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COMMENTARY : A 'Streetcar' Named Entire : With censored footage newly restored, Elia Kazan's film of the Tennessee Williams play can now be seen for the landmark it is

September 26, 1993|KENNETH TURAN

Of the great American films--and make no mistake, it belongs in that group--"A Streetcar Named Desire" remains one of the most misunderstood, underappreciated and surprisingly forgotten. All that, however, is about to change.

Released to great acclaim in 1951, nominated for a dozen Oscars and winner of four, including acting awards for Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, this Elia Kazan-directed version of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been seriously slighted in the intervening years, despite a lead performance by Marlon Brando that is little less than epochal.

In a critical world increasingly obsessed with visual mastery, "Streetcar's" literary and theatrical origins have been held against it, and the fact that new prints were last struck in 1957 has obscured the cinematic strengths of virtuoso cameraman Harry Stradling's atmospheric black-and-white cinematography.

Also, "Streetcar" has always been a film with an asterisk attached to it. For the content of Williams' brilliant play was considered so risque that the film version was in effect censored not once but twice before it made it to the screen.

First, the shooting script was toned down by Williams and Kazan themselves following monumental struggles with the Breen Office, the enforcers of the industry's moralistic Production Code. Then, just before its opening, threats of a boycott from several Catholic organizations led to cuts in the finished film. Without Kazan's knowledge and to his enormous distress, Warner Bros. OKd something like a dozen changes, taking out close to four minutes of film, key moments never to be seen again. Until now.

Discovered in 1989 by Michael Arick (then Warner Bros. director of preservation and now a private consultant) in a vault in Van Nuys sharing space with bargain-basement Westerns and exploitation pictures, those critical last-minute deletions have been restored to "Streetcar" and the first new prints in decades struck.

With the world premiere of what Warners is calling the director's cut of "Streetcar" beginning a 10-day run at the Nuart in West Los Angeles Friday, several things are apparent. First, the restored footage, small though it is, clearly adds a different, more openly sensual tone to the film. But more than that, the new print allows us to recognize that with or without those missing minutes, "Streetcar" was both a landmark in the fight against censorship and perhaps the most thrilling display of ensemble acting in all of American film.

A key reason the acting was so good is that all the members of the cast (with the sole exception of Leigh, who replaced Jessica Tandy because producer Charles K. Feldman felt at least one star name was essential) were in the original cast when the play opened on Broadway in December of 1947.

Kazan was the original director as well, and one of the prime movers behind getting the 24-year-old Brando, who only three years before had played a 14-year-old in the stage version of "I Remember Mama," to take on the part of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway after both John Garfield and Burt Lancaster had been considered for it.

But when it came to making the film version, Kazan, who had never made a film from a play he'd already directed, wasn't sure he was interested. "It would be like marrying the same woman twice," he told Williams. "I don't think I can get it up for 'Streetcar' again."

Kazan finally agreed, partly because his wife, Molly, was a longtime Williams fan and partly because of the director's own affection for the writer. "I feel closer to Williams personally than to any other playwright I've worked with," he said. "Possibly it's the nature of his talent--it's so vulnerable, so naked--it's more naked than anyone else's. I wanted to protect him, look after him."

And "Streetcar," which had few film nibbles despite its Pulitzer Prize because it was considered too hot to put on film, turned out to need a good deal of protection. What happened when the fragile Blanche Dubois visited her sister Stella and Stella's "be comfortable, that's my motto" husband Stanley Kowalski was not a tale for children. And as Joseph Breen, the Production Code's enforcer, wrote to Irene Mayer Selznick, the play's producer, "material which may be perfectly valid for dramatization and treatment on stage may be questionable, or even completely unacceptable, when presented in a motion picture."

In a memo to Warner Bros., Breen identified several problem areas in the play. One, typical of the attitudes of the time, was what Breen called "an inference of sexual perversion. This principally has reference to the character of Blanche's young husband. . . . There seems little doubt that this young man was a homosexual." Dialogue fixes were used to obscure this, so that when the husband shoots himself in the film, it is after Blanche tells him off because he's "weak."

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