Of the great American films--and make no mistake, it belongs in that group--"A Streetcar Named Desire" remains one of the most misunderstood, underappreciated and surprisingly forgotten. All that, however, is about to change.
Released to great acclaim in 1951, nominated for a dozen Oscars and winner of four, including acting awards for Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, this Elia Kazan-directed version of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been seriously slighted in the intervening years, despite a lead performance by Marlon Brando that is little less than epochal.
In a critical world increasingly obsessed with visual mastery, "Streetcar's" literary and theatrical origins have been held against it, and the fact that new prints were last struck in 1957 has obscured the cinematic strengths of virtuoso cameraman Harry Stradling's atmospheric black-and-white cinematography.
Also, "Streetcar" has always been a film with an asterisk attached to it. For the content of Williams' brilliant play was considered so risque that the film version was in effect censored not once but twice before it made it to the screen.
First, the shooting script was toned down by Williams and Kazan themselves following monumental struggles with the Breen Office, the enforcers of the industry's moralistic Production Code. Then, just before its opening, threats of a boycott from several Catholic organizations led to cuts in the finished film. Without Kazan's knowledge and to his enormous distress, Warner Bros. OKd something like a dozen changes, taking out close to four minutes of film, key moments never to be seen again. Until now.
Discovered in 1989 by Michael Arick (then Warner Bros. director of preservation and now a private consultant) in a vault in Van Nuys sharing space with bargain-basement Westerns and exploitation pictures, those critical last-minute deletions have been restored to "Streetcar" and the first new prints in decades struck.
With the world premiere of what Warners is calling the director's cut of "Streetcar" beginning a 10-day run at the Nuart in West Los Angeles Friday, several things are apparent. First, the restored footage, small though it is, clearly adds a different, more openly sensual tone to the film. But more than that, the new print allows us to recognize that with or without those missing minutes, "Streetcar" was both a landmark in the fight against censorship and perhaps the most thrilling display of ensemble acting in all of American film.
A key reason the acting was so good is that all the members of the cast (with the sole exception of Leigh, who replaced Jessica Tandy because producer Charles K. Feldman felt at least one star name was essential) were in the original cast when the play opened on Broadway in December of 1947.
Kazan was the original director as well, and one of the prime movers behind getting the 24-year-old Brando, who only three years before had played a 14-year-old in the stage version of "I Remember Mama," to take on the part of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway after both John Garfield and Burt Lancaster had been considered for it.
But when it came to making the film version, Kazan, who had never made a film from a play he'd already directed, wasn't sure he was interested. "It would be like marrying the same woman twice," he told Williams. "I don't think I can get it up for 'Streetcar' again."
Kazan finally agreed, partly because his wife, Molly, was a longtime Williams fan and partly because of the director's own affection for the writer. "I feel closer to Williams personally than to any other playwright I've worked with," he said. "Possibly it's the nature of his talent--it's so vulnerable, so naked--it's more naked than anyone else's. I wanted to protect him, look after him."
And "Streetcar," which had few film nibbles despite its Pulitzer Prize because it was considered too hot to put on film, turned out to need a good deal of protection. What happened when the fragile Blanche Dubois visited her sister Stella and Stella's "be comfortable, that's my motto" husband Stanley Kowalski was not a tale for children. And as Joseph Breen, the Production Code's enforcer, wrote to Irene Mayer Selznick, the play's producer, "material which may be perfectly valid for dramatization and treatment on stage may be questionable, or even completely unacceptable, when presented in a motion picture."
In a memo to Warner Bros., Breen identified several problem areas in the play. One, typical of the attitudes of the time, was what Breen called "an inference of sexual perversion. This principally has reference to the character of Blanche's young husband. . . . There seems little doubt that this young man was a homosexual." Dialogue fixes were used to obscure this, so that when the husband shoots himself in the film, it is after Blanche tells him off because he's "weak."
The biggest problem involved the play's pivotal moment, the rape of Blanche by Stanley. Rape of any kind was frowned on by the code, and the one in "Streetcar," which Breen described as "both justified and unpunished," was especially objectionable. But here Kazan and Williams, who also wrote the screenplay with adapter Oscar Saul, drew the line, saying it was not possible to eliminate the rape and do the picture.
As Williams wrote to Breen in an eloquent, impassioned letter, their feeling was that "the rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society."
Faced with this, and the possibility that "Streetcar" might try to outflank the Production Code and film without script approval, Breen indicated the rape might be acceptable if it were punished. So while the play ended with the image of a united family, Williams wrote a new ending for the film, with Stella fleeing to a neighbor's and insisting to her new baby, "We're not going back there. Not this time. We're never going back. Never, never back, never back again." As Murray Schumach wrote in "The Face on the Cutting Room Floor," a history of censorship, "thus the 12-year-olds could believe Stella was leaving her husband. But the rest of the audience would realize it was just an emotional outburst of the moment."
Feeling his censorship problems were behind him, and having tried and largely discarded a version of the script that opened up the play to the extent of shooting scenes at Belle Reve, the lost Dubois estate, Kazan took the opposite tack when filming began, even having sets built that emphasized the claustrophobic nature of the Kowalskis' New Orleans apartment.
Both of his lead actors, it turned out, presented problems of different kinds. Vivien Leigh had played Blanche for nine months in England under her husband Laurence Olivier's direction, and Kazan had to break her of the habit of saying, "When Larry and I did the play in London. . . ."
Brando was more of a problem for the other actors, with Leigh complaining to Kazan "you never know what he's going to do next, where he's going or what he's going to say." And the director, himself a former actor, admitted that Brando "had mannerisms that would have annoyed the hell out of me if I'd been playing with him. He'd not respond directly when spoken to, make his own time lapses, sometimes leaving the other actors hung up."
Still, seen today, the results are terrific. Though Brando once told an interviewer that in being "aggressive, unpremeditated, overt, and completely without doubt about himself" Stanley was "the direct antithesis of what I am," his anti-heroic performance, sweaty T-shirt and all, is one of the most completely realized ever put on screen, notable as much for its sensuality and its regret as its display of naked power. Only Humphrey Bogart, the sentimental favorite for "The African Queen," was to stand between him and an Oscar.
As for the three who did win Oscars, Kim Hunter as Stella, Karl Malden as Stanley's pal Mitch and Leigh as Blanche, their performances are all as alive now as the day they were put on film. As the author's voice and the deliverer of some of his most poetic lines ("Sometimes there is God so quickly"), Leigh is the most poignant, and Hunter, the restored footage shows, was the one most victimized by those last-minute cuts.
For though they thought otherwise, Kazan and Williams' battle with censorship was not over when shooting was completed. The Legion of Decency, the Catholic Church's moral police, was threatening to give the completed "Streetcar" a "C" or condemned rating, with a cancellation of a Radio City Music Hall opening as the likely result, and the Catholic War Veterans were rumored to be considering a boycott of all Warner Bros. films.
Into this breech stepped Martin Quigley, the publisher of a movie trade paper, a prominent Catholic layman and hardly a fan of the finished film. In fact, the first time he saw it he turned gray and informed Breen office representative Jack Vizzard, "Jack, I tell you, this fellow Kazan is the type who will one day blow his brains out."
Still, at the invitation of Warner Bros. and working with the film's embarrassed and horrified editor, David Weisbart, Quigley made a dozen cuts in the film, telling an amazed Kazan that "constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are not a one-way street. I have the same right to say that moral considerations have a precedence over artistic considerations as you have to deny it."
A "C" was dutifully avoided and a disgusted Kazan noted that Warners "didn't give a damn about the beauty or artistic value of the picture. . . . It was business, not art. They wanted to get the entire family to see the picture. They didn't want anything that might keep anyone away. At the same time they wanted it dirty enough to pull people in. The whole business was rather an outrage."
A measure of the way editor Weisbart felt about the trims he was forced to make is that when Arick found them 40 years later, in a mismarked can that had remained attached to the original nitrate negative, he realized "they had been lifted out in a way that made it easy for them to be put back in again. It was very clear where they went. The editor probably felt very bad."
The cuts, now restored, are mainly of single lines of dialogue, some of which emphasize the sexual yearning in Blanche's nature and one in particular, Stanley's saying "You know, you might not be bad to interfere with" just before the rape, underlining the brutality in his actions.
Most of the cuts, however, go toward draining Kim Hunter's performance of what in the restored version seems one of its most notable qualities, its sensuality. The major change comes in the scene of Stella returning to Hunter after their post-poker game fight, walking down a flight of iron stairs with what can now be seen as a pure and expressive carnality. Martin Quigley, who had told Kazan he wanted Stella seen as "a decent girl who is attracted to her husband the way any 'decent' girl might be," was shocked at the scene, but for current audiences its return will be a revelation.
Still, the major thing to be remembered as far as censorship and "Streetcar" are concerned is that even with all its cuts and changes, the very fact that it existed and was successful as a film intended exclusively for adult tastes was a major blow to those who believed that any film little Jimmy and baby Sue couldn't see shouldn't be made. "For the first time we were confronted with a picture that was obviously not family entertainment," said Production Code official Geoffrey Shurlock. "Before then we had considered 'Anna Karenina' a big deal. 'Streetcar' broke the barrier."
Even more important, the restored "A Streetcar Named Desire" reminds us just how intense movies can be when expressive cinematography and emotional acting and directing are joined to some of the most beautiful lines ever written for the screen. Even though Kazan graciously writes in his autobiography of later productions of the play that "no matter who directed it, with what concept, what cast, in what language, it was always hailed, often as 'better than the original production,' " this filmed version is without doubt the "Streetcar" for the ages. And we should be grateful that this restored revival has given us a reason to rush out and experience its glories all over again.
Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic.