Variety declared “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which opened Dec. 3, 1947, “a smash success.” That was an understatement. The Tennessee Williams play became a hit on Broadway, on the road, and in its 1951 film adaptation; it won the Pulitzer and became a staple of American theater, making the characters Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois synonymous with sexy brutes and high-strung, fragile women, respectively. The then-shocking production confirmed the talents of Williams, after his 1944 “The Glass Menagerie,” and of director Elia Kazan, whose film “Gentleman’s Agreement” won best picture and director. “Streetcar” made a star of Marlon Brando, cast after John Garfield turned down the part. Jessica Tandy won a Tony as Blanche, and there was high praise for Karl Malden and Kim Hunter. A few weeks after the opening, Variety columnist Radie Harris said Irene Selznick had become “the most talked about producer on Broadway, male or female.”
Director Kazan was given a record 20% of the profits, in addition to his weekly 3% share of the gross. The previous high of 15% had been reserved only for top writer-directors like George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
Williams’ poetic language and theme of loneliness proved a potent mix with taboo topics like a woman’s sexual urges, which was incredibly daring in a theater season that generally featured wholesome fare like “Mister Roberts” and “High Button Shoes.”
The 1951 film adaptation retained much of the adult material, at a time when Hollywood generally sanitized plays, such as the adaptations of “Glass Menagerie” and, a few years later, Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Re-creating their stage work in the film “Streetcar” were Kazan, Brando, Hunter and Malden. The only one bypassed was Tandy, with Vivien Leigh playing Blanche, a role she had created in London.
Variety’s reviewer felt the play’s “brutal realism and trenchant prose” worked even better onscreen, thanks to the camera’s intimacy with the characters. He said that the frank sexiness of the plot and dialogue were “dangerous storytelling for films,” since the Hollywood code for standards was strictly enforced. But he had high praise for the film’s “sensitivity, shading and poignancy.”
He also saluted the “unique and moving musical score by Alex North,” which helped introduce jazz elements to film composing.
And in an article noting the big crowds in 1951, Variety said the “sexed-up advertising” for the film helped make it a hit.
The movie was nominated for 12 Oscars. “Streetcar” and “A Place in the Sun” were considered the two front-runners for best picture, though both lost out to “An American in Paris.” Leigh, Malden and Hunter all won Oscars, as did the art direction of Richard Day, with set decoration by George James Hopkins.