It’s been a while on this blog since I’ve pointed out sea changes in Hollywood, or cinema in general. One of them was Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929) with Maurice Chevalier; another was Laurence Olivier’s film debut in Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939), an otherwise ignorable adaptation highlighted by the master’s commanding performance; then we have Hitchcock’s arrival in Hollywood with Rebecca (1940), and who–besides the Academy–could forget Citizen Kane (1941)?
Well, A Streetcar Named Desire was more important than all of those except the last, because it established a new benchmark against which all future acting would be measured. I’m not just talking about Marlon Brando’s game-changing performance as Stanley Kowalski, though obviously that one was the most influential…every actor in this film took it to a new level, all the time, and instantly a new paradigm was born. The Academy recognized this by bestowing three of the four acting awards on this single film. Many considered it all but a lock for Best Picture, as well.
It was the feel-good movie of the year, after all.
Being based on a Tennessee Williams play, the plot is fairly straightforward:
Scarlett O’Hara Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) appears in the French Quarter and moves in with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and her scary, perpetually-sweaty husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Being from a formerly wealthy family, Blanche is immediately disliked by Stanley, and for her part, is openly and vocally dismissive and condescending towards her sister’s husband and lifestyle. The majority of the film, like the play, is set in the Kowalski’s squalid apartment, and tensions rise and rise until, in typical Williams fashion, everything and everybody is miserable, detached, and existentially terrified.
Vivien Leigh, as Blanche, is pathetic and depressing from the very moment she appears, and throughout the film it is awkward and painful to watch her descent into a final break from reality. In watching her attempts to “rescue” her sister and her doomed courtship Mitch (Karl Malden)–seemingly the only decent man in all of New Orleans–one can’t help but see Blanche as the logical older version of Scarlett O’Hara. They share a lot of traits, including a string of unsuccessful relationships, a failed Southern plantation, and being hated by literally every man they meet, making Leigh the only logical choice for the role (though it was initially offered to fellow Gone with the Wind alumna Olivia de Havilland).
The film not only broke new ground in the field of acting, which I’ll get to in a minute…it also brought heretofore unfilmable themes and subtexts to the American screen for the first time. Even though Williams, in adapting his play, had to excise a great deal to comply with the Production Code, the film still kept in enough to enrage the Catholic Legion of Decency and push the boundaries for cinematic portrayal of such themes as domestic violence, rape, insanity, obsession, and even homosexuality (though still heavily disguised by euphemisms and evasions). Its unflinching presentation of a woman’s ultimately futile fight against the forces driving her over the edge was shockingly unrelenting for 1951, and even today the film retains much of its power.
A big part of that power comes from the stark cinematography of Harry Stradling, best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock and one of the era’s most sought-after photographers. As I said above, most of the action takes place in the dimly-lit, seedy interior of the Kowalski’s tiny apartment, and the black-and-white photography lends the whole film a claustrophobic atmosphere in which the viewer can all but feel the humid, steamy New Orleans air. Even when the camera ventures outside, the sets are always dimly lit (due to Blanche’s compulsive need to hide her aging face), so the audience never gets a break…the feeling of suffocation that the characters are going through is ours, too, and it never relents until the final moment.
It should continue even after the final moment, in fact…but one of the major Production Code compromises was the alteration of the play’s ending. Onstage, after Blanche is led away to an asylum, Stella silently allows Stanley to embrace her, even though she knows exactly what he did to her (Blanche) to drive her over the edge. In fact, all of Stanley’s buddies, despite being disgusted by him, will continue to keep him in their lives because it’s all they know. It’s a perfectly bleak, pessimistic, Williamsian ending in which no one ever truly confronts Stanley over his actions.
Fortunately, this was rectified in future adaptations.
But the Code said otherwise; if the film was to be made, Stanley had to be shown to pay for his crimes. And so, the film ends with Stella defiantly taking her newborn son away from Stanley and vowing never to return. The music swells triumphantly, as if this were a happy ending and we hadn’t just seen a rape victim with a broken mind committed to a mental institution, and in so doing releases the tension of the previous 120 minutes. Had Streetcar been made ten years later, in the wake of the eroding influence of the Code that began in earnest with its release, they have had stood a chance at preserving the play’s dismal conclusion.
Finally, we have the performances. All of the main cast and crew had come from the stage play: Brando, Hunter, and Malden had all been directed by Kazan on Broadway in the show’s first run, and Vivien Leigh had originated Blanche on the West End stage (in a production directed by Laurence Olivier). As such, they were already intimately familiar with the material and with each other’s performances, and since the film was staged and blocked very much like a play, they were able to easily transfer their roles to the cinema. Kazan made sparse use of close-ups, preferring instead to let the actors inhabit the gritty world around them. At the forefront of it all is Brando, inhabiting his role like no actor had ever done before…and far from shrink in the presence of such intensity, his co-stars rose to the challenge and (mostly) held their own.
As mentioned, Brando had originated the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, and was disappointed by the reaction he received. One of the reasons he was keen to make the film partly because he was tired of receiving fan letters (and…let’s just say “articles of clothing”) from women saying how dreamy Stanley was. He saw Kowalski as barely human, manipulative, and not sexy at all, and it was his hope was that the film, when seen by a wider audience than the play, would convince the world of this.
Can’t imagine why it didn’t work.
In spite of its darkness and lack of likable characters, both the play and the film were rapturously received by audiences and critics. For all the concessions to the Code, the movie still manages to retain the raw, powerful emotions and pessimistic themes of Williams’ original, and the force with which the actors threw themselves into their roles–creating realistic, intense performances that blended elements of stage and film acting–established a high watermark to which future films could aspire.
In the end, despite receiving twelve nominations, Streetcar won only four Oscars…Best Actress (Leigh), both Supporting Acting awards (the first of eight films to do so) for Hunter and Malden, and Best Art Direction, Black and White. Amazingly, Marlon Brando lost his Best Actor bid to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen, which was meant to be a “Sorry we never gave you an Oscar” honor. You can’t blame them; no one could have known Bogart still had The Caine Mutiny in him, but that year, the Academy stiffed Bogart by giving Brando a “Sorry we didn’t give you an Oscar in 1951” award.
It was also a well-deserved Best Actor award, but still.
So with all that going for it, how could this masterpiece lose out on the top prize? Well…
I’ve read in a few sources that the audience at the 24th Awards was already filing to the exits as the year’s winner was announced. It’s not surprising…the race had been presumed to be between A Place in the Sun and Streetcar, and with the former just having won Best Director, it seemed an opportune time to skip the final, predictable speech. George Stevens was the producer, anyway, so what more could he possibly have to say? Another reason for the early egress may have been that the award for Best Picture was being presented by this guy, Jesse L. Lasky, Sr.:
Though he went by “Chuckles”.
So it was to the shock of all when the announcement rang out that the winner was in fact An American in Paris, which had swept up most of the technical categories but was not believed to be a serious Best Picture contender. I can see their point of view…no musical had won since The Broadway Melody (1929), and none had been nominated since Gene Kelly’s own Anchors Aweigh (1945). As recently as this morning, I fully expected to be on the side of Streetcar, for all of the reasons outlined above…but after re-watching it, I have to admit that, even though it may only have won due to a split in votes between the two “top” contenders, this film fully deserved the win.
An American in Paris opens with establishing shots of Paris, and the following narration from our protagonist: “This is Paris, and I’m an American living here.” Following that merciful explanation of the incomprehensible, Beckett-like title, we follow one Jerry Mulligan, an ex-GI living in Paris trying to make it as a painter despite being able to sing and dance like Gene Kelly.
And being able to paint like…well, like Gene Kelly.
As so often happens both in Paris and in musicals, he falls in love with a girl, Lise (Leslie Caron), but she is already engaged to a dashing Frenchman, fellow triple-threat Henri (Georges Guétary). And so, in between breaking into song and teaching English to the local children, he must win her heart and defend his own against lecherous socialite Milo Roberts (Nina Foch).
Though she has Dr. Bellows to fall back on, so she’ll be fine.
That’s about it for plot, and this being a musical directed by Vincent Minnelli, you can guess how it all turns out: Henri recognizes where Lise’s heart truly lies and, after giving Jerry time to stew in his failure and dream up an exquisitely-choreographed 18-minute ballet about his unsuccessful courtship, he graciously breaks his engagement with Lise and she returns to Jerry. The film is about as realistic a portrayal of a love triangle as it is of the living conditions of poverty-stricken artists in postwar Paris, but who cares?
The film is also an Impressionist love letter to Paris, celebrating the city as a romantic and beautiful place with thousands of cinematic stories happening at any given moment. In the climactic ballet sequence, Kelly and Caron dance their way through a beautiful pastiche of all the great landmarks of the city, to the tune of Gershwin’s titular score, and even though the sequence cost approximately half a million dollars to film, I think we can all agree it was worth every penny:
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/60145841″>"An American In Paris" Ballet with George Gershwin's Original Music</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user16602560″>Movie Musicals</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Much of the comic relief of the film comes from Jerry’s friend and fellow struggling American, Adam Cook, played by eccentric musician and actor Oscar Levant. Cynical and worldweary in all the ways Jerry is not–and in all the ways his successor, Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain, is not–Adam is an out-of-work pianist who does not have the charm or good looks to attract rich patrons, and as such serves as the voice of reason…who turns out to be completely wrong about everything, as, despite Adam’s misgivings, Jerry’s fairy tale romance ends in the happiest way possible. At the end of the film, we have no idea what happens to poor Adam, as his two best friends–and the only two people he knows in Paris who speak English–have left him for greener pastures, but I have to imagine it involves a lot of alcohol and despair.
Hm, that’s probably the saddest ending I’ve ever written to a paragraph that started off talking about comic relief. To fix this, here’s a clip from the film in which Levant’s bored reactions to Jerry and Henri’s exuberance utterly steals the show.
And I’m going to imagine that after the credits roll, Jerry and Lise go out a few times but, without the thrill of their initial, titillatingly forbidden courtship, they find they have little in common and awkwardly drift apart. After an amicable breakup, Jerry then returns to his flatshare with Adam, and finally gives him the friendship he needs and deserves. Let’s face it, in the final analysis, Oscar Levant needs a win more than Gene Kelly.
Sorry about that…back to the film. As I said above, An American in Paris astounded the critics and the industry by winning Best Picture, but it’s easy to see in retrospect how right it was. Both it and Streetcar are, by almost any definition, perfect films, but in very different ways; both productions were emboldened by the geniuses driving them, and as a result they elevated and pushed the boundaries of their respective genres to heights no one had imagined possible before. And while Streetcar‘s influence extended well beyond its genre, it was also dark as hell (though not as dark as its source material), and I think, seven years after Going my Way, the world was ready for another happy Best Picture.
It also helped ensure we got Singin’ in the Rain the following year, although by then the Academy was over Gene Kelly and ignored it completely.
In many ways, musicals are the quintessential cinematic genre. The great musicals, which sadly fell out of vogue not long after An American in Paris, exemplify the best qualities of the art form, the ones that give movies their magic. Done right, and musicals can do anything…more than comedies, they make us smile at life’s idiosyncrasies; more than drama, they express the emotions and the troubles of being alive; more than science fiction, they transport us to wildly different dreamscapes where anything can happen and usually does. Done wrong, and they are La La Land.
And An American in Paris is done absolutely right. Even now I can’t watch the climactic ballet without forgetting the outside world exists…it’s that beautiful, that well-made, and that perfect. It’s the feeling of knowing you’re watching a master at the height of his creative genius, and all his energy and enthusiasm is brilliantly present in the final product. Again, musicals seem to be the ideal genre for this sort of thing.
Though the energy and enthusiasm is undoubtedly there, it just doesn’t fill me with the same joy, for some reason.
This love of musicals will probably come as a shock to my 21-year-old self when time travel is perfected and I show him this blog in an attempt to create an alternate timeline in order to test the Novikov self-consistency principle. Nevertheless, I stand by my assessment that, for the first time since The Best Years of Our Lives, the Academy nailed it…except, of course, in not naming Brando Best Actor and, I would say, John Huston Best Director for The African Queen.
And now to 1952, which has a reputation as one of the most disappointing Oscars in history…The Greatest Show on Earth is considered one of the worst Best Pictures of all time, and it won over High Noon and The Quiet Man, so this should be interesting. Onward!