During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
When it came to finally seeing 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”, neither Diane nor myself knew what to expect. It is one of those movies that virtually everyone has heard of, but, in our case at least, we had never seen it. I thought it would be more jovial or at least be a lighter film. It is not. As its unlikable characters did unlikable things to one another in an impoverished New Orleans tenement, it dawned on me that what I was in for was yet another example of the Southern Gothic literary subgenre. With that realization, my dread of what to come gripped me tightly as we finished watching the film.
I do not pretend to be a scholar on all things Southern Gothic, but I am a big fan of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Not to digress to politics, there is a certain Conservative way of thinking – a bubble all-encompassing in modern Southern life – that seems equal parts naive and destructive. All my life, I was exposed to people who had little while thinking they had a lot. Any attempt at change or any battering against tradition was the utmost evil. Southern Gothic works are treasonous to that line of thought as they seek to expose the darker culture of a people who live in a ruined place and a lost time, the Antebellum South, without grasping fully the modern world as it has changed around them.
Vivien Leigh plays Blanche DuBois, a teacher whose ancestral home has been lost to debt and poor judgement. With her, she brings all of her worldly possessions: fine clothes and jewelry. She also brings the air of a Southern aristocratic family used to having far more wealth and like minded folk equally obsessed with manners, honor, and dignity. At her heels, a mystery chases after her as she suddenly appears at her sister’s one bedroom home in New Orleans. The sister, Stella, welcomes her openly despite the ill tidings and the odd mood, while Stanley (played by Marlon Brando) is instantly wary of his sister-in-law’s arrival.
To an extent, the film feels like a melancholy successor to “Gone with the Wind”. Vivien Leigh’s Blanche, much like Scarlett, relies on Southern virtues like honor and duty and manners to anchor herself in a fictional reality. Her life lacks these virtues, however, and her inability to come to grips with that fact drives her mad. Vivien Leigh plays crazy incredibly well. From the start, her character is troubled, but as the movie progresses and she gives one high minded speech after another you begin to realize the depths she has already sunk.
Likewise, Marlon Brando’s Stanley was equally mesmerizing but rather than the piteous Blanche, he was terrifying to behold. This was our first exposure to Marlon Brando the actor rather than the person of pop culture myth. As with the jokes I am used to hearing about Brando, we too had trouble understanding what he was saying half the time. I thought at first it was because every scene had him eating but no. I was also shocked at just how handsome a man he was when he was younger.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a difficult film to watch. There is little joy and no real character to root for. Kim Hunter’s Stella was the only redeemable character but she often blended into the background while Vivien Leigh chewed the scenery or the shadow of Marlon Brando obscured everyone else as he stalked violently from one room to the next of their one bedroom apartment. There’s a Hollywood ending but no on screen punishment for Stanley. I do not need a movie to end tidily and happily, but after that largely being the case for so many of the films in this series, I half expected “A Streetcar Named Desire” to follow suit. The fact that it doesn’t and that its 125 minutes of human misery ends of only more human misery felt both modern and depressing.
Beyond the acting and the sadness, I found the script to be really interesting. I am unsure how much of the dialogue works in a film. Some of the longer speeches felt ripped from a novel. I am sure they work well in play form, but with film, I expect the characters to talk a bit more like actual people talk. I do not recall the specific lines, but a few made me chuckle at how overwritten they seemed when read aloud.
I do not think either of us loved the film. This is art, less as an expression of joy or entertainment, and more as an attempt to make the audience feel emotion. Love falls short of how I would describe my feelings toward “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Appreciation seems to be more accurate. I appreciate the film because it took me to a place I never wish to go to again. I do not love how the film made me feel: hopeless, sad, intense dread. I appreciate the excellent performances of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando because, without them, I would not have found this film to be so compelling. I appreciated the movie, but I would love to never see it again. I still feel icky.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.