Friday, December 3, 2010

Notes For December 3rd, 2010

This Day In Writing History

On December 3rd, 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire, the famous and controversial play by legendary American playwright Tennesee Williams, made its debut on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Williams had written the play while living in an apartment in New Orleans, rewriting the script numerous times and changing the title as well. Early titles of the play included The Moth, The Poker Night, and Blanche's Chair On The Moon.

The steamy play told the story of Blanche DuBois, a fading but still attractive Southern belle who comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowlaski, while taking time off from her teaching job after suffering from a nervous disorder. Actually, she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. On the surface, Blanche may seem like a virtuous, cultured Southern belle, but that's just an act to conceal her alcoholism, mental illness, and delusions of grandeur.

Blanche is also a nymphomaniac, driven to sexual addiction after catching her husband, Allan Gray, in an affair with another man, which resulted in the end of their marriage and Allan's suicide. Stella, who knows that her sister is a nymphomaniac, is hesitant to let Blanche stay with her, for fear that she'll seduce her husband. Stanley is a brutish, domineering man who abuses Stella both emotionally and physically, but his animalistic nature and sexuality is what attracted Stella to him.

The arrival of Blanche predictably upsets the relationship of mutual dependence between Stella and Stanley. When Blanche sets her sights on Stanley's friend Mitch, Stanley determines to unmask her Southern belle facade. He learns about her past and confronts her with it. Finally, Stanley is pushed to the breaking point and rapes Blanche in a fit of rage, which is alluded to rather than shown explicitly. The attack drives Blanche to a nervous breakdown, and she ends up being committed to a mental institution. When the kindly doctor takes her away, Blanche utters her famous line, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

The original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire starred Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, Karl Malden as Mitch, and a 21-year-old newcomer named Marlon Brando as Stanley. The play caused a sensation with its sexual themes and violence. It also won Tennessee Williams a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Four years after the play opened, a film adaptation was released. Directed by Elia Kazan, the acclaimed movie featured Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden reprising their Broadway roles, and Vivien Leigh as Blanche.

Due to the stifling restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code, which would remain in effect until the ratings system was adopted in 1968, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire omits, changes, or waters down elements in the play that were deemed too objectionable for the screen. That way, the film could get the PCA (Production Code Administration) Seal of Approval. At least, that's what director Elia Kazan thought he had done.

During the Production Code era, the Catholic Legion of Decency acted as an unofficial film censorship board. They gave films ratings and expected Catholics to abide by them. If they rated a film Condemned, all Catholics would be forbidden to see the picture under pain of mortal sin. Priests sometimes loitered in the lobbies of theaters showing Condemned films to take down the names of parishioners who failed to heed the Legion's rating. In addition to the imposition on Catholics to boycott a film, the Legion of Decency also organized national protest rallies to encourage everyone to avoid the film.

Despite Elia Kazan's restraint in adapting Tennessee Williams' play, it was still threatened with a Condemned rating by the Legion of Decency. While Kazan was away making his next film, Warner Brothers canceled Streetcar's premiere and made several minutes of cuts to the film without his knowledge or consent. The Legion of Decency dropped its Condemned rating. Kazan was livid. He made one final appeal, asking Warner Brothers if they would release both their cut version and his director's cut of the film and let audiences decide which version they wanted to see. The studio refused, as the Legion of Decency mandated that only their approved version of the film could be released or the Condemned rating would be reinstated.

Elia Kazan's director's cut of A Streetcar Named Desire would remain unseen for over forty years, until Warner Brothers finally restored the film in 1993. Several years after the film was first released, Kazan and Tennessee Williams would team up for another challenge to the Hollywood Production Code and the Legion of Decency - Baby Doll, (1956) an adaptation of Williams' one-act play, Twenty-seven Wagon Loads of Cotton.

Quote Of The Day

"I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really." - Tennessee Williams

Vanguard Video

Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for Elia Kazan's 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Enjoy!

1 comment:

Bob Sanchez said...

Thanks for this, Eric. Now I have to go and rent Streetcar--uncut, of course.


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