Today is Wednesday, and it is time for me to publish this week’s first 100 New Code Films article. In all but four weeks of 2020, one of which was last week, I publish two articles in this series. Each article is a review of an American Breen Era (1934-1954) film which I have watched for the first time during the week. As a Code film scholar who is constantly trying to enlarge her knowledge of Breen Era cinema, I am on a quest to watch every Code film ever made. Since this includes around eight thousand films, this will take me years. I continue striving toward this goal by watching as many new Code films as possible. I try to intersperse movies I want to see, such as those with my favorite actors, with famous or acclaimed movies.
Today’s topic is A Streetcar Named Desire from 1951. Since Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for her performance in this movie, this is one of the films that I put on my list of films to watch this list. I compiled a list of the films which won the top four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress) during the Breen Era and determined to watch all the ones I hadn’t seen yet. While it’s obvious that I won’t achieve that full goal, I am still trying to watch as many as I can. When I heard about the Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to watch this film, which is set exclusively in New Orleans. I watched this film last night on ok.ru.
A delusional, fragile middle-aged Southern belle goes to New Orleans to live with her sister and brother-in-law. The high school English teacher from Mississippi declares that she has been given a temporary leave of absence because her nerves are shot, but her sister notices that she seems more upset and nervous than she has ever seen her. She vaguely tells her sister that she lost the familial plantation estate which they fought for generations to keep. The rough, uncultured brother-in-law’s brutish behavior quickly strikes the whimsical guest as very common, and she is shocked by the dinginess of the surroundings. Similarly, the man pegs his sister-in-law as a phony. He antagonizes her with questions about their estate and implications that she is swindling her sister. The neurotic lady is repulsed by his rough friends who come over for a drunken card game, but she gains the admiration of one former military buddy of his. This gentleman is a sensitive man who cares for his ailing mother and thinks the visitor is a really refined lady. How long can she keep him in the dark about her age and her past? Will she be able to escape the darkness closing in on her mind?
This movie stars Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter. Supporting actors include Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, Peg Hillias, and Wright King.
This movie was directed by Elia Kazan. It was produced by Charles K. Feldman. The production company was Warner Bros. The screenplay was written by Tennessee Williams. The adaption was by Oscar Saul. The original play of the same name was written by Tennessee Williams. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, Best Director for Elia Kazan, Best Screenplay for Tennessee Williams, Best Black-and-White Cinematography for Harry Stradling Sr., Best Black-and-White Costume Design for Lucinda Ballard, Best Recording for Nathan Levinson, and Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Alex North. It won four other Academy Awards, Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter, and Best Black-and-White Art Direction-Set Decoration for Richard Day and George James Hopkins. It received two Golden Globe nominations, Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Actress – Drama for Vivien Leigh. Kim Hunter won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
This is a poor Code film. In many ways, A Streetcar Named Desire could be considered the modern times sequel to Gone with the Wind, so it is only fitting that it receive the same Code classification. Like the Civil War epic, it came a long way from its controversial source material, eliminating, changing, or toning down many elements which were completely Code-violating. The two biggest problems in this story were the reference to Blanche Dubois’s (Vivien Leigh) late husband being a pansy, which led to his suicide, and Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) taking advantage of his sister-in-law. The first problem was very effectively removed, since in the finished film, Blanche confessed that she called her sensitive young poet husband weak, leading him to shoot himself. There is no flavor of perversion about his memory. The second element was not obliterated as completely. Stanley seems to be trying to overpower her when they are alone together in the apartment, and she breaks a mirror before the scene fades to black. The next day, Blanche has apparently told her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), that her husband forced himself on her. However, the mirror is not broken, which confirms Stanley’s insistence that he didn’t touch her. The Production Code Administration (PCA) wanted this scene to be more subtle by implying that the forcing was only in Blanche’s demented mind. I thought this was pretty subtle. There were some other things, though. Both Stanley and Blanche refer to the latter’s past, which seems to have included promiscuity and perhaps even prostitution. The dialogue is subtle and might not be understood by younger audience members. However, the situation is more than just hinted to those over the age of twelve, at the oldest. There also is a scene in which Blanche seduces a young stranger into kissing her. Also, the relationship between Stanley and Stella is depicted as quite amorous. Although there is nothing wrong with this, since they are married, some of the scenes are a bit too passionate, particularly the one in which Stanley carries Stella into their room after a drunken fit. Stanley uses the phrase “colored lights” a couple of times when talking to Stella, which is their code word for intimate passion, I assume. Stanley is a very violent man, breaking furniture, dishes, windows, etc., but very little violence form one person toward another is shown onscreen. There is a lot of drinking in this movie, particularly involving Stanley and Blanche, but it is not shown as positive. A shocking amount of clothing gets torn onscreen, but it never results in someone being indecently exposed. Blanche and Stella are often shown dressing and undressing, but they never wear less than full slips. Stanley is often shown in a tight tee shirt or even shirtless, but never in less than that. The basic concept of this film is rather disturbing, but I was impressed by how it handled these difficult topics. The brutish Stan yells and rants throughout the film, but he never swears. It’s amazing that this story could be made into this good a Code film.
I highly recommend this film to those who are interested in motion pictures as an art. If you really enjoy dramatic movies, you will like this. For those who don’t like disturbing or really intense movies, this will probably not be an enjoyable film. I’m glad that I’ve watched it, since it is one of the most iconic films from the 1950s. The acting is magnificent. Each actor really created a convincing character. The central performance, of course, is Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois. She is so believable as this increasingly delusional and unstable woman that it is frightening, especially when you know about the actress’s real struggles with mental illness. Her clinging to fantasy, pathetic love of luxury, and superior attitude despite her meager surroundings mesh together to create a pitiably fallen woman, who is deceiving herself as much as others. In his breakout role, we see Marlon Brando in his definite performance as Stanley. Quite frankly, I have never liked Marlon Brando, either in appearance or the characters he played. I despised Stanley, but I respected Mr. Brando’s very effective performance as the abusive brute. He created a character who believably alternated between barbaric rage and passion for his wife. Kim Hunter makes Stella the opposite of Blanche at the film’s beginning. She isn’t too worried about her appearance, and she has forgotten their aristocratic upbringing enough to be happy with common Stanley in their poor surroundings. Instead of adapting to her sister’s circumstances, Blanche gradually makes Stella discontent with her life with Stanley. Stella gradually becomes more and more disgusted with Stanley’s dirty ways and rough behavior, sympathizing instead with her delusional sister. Karl Malden gives a nuanced performance as Mitch, the man who cares about Blanche, but not quite enough to love her for what she really is. The dialogue is very believable and characteristic, creating an environment which feels real.
For the Blogathon
This is my entry in The Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon, which is being hosted by Annette Bochenek of Hometowns to Hollywood. This road trip through Hollywood history is an opportunity for different writers to write about films which take place in different regions, cities, or locales of the United States. I chose one of the most mysterious, dramatic cities in our nation, New Orleans, Louisiana.
A Streetcar Named Desire takes place exclusively in New Orleans. While the stage play confined the setting to the Kowalski apartment, the movie expanded the locations to other areas in the Big Easy. The opening shot shows a train at Bienville Street Station as the words New Orleans are projected on the screen. Then, we see Blanche at the station, trying to find her way to her sister’s apartment. To get there, she rides the titular streetcar, Desire. Throughout the film, we often see the street outside the Kowalskis’ square. It’s crowded with vendors, singing and calling out their wares in typical New Orleans fashion. We also see such famous New Orleans architectural styles as wrought iron balconies. The acting, dialogue, and staging create the feeling of sultry New Orleans in the summer. Characters’ clothes often are damp and clinging, and Blanche constantly dabs her face with a handkerchief, complaining of the heat. The mood is solidified by Alex North’s jazz score, the first jazz film score. The saxophone, drums, and other bluesy notes convey the spirit of Basin Street and the birthplace of jazz. Having visited Louisiana three times myself, I can testify that this film feels like a road trip to the sleazy side of New Orleans in the middle of the twentieth century.
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