A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Two-Disc Special Edition

by | May 3, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Two-Disc Special Edition

Starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando
Studio:  Warner Brothers
Video: 1.33:1 full screen, B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Languages: English and French
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish (Feature Only)
Extras: Disc 1 – Movie: Commentary by Karl Malden and Film Historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young; Elia Kazan Movie Trailer Gallery; Disc 2- Special Features: Movie and Audio Outtakes: Marlon Brando Screen Test; Feature Length Profile Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey; Five Insightful Documentaries: A Streetcar on Broadway, A Streetcar in Hollywood-Censorship and Desire; North and the Music of the South; An Actor Named Brando
Length: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Rating: *****

Would any serious devotee of both American theater and film need a nudge to see the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams classic play A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan and starring the powerhouse talents Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh?

How about if five documentary shorts about the film and its stars, including features about Brando and Kazan, were included in the package?  Warner Brothers’ recent release of this award winning-film (Best Actress for Leigh and Best Supporting Actor awards for Kim Hunter and Karl Malden) on a two-disc DVD set offers the necessary incentive and then some.

First, the film.  Set in New Orleans during the 1940s, Streetcar is a tragic story of the desperate need for love and affection.  A troubled Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) travels to the then bustling Southern city to stay with her newly married sister, Stella, fleeing from a checkered past.  Right away, dramatic tension escalates once Blanche encounters Stella’s bully of a husband Stanley (Brando), who objects to Blanche’s presence, questioning her every move and motive. 

Let me insert a note to beginning actors: watch and study Brando in this film with a microscope.  His cool and icy demeanor, particularly in the scene where he and Leigh first meet, should be required viewing for aspiring film or stage actors.  In this first scene with Leigh he might say only a few words; its his preparation beforehand that is instructive. Only a few feet away from his co-star Leigh, the remarkably handsome actor, (even I found myself admiring his well-chiseled, beautiful face), projects danger and surliness.  Once Stanley checks Blanche out, the foreshadowing of his tussles with her later on in the play are served to the audience.

It’s intriguing to ponder whether Streetcar Named Desire would have retained such a permanent place in American theater had Burt Lancaster – who we learn in this DVD had been considered for the role – been cast as Stanley Kowalski rather the then newcomer Brando. From a literary standpoint, perhaps, a less dynamic actor would still be reading William’s poetic language— but this isn’t the point of my review.

Even with the combination of such rich writing from Williams and emotionally laden performances from Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois, Kim Hunter as Stella Kowalski, and the venerable Karl Malden as Mitch, (all Oscar award winners) the play and the film resonate with the actor (Brando) I would deem as a pressure-cooker of emotional intensity.

With the cameras rolling, Brando literally lets his inner self explode,  his anger and inner turmoil exposed for viewers to see. During a dinner scene in which Blanche insults Stanley by calling him a Pollock, Brando instantly erupts, revealing his character’s volatile nature – at one point he’s passionate about Stella, the next he simply wants to be “King of the Castle” as he says, like Huey Long.  Brando again demonstrates this complexity during a scene where he violently smashes his cup against the wall, then coolly offers to clear Blanche’s plate setting. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, many experts assert, is primarily about Blanche and her pronounced vulnerability, yet Brando’s turn as Stanley – the extent of his loathsomeness in the role – propelled it to dramatic heights.

Returning to the documentaries, film lovers will enjoy the extensive presentation of the long and at times bumpy life of  accomplished film maker Elia Kazan.  While Kazan had many triumphs, including launching the careers of Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty, his decision to “out” his friends during the McCarthy hearings reflects a questionable side of his judgment.  The short film An Actor named Brando paints a positive picture of one of America’s most intriguing figures on screen and stage.  Friend and frequent costar Karl Malden frequently reveres Brando for who he was; an incredibly talented and driven artist , who many people never quite figured out.  The additional features – perhaps produced for true followers of Streetcar – further document the plays lasting effect in both dramatic and cinematic circles.  Including Brando’s screen test is one more bonus – as if the director spent hours deliberating if the actor was right for the part!

– James A. Fasulo

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