Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

>> Thursday, December 24, 2009

USA/B&W-125m./Dir: Elia Kazan/Wr: Tennessee Williams/Cast: Vivian Leigh (Blanche DuBois), Marlon Brando (Stanley Kowalski), Kim Hunter (Stella Kowalski), Karl Malden (Harold “Mitch” Mitchell)

Today it is impossible to watch the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire without thinking of "A Streetcar Named Marge," an episode from the fourth season of The Simpsons in which Marge Simpson starred as Blanche DuBois in a musical version of the play. While many would consider it heresy, in my opinion the 1951 film is only slightly less cartoonish than the animated parody. Keep in mind, however, this criticism comes from a critic who would categorize Tennessee Williams and his works amongst the ranks of the overrated.

Vivian Leigh, radiant despite the make-up artists’ best efforts to diminish her uncommon beauty, stars as Blanche DuBois, a delusional, fading, and impoverished Southern belle who travels to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter). Unfortunately, Stella’s wife-beating husband Stanley (Marlon Brando) doesn’t like the intrusion on the household and sees Blanche as a threat to the delicate, codependent relationship that he has with his wife. From the start, Stanley taunts Blanche in a cruel fashion, and when his co-worker Mitch (Karl Malden) takes a liking to Blanche, Stanley goes out of his way to discourage the pairing. Finally, when Stanley goes digging into dark secrets from Blanche’s past, the illusions that the Southern belle has built up around her begin to shatter.

The story of A Streetcar Named Desire doesn’t add up to much. Imagine Norma Desmond guest starring in a very special episode of The Honeymooners, and you’ll have a fair idea of what you’re getting into. On second thought, that makes the movie sound like a lot more fun than it actually is.

The film is melodramatic hokum, but it is watchable because of the performances of its four leads. While Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando came from two different schools of acting, they pair nicely. Leigh’s classical theatricality works well for the character of Blanche, who is always putting on an act of some sort. Brando, on the other hand, approached his character using the “new” method techniques of the day to try to achieve realism, but the end result was just as over-the-top as Leigh’s performance. However, being that the character of the ape-like Stanley is a broad caricature, Brando’s exaggerated portrayal is effective and strangely magnetic.

The most realistic and nuanced performances are given by Karl Malden and Kim Hunter. Hunter is especially good, and she contributes the best moment in the movie. Hearing Stanley cry out for forgiveness after beating her, Hunter exudes triumph and sexual cravings without speaking a word. Her slow, slinking walk down the apartment stairs into her husband’s arms is one of the most carnal moments ever captured on film.

Of course, I wouldn’t be discussing A Streetcar Named Desire if alcohol did not play a part in the film. While liquor is never at the center of the story, it is omnipresent throughout. Upon Blanche’s arrival in New Orleans, she passes roughneck bars, where brawls spill out into the street; and when she reaches her sister’s apartment, she encounters the upstairs neighbor drinking in the courtyard. While these sights seem to shock Blanche’s sensibilities, the very first thing she does upon reuniting with her sister is to down a couple of glasses of scotch. Booze also fuels Stanley’s domestic violence, and one of the many bones of contention that Stanley has with Blanche is the fact that she swills his liquor. While never explicitly stated, it is implied that Blanche is an alcoholic. In fact that insinuation comes across much clearer than the implied rape towards the end of the film.

While overrated, A Streetcar Named Desire is a cultural landmark. Consequently, it should be considered required viewing, if only for Kim Hunter’s sultry scene on the stairs.

Drinks Consumed--Scotch, unnamed whiskey, beer, and “Southern Cheer” liqueur

Intoxicating Effects--The giggles, brawling, bickering, and physical violence

Potent Quotables--STELLA: You sure you wouldn’t like another?
BLANCHE: Well… well, maybe I will take just one tiny nip more, just to put the stopper on so to speak. Now, now, don’t get worried. Your sister hasn’t turned into a drunkard. She’s just all shaken up and hard and dirty and tired.
STELLA: Waiter. Waiter!

Video Availability--A Streetcar Named Desire: Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner Home Video)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and The Night of the Iguana (1964) also feature plenty of boozing.

Tennessee Williams Film Collection (A Streetcar Named Desire 1951 Two-Disc Special Edition / Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958 Deluxe Edition / Sweet Bird of Youth / The Night of the Iguana / Baby Doll / The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone)


Lya de Putti July 23, 2011 at 1:31 PM  

I am considering getting myself a "make your own Southern Cheer" kit as I can't seem to find a big bottle of the stuff anywhere.

More power to your drinking elbow - Jenny from Silver Screen Suppers and the Vincentennial Cookblog xx

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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