Censorship and a Streetcar: Part Two

Note: you can find the first part of this entry here.

Joseph Breen’s second caveat in adapting Streetcar revolved around the character of Blanche, whose more sexually predatory side could not be fully explicated on the screen per Production Code regulations. The faded Southern belle’s lack of sexual satisfaction in her marriage and her guilt over Allan’s suicide lead to an overcompensation, of sorts, as she is unable—and perhaps unwilling—to control her urges, engaging in a series of illicit affairs that tarnish her reputation beyond repair.  In the play, this hypersexuality (which could be technically be labeled nymphomania) is much more explicit.  But Blanche’s desire is not only sexual–she also demonstrates an overwhelming desire to find some kind of redemption in the arms of another man.

Blanche’s encounter with the young newspaper boy in the play reflects both sides of Blanche’s desire—the sexual longing and the need for salvation—but the film’s version of the scene somewhat blurs her sexual urges for the boy.  When Blanche says, “I want to kiss you just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth,” it seems at first wistful and innocent, and Vivien Leigh’s delivery of the line neatly avoids the crass implication that seducing young men is a regular exercise for Blanche.  However, the subsequent line, “Now run along, now, quickly! It would be nice to keep you, but I’ve got to be good–and keep my hands off children,” suggests that this is not the first time she has found herself desiring the company of a younger man.

Blanche’s preference for the younger male set is later confirmed by Stanley, who gleefully reports that Blanche was fired from her teaching position for dallying with a teenage boy, and further hints that Blanche even dabbled in prostitution while living at the Flamingo Hotel—something that is spelled out more clearly in the play.  Her motivations are muddled in the film adaptation, as per the strictures of the Code; instead of painting Blanche as an unmitigated whore, as Stanley does in the play, the film depicts the character in a somewhat melancholy, romantic light.  Blanche is portrayed as being so damaged by her role in causing her young husband’s suicide that she seeks him in every new man she encounters–neatly circumventing the insinuation that Blanche merely desires sex for sex’s sake.

Blanche’s sexual proclivities apparently run in the family; as Blanche says in the play, when questioned about the loss of the DuBois family mansion, Belle Reve, her “improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications—to put it plainly.”  And like the rest of her kin, Blanche’s sister, Stella, seems to be guided, in large part, by her sexual desires, as her relationship with Stanley revolves around the excited sensation his overtly masculine and animalistic behavior arouses within her.  When Blanche questions Stanley’s temper, Stella dreamily relates a tale from their honeymoon when Stanley went around smashing lightbulbs with Stella’s slipper, implying that such scenes arouse her.

The mingling of violence and sexual arousal in Stella and Stanley’s marriage is not as explicitly depicted in the film, though the infamous scene preceding Stella’s story, where a drunken, remorseful Stanley screams Stella’s name in the street, demonstrates this effectively.  Stella dreamily wanders down the stairs at a languid pace, staring at Stanley silently until he collapses on his knees, and she finally surrenders to her baser instincts and embraces her bellowing husband, allowing him to carry her back into the apartment.  Stella’s blissful wallowing in the sheets the morning after “making up” with Stanley further indicates the ferocity of their sexual union, and though the carnality of their love is spelled out much more clearly in the original play, Kazan’s inventive staging of the scenes insinuates what the screenplay only dances around in a deliberately sly manner.

The violence inherent in the Kowalski marriage is heightened to disturbing levels when Stanley turns his predatory gaze toward the increasingly fragile Blanche.  As Stella is at the hospital giving birth to their child, a drunken Stanley returns home, encountering an even drunker Blanche.  A tentative camaraderie born of Stanley’s joy at his impending fatherhood quickly dissolves into menace: Stanley advances on Blanche, determined to break her once and for all while claiming, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning.” The music swells, and Stanley proceeds to rape Blanche, sending her over the edge into madness.

However, while the play makes it quite clear that Stanley has sexually assaulted his sister-in-law, Breen was insistent that the scene be completely removed from the screenplay, certain that audiences would not accept a film that depicted so horrific an act.  Kazan categorically refused, declaring that if the scene were eliminated, he would quit—and, as Kazan’s participation was a requirement for Williams’ allowing the play to be filmed, the playwright would leave as well.  In light of Kazan’s determination, Breen then suggested that the rape be portrayed as one of Blanche’s “delusions.”  Again, Kazan balked at the suggestion, and eventually, Breen conceded the point and allowed Kazan to film the rape—provided that 1) the rape be suggested, not shown, and 2) that the ending of the movie be changed so that Stanley would be “punished” somehow for assaulting Blanche. And indeed, the scene depicted on screen seems more of a physical beating than a sexual assault, thus toeing the PCA line.  The film also eliminates Stanley’s line about their “date;” to include the line in the movie would imply that Blanche welcomed the attack, and in order to adhere to the Code, Blanche could not be implicit in her own rape, nor could there be any suggestion that she desired Stanley on some subconscious level.

In Williams’ original ending to the play, Stella rejects Blanche’s claim of rape and forces herself to deny the truth in order to remain with Stanley.  Per Breen’s insistence, the ending was altered, and Stella purportedly leaves Stanley for good, taking her child and going to stay with the upstairs neighbors.  But the wily director indicates that Williams’ ending may still occur as the film winds to a close.  Though Stella claims she’s “never going back,” she doesn’t leave the premises–she goes to stay with the neighbors, as she always does when angry with Stanley.  It is inevitable—considering the pattern of behavior leading up to the end of the film—that Stella will, at some point in the future, go back downstairs to her man, regardless of what he has done.

Still, even with the required cinematic comeuppance for Stanley’s crime against Blanche, allowing just the hint of rape marked an unprecedented move on Breen’s part—for years, the Production Code’s self-proclaimed guru had steadfastly insisted that rape could not be portrayed on-screen, no matter how “delicately” it may have been filmed. His concession in regards to Streetcar enraged the PCA’s longtime allies, the Catholic Legion of Decency, who slapped the film with an initial rating of “C”—indicating that the film was “condemned” for Catholic viewers. 

But even the Legion was willing to compromise, promising if further cuts were made to the film, they would alter the rating to a more acceptable “B.” Jack Warner subsequently demanded those cuts, eliminating another five minutes of filmed material, and those alterations were not restored to the original print for more than forty years. 

The precedent was set: by permitting Kazan to present even the implication of rape, Joseph Breen and the Legion violated their own long-set interpretation of the Production Code, an allowance that would repeat itself with growing frequency in years to come, eventually contributing to the abolishment of the Code in the late 1960s.  The final cut of the film ultimately met with Breen’s approval, and he awarded A Streetcar Named Desire with a PCA seal before its release.  And despite its controversial subject matter, Streetcar went on to become a success both critically and commercially, receiving twelve Academy Award nominations and winning four Oscars (Vivien Leigh for Best Actress; Kim Hunter for Best Supporting Actress; Karl Malden for Best Supporting Actor; and Best Art/Set Direction—Black-and-White). 

It is a shame that A Streetcar Named Desire had to be censored at all, at least from a modern perspective; the harshness of Williams’ vision, so poignantly clear in the play, loses some of its hopeless verve in the watered-down ending of the movie.  But examining the Code-dictated differences between the play and the film gives current audiences a glimpse at life in the 1950s, in which the American culture, by and large, both expected and purportedly desired a rather insipid look at stark reality.  That we are still given a glimpse of the cruel truth through Kazan’s gifted direction and the stellar performances of its lead actors, however, indicates that some facets of American society were fully prepared for—and eagerly anticipating—the cinematic changes to come in the next decade, as the Production Code gave way to the current motion picture rating system, allowing filmmakers much more freedom in the subjects brought to the silver screen.

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3 thoughts on “Censorship and a Streetcar: Part Two

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Censorship and a Streetcar: Part Two | True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film -- Topsy.com

  2. And a great conclusion! (Sorry I’m bombarding you with comments tonight; I’m catching up on blogs and I just keep having things to say about your awesome posts!) Oddly enough Streetcar is just about the only Williams play I haven’t read (he’s one of my favorite playwrights), though I have seen the film version at least a dozen times. This was a brilliant essay comparing/contrasting the two; obviously I need to get off my butt and read the play already!

    • Zero need to apologize for sharing your equally awesome comments! I hope you get the chance to read Streetcar soon. It’s my favorite of all of his plays. Carrie, Nikki, and I went to college in Columbus, MS, which is Williams’ hometown, so I think we share a special affinity for his work.

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