This is reposted as part of the Summer Under the Stars blogathon
Elia Kazan’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire is an important film in my life. I first saw it in community college when we wrote compared and contrasted the play and the film (there’s a lot of watering down in the movie). I wrote so much on Blanche DuBoise that by the end I was sick of it (writing…not the movie). Between this and Splendor in the Grass, Kazan is one of my favorite directors and this film showed me what GORGEOUS was in Marlon Brando! Streetcar is considered one of the best movies of the 1950s and without it, there’d by no Brando…and that’s terrible.
Southern belle Blanche (Vivien Leigh) visits her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her uncouth husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). When Stanley discovers Blanche’s dark secrets it puts the two at odds, all the while Blanche is trying to find love with mama’s boy Mitch (Karl Malden).
Let’s get the hyperbole out-of-the-way: I LOVE THIS MOVIE! I don’t love it as much as Splendor in the Grass, but I’ve written more than a few papers about the women of Kazan’s films and this is part of an unofficial trilogy (unofficial in that I’m calling it a trilogy). Splendor in the Grass and Streetcar both deal with fractured females unable to reconcile their sexual potency with the societal expectations of women. Kazan’s little seen Baby Doll also has an infantile young girl unaware of her sexuality. All three movies are mired in Southern roots. I recommend seeing all three, especially Baby Doll which is far more erotic than Streetcar (and Streetcar gets pretty hot at times), if anything it’ll make you a tad leery of Karl Malden.
Back to the movie at hand. Adapted from the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, the film takes drastic changes due to the Production Code. Blanche is a delicate flower when we meet her, trying to find “a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery, and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.” Those opening lines tell you the entire trajectory of the movie; Blanche gets off at Desire, will remember the cemeteries of her past, before entering the Elysian Fields of her hallucinations. Blanche, Stella, and Stanley all cope with the varying elements of desire, but Blanche finds herself mired in the cemetery of fading youth before going to an imaginary afterlife where she’s always young and beautiful.
I mentioned writing a lot about Blanche and that’s because, much like many of Kazan’s heroines, she’s unable to cope with the rapidly shifting views of women. Most know that women of the ’50s lived quiet lives of desperation, trying to manage hearth and home. Blanche is a character who can’t seem to get that right. She got married, but as she mentions “the boy died.” The film waters down the true dynamic of Blanche and her dead husband’s relationship, removing all traces of her husband being a homosexual. Sure, you still get an idea of why he killed himself, but the play is more overt.
With that Blanche finds herself alone and fading in beauty before living a wanton and unglamorous lifestyle she must hide from everyone. The question of appearance is prevalent all throughout the movie as Blanche refuses to acknowledge she’s getting old. Blanche constantly bathes herself in an attempt to absolve her sins; she tells Mitch she’s younger than Stella and refuses to be seen in the daylight. It’s not that she intentionally wants to hurt Mitch, she simply understands the current society prizes fertile young women over old maids. Blanche also loses herself in alcohol, one of those people who says “one’s my limit” but can easily have her arm twisted to drink more.
Vivien Leigh is perfect as Blanche; she’s pretty much playing a continuation of Scarlett O’Hara. Both Blanche and Scarlett are Southern belles struggling with a massive change in circumstances. Blanche has Belle Reve while Scarlett has Tara, and both have extremely complicated love lives. Leigh also goes over-the-top with Blanche, making it known that she’s constantly playing a part. Every line is said in a breathy sigh filled with hand gestures. Blanche is the queen of the guilt trip, constantly telling Stella she had to hold onto Belle Reve all by herself. I have relatives like Blanche, so I found myself rolling my eyes during her more weepy moments. Leigh also is great at conveying Blanche’s sexuality. She’s extremely flirtatious to everyone she meets, including Stanley. The two are bubbling with sexual chemistry you can cut with a knife, but Blanche knows nothing has come to her from desire and that’s why she desperately wants to make a life with Mitch.
Karl Malden is so sweet as Mitch in this movie (a total 360 from his disturbing turn in Baby Doll a few years later). Blanche and Mitch are kindred spirits and you want them their marriage to happen. They are devoted to romanticism and are highly educated. Mitch himself had his own brush with death, given a cigarette case from a “very strange, very sweet” girl who died. You know their relationship is doomed, though, as Blanche’s lies get deeper and deeper, and by the end you can’t help but understand Mitch’s frustration, as well.
The romance between Stella and Stanley is the complete opposite to the two lovebirds. In fact, Stella and Blanche are so at odds it’s surprising their sisters. Kim Hunter has a natural rapport with Leigh, but the two are completely opposites. Not only are they physically distinct, their mannerisms are so different you don’t believe they’re sisters. One can blame Stanley for taking Stella “off the columns” and making her common, but I think the movie emphasizes Blanche’s need for that fairy-tale life that Stella never sought out in the first place.
Stella is in love with Stanley, but she’s also aware of how much of that love is sexual. For 1951 this movie is pretty ballsy with its views of sex. Stella tells Blanche she can’t be holier than thou because “haven’t you ever ridden on that streetcar [named desire].” The love between Stella and Stanley masks any flaws. The two may have a fight, and throughout the movie there’s more than a few, but they easily make up again. The iconic “STELLA!” moment isn’t about Stanley, but about Stella’s power over him. Watch her saunter down those stairs, completely in love with the fact he can’t do anything without her.
In the next scene Blanche goes home and sees Stella in nothing but a sheet, obviously after a night of some craziness. I can’t blame her for attacking Marlon Brando…but I’ll get to that in a second. Blanche thinks she can convince Stella to come back with her, but she doesn’t understand how Stella and Stanley can’t survive without the other. When Stanley comes home from work, all it takes is a smile to get Stella back on his side (the man is pretty convincing).
Which brings us to Brando; has there ever been a more gorgeous man (yes I have a list a mile long but seriously, the man makes an entrance)? I refuse to watch any Marlon Brando movie past the late ’60s as I hate to see him in his later years (although I made an exception for The Godfather). Brando’s entrance is probably the BEST entrance from a character I’ve ever seen.
Brando actually brought the t-shirt back into popularity and man did he wear it well. I’ve seen Brando’s other Kazan film, On the Waterfront, but I love him more in this. A TCM documentary mentioned Brando’s love of giving his character certain tics which added to the scene. Look at the clip again and be sure to notice his constant need to touch his body, from scratching to pulling on (and off) his shirt. It’s a small piece of stage business, unnecessary to the plot, but it makes you feel he’s casting off even more sexuality in the moment. I mentioned him and Blanche have some thick sexual chemistry and you see in that scene the way he looks at her, like a mental undressing is going on (could any other actor have pulled that off without being creepy?). He also sees right through Blanche, all the way down to her secret alcoholism, “Some people rarely touch it but it touches them often” (that is the sexiest line uttered in a film).
Stanley isn’t without his faults, namely, he’s kind of an idiot. He gets into an argument with Stella over possibly losing money when Blanche lost Belle Reve. He brings up the Napoleonic Code which, according to him, stipulates whatever goes to the wife goes to the husband and if Stella’s been swindled, so has he. It’s a brute, male dominated moment but hilarious if you actually know what the Napoleonic Code is. According to Wiki it “forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs go to the most qualified.” You laugh at Stanley’s idiocy, but it easily ties into the movie; that Stanley feels Blanche shouldn’t look down on him based on her upbringing, and he prevents her from practicing her religion (the false illusion of being young). Stanley’s also hilarious when he plans to sell Blanche’s things without her noticing. He’s the person who always “knows a guy” in a shady industry geiting you money.
The film’s ending is a bit different so I’ll let anyone who wants to remain spoiler free go to the bottom…..you’ve been warned. The ending of the play and movie feature Blanche having a mental break and going to a mental institution, relying “on the kindness of strangers.” Where the two differ is in how Blanche loses her mind. Stanley rapes Blanche in the play causing Blanche to go insane. Stella doesn’t believe Blanche (or prefers to live in denial) and lives happily ever after with Stanley. The movie alludes to Stanley raping Blanche, and Stella implying she’ll leave Stanley (because you can’t have the bad guy win at the end) once she realizes Blanche is crazy. I understand the changes due to the time period, but you don’t get that Stella is going to leave in the movie; it rings hollow.
Overall, A Streetcar Named Desire is one woman’s crusade to “tell what ought to be true.” It’s a fantastic film stuffed with wonderful performances from iconic actors. Watch, own it, and love Marlon Brando!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.