants.
Mitch is a friend and co-worker of Stanley’s. He is a bachelor living with his sick mother and is attracted to Blanche. They date and grow close as they are both in need of someone, but she will only kiss him because she knows what men think when they get more from a woman. One night, she tells him about her husband’s suicide, though his homosexuality is now only hinted at with references to his “nervousness, tenderness, uncertainty.” He’s not a strong vital force like Stanley, but a “boy who wrote poetry” and her nasty comments towards him are no longer based on catching him with another man but an attack on his weakness.
The eventual face-off between Stanley and Blanche is brutal and leaves her devastated. In the play, Stella chooses Stanley, but in the film Stella has a different reaction. Though it makes changes to the characters and the themes dealt with, I am fine with the film’s ending, and may even prefer it, but that may be because I want Stella to be the character she becomes and what that means to Stanley rather than remain who she is in the play.
The main actors all give top-rate performances. No doubt the years spent with the parts helped. What’s most interesting is the one most memorable, Brando’s, is the only one that didn’t win and Oscar. To be fair, he was going up against winner Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Harry Stradling’s black and white cinematography makes great use of light and shadows, as can be seen in the deep blacks and the contrast. The image can be slightly soft at times, likely the way it was shot, and grain is evident. Richard Day and George Hopkins’ Oscar-winning Art Direction-Set Decoration can be seen in the textures of the Kowalskis’ apartment. The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Mono and free of defect. The dialogue is clear, from Stanley’s iconic screams for Stella to soft whispers heard in Blanche’s memory. Effects and Alex North’s jazzy-classical hybrid score also are solid in their presentation.
The extras appeared on the 2006 DVD release, all in SD. But that makes them no less enjoyable or interesting. A commentary track is pieced together from separate interviews with Karl Malden and historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young. Narrated by Eli Wallach and written and directed by Richard Schickel, Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey (76 min) is a 1994 documentary with Kazan discussing his career in theater and film.
Laurent Bouzereau created this next batch of extras in 2006. He uses clips of Kazan from the Schickel sessions and Kim Hunter from the TCM Archives. Bouzereau starts with an examination of the play in “A Streetcar on Broadway” (22 min) and then looks at its transition in “A Streetcar in Hollywood” (28 min). “Censorship and Desire” (16 min) is a fascinating look at the changes required to get the film released with a comparison between the 1951 version and the restored version. Composer Alex North is given some attention in “North and the Music of the South (9 min) as is “An Actor Named Brando (9 min).
Also included is a “Marlon Brando Screen Test” (5 min) where he tries out for Rebel Without a Cause and is interviewed. There are “Outtakes” (16 min) and “Audio Outtakes” (17 min), which are barely more than novelties. There are trailers from Warner Brothers 1951 (SD; 2:35), the 20th Century Fox 1958 reissue (SD; 2:09), and the United Artists 1970 reissue (SD; 1:50) which focuses on Brando. The disc is housed in a digibook with pictures and text.
A Streetcar Named Desire is an impressive endeavor by the cast and crew. It’s a classic well worth owning. You can depend on that.