Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Streetcar Named Desire

Another of the classic movies that I surprisingly haven't blogged about yet is A Streetcar Named Desire. (Well, maybe not that surprising considering that I'm not the biggest Tennessee Williams fan.) It got an airing on TCM during 31 Days of Oscar, so I recorded it then. It's going to be on again tonight at 8:00 PM as part of the Teacher Guest Programmer spotlight, so I watched it to do a post on here.

I assume a lot of people already know the story. Vivien Leigh plays Blanche Dubois, who always depends on the kindness of strangers (although, surprisingly, that line comes at the end of the movie and, I'm presuming, the end of the play too). She arrives at the train station and asks a stranger from the Navy how to get to a certain address where her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) lives, married to Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). The stranger tells her to take the streetcar named "Desire", which is about the only time we see the titular streetcar.

Blanche arrives to find that Stella and Stanley are living in a crappy little ground-floor apartment with only two rooms; obviously, the couple isn't in a very good financial situation. Then again, Blanche isn't, either. She had been taking care of the family "estate", Belle Rive, up in Mississippi, but the place has been mortgaged to the hilt, necesitating Blanche's leaving to come to New Orleans. That, and she's left her job as a teacher for... reasons.

Stanley is a loud, brutish blowhard, and damn if he doesn't know that Louisiana is governed under a different legal structure from the rest of the United States, civil law based on the Napoleonic Code, with Stanley bringing up "the Napoleonic Code" as though it were a magic incantation. What belongs to a wife belongs to a husband, and somehow this should mean part of Belle Rive is his. He keeps claiming to know people who can fix this sort of stuff or something.

Stanley and the other guys play poker, with one of those guys being Mitch (Karl Malden). The guys can get loud, and Stanley can be nasty to both Stella and Blanche, leading Stella on occasion to hide out in the apartment one floor above theirs and Stanley to cry out "Stella!" much the same way Jerry Lewis would say "Hey Lady!" At any rate, Mitch has a sickly mother who's probably terminally ill, and Mitch thinks Mom wants him to be settled before she dies. So he's willing to settle with Blanche.

At least, that is, until he begins to learn a little bit more about Blanche. She'a an alcoholic, probably propositioned one of her students which led to her having to leave her teaching position, and is probably about as sane as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. When Mitch starts to put two and two together, he dumps Blanche because he actually has some sense. And despite Stanley's being a blowhard, he has some sense too, figuring out what she's really like. Eventually Blanche's close-up comes for her too, albeit in a different way.

You can tell I didn't have as high an opinion of A Streetcar Named Desire as other people are going to have. That's partly because, as I said at the top, I'm not a huge fan of Tennessee Williams or this sort of overheated Southern gothic in general. (Remember I didn't particularly care for Wise Blood either.) But it's also down to the fact that the characters are mostly loud, obnoxious, and unsympathetic. Maybe I should go a bit lighter on Mitch and Stella, but all of these are the sort of people you want to take and shake some sense into the way Bette Davis does to Miriam Hopkins at the end of Old Acquaintance.

Still, all the actors play the parts they're given well, and the movie is definitely atmospheric. So those of you who like Southern gothic will definitely like A Streetcar Named Desire. As always, watch and judge for yourself.

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