Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, won rave reviews from film critics and big audiences at the time of its 1951 theatrical release. Its box office success translated into twelve Oscar nominations and four Oscars at the 1952 Academy Awards. (1) The film has travelled well over the decades, and in 2007 the movie was ranked 47th on the American Film Institute’s 2007 100 Years…100 Movies–10th Anniversary list of America’s most important films. (2) A June 20, 1951 film review by a critic named Mr. Kahn in the Hollywood publication Variety calls Elia Kazan’s work “excellently produced and imparting a keen insight into a drama whose scope was, of necessity, limited by its stage setting.” Kahn goes on to say that “Streetcar is decidedly adult drama because of its theme – it tells the story of the slow moral collapse of a southern schoolteacher.” (3) Sixty four years later, contributing writer Jeff Saporito, in a critical essay in FilmPrism, also praises the film, but goes on to tackle the questions “How did the “Streetcar” differ from the original stage version….and What tactics were used to bypass censors”. Saporito says “despite Kazan’s penchant for pushing the limits of acceptability on film, the version of A Streetcar Named Desire he filmed isn’t the same as the one audiences saw live on the stage. While directors like Kazan helped pave the way for the eventual destruction of the censorship mandates active in 1951, Streetcar was still under the thumb of censorship that mirrored the whims of conservative American society, and forced changes to some of the narrative’s key plot points.” (4) What is most striking about the arc of criticism across more than half a century from Kahn in 1951 to Saporito (and others) in 2015, is not appreciation for the film itself (everybody loves it), but the modern critics’ focus on censorship, which shows a failure by today’s critic to give audiences generations ago credit for their ability to understand powerful themes of sexuality and violence in Streetcar, although the presentation of these themes was far more subdued than we would expect in a film produced today,
In the 1951 Variety review by Kahn, he is keenly aware of the themes of sexuality, sexual violence, homosexuality and even nymphomania that are central to the story of Blanche DuBois, her sister Stella, and Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski. Kahn says that the story, which revolves around the psychological collapse of Blanche, a schoolteacher whose “loose” behavior has driven her from her job and hometown, is a film “that might find some criticism only from the more cautious because of the projection of the nymphomania theme”. He goes on to say that “while Streetcar deals with a sex problem that is dangerous story-telling for films, Streetcar has not for a moment sacrificed good taste for the sake of realism.” Other reviewers made the same points. In an October 25, 1951 Atlanta Constitution newspaper review, their critic, Paul Jones, says that the film is definitely among the best of the year, although its story was pretty “sordid and unattractive”. He goes on to say that “Mass appeal has been attained through Hollywood’s efforts to play down the sordid aspects of the film in favor of the basic theme of the degeneration of a woman, under emotional stress.” (5) Critics and audiences “got it” even if the film itself softened, as opposed to boldly highlighted, the sexual and violent underpinnings of the story. The power of the story and acting made the sexual and personal tensions perfectly clear, even if Kazan wasn’t able to shine as bright a spotlight as he perhaps wanted to do.
Saporito’s 2015 exploration of censorship on Streetcar echoes the thinking and mirrors the focus of other modern reviewers, who target what was “taken out” of the original film in order to win the necessary approval from the Motion Picture Association to attract a mass audience. Because the Broadway play wasn’t subject to the same pressures as the movie, and because several minutes of the film (later rediscovered), ended up on the cutting room floor due to arm-twisting by the MPA Board, it’s easy to see how far Kazan was pushed to “cut” in order to get the blessing (and money from the studio) to make his film. That industry board, which was an attempt to self-censor to avoid heavier government censorship, was set up back in 1930, and had real clout. One of the bedrock principles underlying this Code was that:
- No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin;
- Correct standards of life shall be presented on the screen, subject only to necessary dramatic contrasts; and
- Law, natural or human, should not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
- More specifically, insofar as sex is concerned,
- Seduction or rape (a) …should never be more than suggested….and “Sex Perversion” [understood to include homosexuality, sex with minors, nymphomania, etc] or any reference to it is forbidden. (6)
For example, in the play, it is obvious that Blanche’s husband is a homosexual and it’s that repressed sexuality that triggers his suicide. In Scene 6 of the play, Blanche tells us that all doubt about her husband’s sexuality disappeared “In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty – which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it, the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years…..” (7) In the movie that explicit revelation disappears. Instead, when Blanche tells Mitch, who she wants to want her, about her late husband, she just says that “I was unlucky. Deluded. There was something about the boy. A nervousness, a tenderness……an uncertainty….at night I pretended to sleep. I heard him crying….crying. Crying the way a lost child cries.” (8) It wasn’t explicit like the play, but it certainly was obvious what she way saying. Also, Stanley’s raping Blanche at the end of the play is something far less stark in the movie. Yet the sexual attraction and hostility that is the essence of that twisted relationship leaves no doubt what happened. Likewise, at the end of the story, after Blanche is committed to a psychiatric hospital and Stella has a fight with her husband, in the movie, she claims she has had enough and is leaving him with their baby, providing a suitable punishment for Stanley’s moral failings. Not a happy ending, but “justice” Yet after earlier fights, Stella always returned to Stanley and their dysfunctional relationship continued. Is such a break from years of abuse and a run for freedom really credible? I don’t think so. In the play, the battered Stella, who “sobs with inhuman abandon….something luxurious in her complete surrender….” remains in the apartment, and life goes on.
Roger Ebert, like Saporito, point outs what isn’t in the original film, what was cut to please the censor. “The 1951 cuts took out dialogue that suggested Blanche DuBois was promiscuous… a nymphomaniac attracted to young boys. It also cut much of the intensity from Stanley’s final assault of Blanche.” (9) Ebert says that another scene (now restored) was excluded where Stella tells her sister “Stanley always smashed things. Why on our wedding night, as soon as we came in here, he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs…” Blanche is shocked, but Stella tellingly adds, “I was sort of thrilled by it.”
In his film criticism Saporito says that “By sanitizing controversial material for film audiences….the Production Code did viewers a grave disservice; in the case of A Streetcar Named Desire, the adult nature of the original story was watered down into something decidedly blander and less powerful”. I’m not so sure. I think that while some of the more overt references to Blanche’s non-stop affairs (and attraction to boys), the homosexuality of her husband, and Stanley’s rape of Blanche were removed to quiet the censors, the language and the backstory are so clear, the acting so powerful, that the audience totally gets it, and doesn’t need more explicit instruction. Modern reviewers focus on censorship because it is so alien to us, on what is not made explicit, but discount the sophistication of an audience that can “read between the lines”.