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A Streetcar Named Desire: Special Edition

The Tennessee Williams Collection

Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is a rare Hollywood specimen — one of the few feature films to be adapted from an original Broadway production without a mark on it. Not that it was always going to be that way. At this point in his career, Kazan was dividing his time between the New York stage and Hollywood, but he initially was drawn to the Warner film project because of its possibilities — now, after originating the play on stage, he could explore the back-story of Blanche DuBois, and perhaps some of the New Orleans settings as well. But Kazan's original treatment was quickly abandoned, and little of it remains on film, save for Blanche's arrival at the train station and her first look at Stanley Kowalski in a bowling alley. After all, the play is the thing — and instead of trying to make a film of Tennessee Williams's masterpiece, Kazan instead decided to focus his cameras on the story's intimate power. He actually wanted the walls to sweat in the summer humidity, and while this special effect didn't make it on screen, he did manage to achieve a notable trompe l'oeil by making the set smaller as the film progressed, until it became a claustrophobic house of mirrors. But even as a cinematic rendition, the 1948 stage production of Desire emerges from a time-capsule every time the film is seen, save for Jessica Tandy, who was replaced by Vivien Leigh. Leigh had played Blanche on the London stage — but like Tandy, she was upstaged by a twentysomething unknown who caught Kazan's eye in a small Broadway role. The director looked up Marlon Brando and gave him $20 to go see Tennessee Williams on Cape Cod, hoping for the writer's approval. Three days later, Brando still had not arrived, but he would soon after — he had spent the twenty bucks on food and hitchhiked.

A potent brew of fear, rage, jealousy, and sexual tension, A Streetcar Named Desire was Tennessee Williams' second Broadway success, following on the heels of The Glass Menagerie. Leigh stars as Blanche DuBois, a no-longer-young woman who takes a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher for an extended visit with her younger sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans. At first, Blanche is surprised at her sister's run-down two-room flat in the French Quarter — the two had grown up together in the south's deep-rooted aristocracy at a manor called Belle Reeve. But if Blanche is willing to accept some adjustments, she hardly knows what to think of Stella's husband Stanley (Brando), a controlling, temperamental blue-collar lout who doesn't cotton to Blanche's sophisticated airs. What's more, he's convinced that she's cheated her sister, and thus him, out of the family fortune when it's revealed that Belle Reeve has been "lost." While in New Orleans, Blanche manages to strike up a romance with Stanley's best friend Mitch (Karl Malden), who has an appealing sensitive side. But Stanley continues digging into Blanche's past — which, it turns out, is full of secrets.

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Late in rehearsals for the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, a worried Elia Kazan told Tennessee Williams that the entire play was about to become "The Marlon Brando Show." New York actors who dropped by for the early previews couldn't say enough about the young discovery, although Williams reassured Kazan that everything was fine. Nonetheless, Brando's white-hot performance tends to undermine the script's collective nature — Stanley's unpredictable menace commands our attention, and he toys with our sympathies. Yes, he's brutal, but his distrust of Blanche has some merit. Moreover, Williams' subversive sense of humor, combined with Brando's delivery, offers Stanley the script's best moments of comic relief, uncomfortable as they may be. "That there is a solid gold dress!" he insists as he rifles through Blanche's steamer trunk, and if we're bemused by his plate-smashing antics at the dinner table, it's something of a comfort to know that Williams himself found it funny. Stanley doesn't just challenge Blanche — he challenges the audience itself, from the moment that he first appears on screen and howls like a cat, to his very real and childlike vulnerability, to the final moments, when he appears beyond redemption. It's a credit to any cast than can keep up. Leigh's turn as Blanche brought the film its necessary star-power, here an entire universe of neuroses and insecurities somehow buried inside one solitary woman, complete with public and private personas, where she alternates between singsong conversation and raw desperation. It's somewhat easier to sympathize with Kim Hunter as Stella, who seems far more self-aware than her sister, even if her marriage reveals her to be a thrill-seeker. And Karl Malden earned a well-deserved Oscar as Mitch, a man so smitten with Blanche that he becomes a little boy around her, quoting his exact height and weight. Mitch's romance of Blanche appears to be the polar opposite of Stanley and Stella's, at least until it unravels. Stella is far more confident of her husband's devotion, and while Brando's shouted "Hey, Stella!!" is the easiest of Old Hollywood impersonations, it offers a glimpse inside their private bond — illustrating just how much Blanche's presence has upset the natural order of things.

Warner Home Video's DVD release of A Streetcar Named Desire: Special Edition replaces the previously released bare-bones edition with a two-disc set. As with the original disc, the "Original Director's Version" is included, featuring material that did not make it past the Hays Office for the film's theatrical release. The full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) is solid, featuring a pristine black-and-white source-print and Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Film historians Rudy Behlmer Jeff Young, along with star Karl Malden, can be heard on the Disc One commentary, while Disc Two offers a wealth of additional features, including the documentary Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey (75 min.), the featurettes "A Streetcar on Broadway" (21 min.), "A Streetcar in Hollywood" (28 min.), "Censorship and Desire" (16 min.), "North and the Music of the South" (9 min.), "An Actor Named Brando" (8 min.), and "Marlon Brando Screen Test" (5 min.), as well as outtakes (15 min.) and audio outtakes (17 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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