Censorship and a Streetcar: Part One.

We’ve previously touched on issues of censorship here at True Classics, but our next two entries this week will take a more in-depth look at the Hays Code, particularly in regards to the struggle to adapt the controversial source material of A Streetcar Named Desire for the big screen.

By 1950, Hollywood had reached an impasse.  For nearly twenty years, the movie industry had largely been under the control of the studio system and bound to follow the rules of the Production Code, a set of regulations and standards designed to limit the corruptible influence of entertainment on American society.  But as the new decade dawned, a young, fresh group of filmmakers began to emerge who, in the ensuing years, would challenge the status quo and lead to the abolishment of the Code and a broader definition of what would be deemed “acceptable” on film.

Enter Elia Kazan, an Oscar-winning director of controversial films such as 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which deals with anti-Semitism, and 1949’s Pinky, a race-relations drama.  Never one to shy away from divisive subject matter, Kazan directed the Broadway version of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, and in 1951, brought the material to the big screen with much of the original play’s cast intact (save Vivien Leigh, who replaced Jessica Tandy in the role of Blanche DuBois). 

Yet the version seen on the Broadway stage was far from the same story seen in the film version.  While Broadway plays were not, by and large, subjected to the rigors of censorship, Hollywood was a different matter altogether: mirroring the purported whims of a conservative American society, films were regularly edited to remove supposedly unsavory or contentious elements.  By sanitizing controversial material for film audiences, however, the Production Code did viewers a grave disservice; in the case of A Streetcar Named Desire, the adult nature of the original story was watered down into something decidedly blander and less powerful.  Ultimately, the differences between Williams’ original play and the bowdlerized screen version demonstrate the limits censorship places on filmmakers and artists who strive to portray the sometimes brutal honesty of reality.  At the same time, these differences also illustrate the ways in which filmmakers could creatively side-step the restrictions placed upon them and still get “salacious” or “troublesome” points across to viewers.

Censorship in the American film industry originates almost from the inception of the first movie picture houses in the early twentieth century.  But the all-encompassing Production Code—sometimes referred to as the “Hays Code” after the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), Will H. Hays—did not actually originate from the desire to censor films, but rather from efforts to prevent such censorship and interference in the film industry by the United States government.  Hays, who served as Postmaster General during the administration of President Warren G. Harding, was brought into the position in 1922 by film industry leaders who sought to head off federal attempts at censoring films.  Hays and the MPPDA maintained that the American public did not need nor desire censorship of films, and thereby set out to circumvent the possibility.  But within a decade, religious groups within the country had mobilized vocal anti-Hollywood efforts, and calls for government regulation of films had grown more adamant.  It soon became clear to Hays that self-regulation of the industry had become a necessity, and in 1930, the Production Code was established.

The Code begins with the creed, “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” and outlines the things filmmakers cannot express on the screen, including: depictions of murder, detailed crime, sex, childbirth, adultery, sex “perversion,” vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, nudity, explicit dancing, ridicule of religion, and unpatriotic feelings, among a laundry list of other offenses.  The second part, labeled “Reasons,” outlined why adherence to the Code was tantamount; this section clearly demonstrated the influence of religious dogma—particularly Catholic religious dogma—on the development of the new industry standards.  In fact, the Catholic Legion of Decency was a particularly strong influence on the development of motion picture censorship, able to quickly mobilize vociferous publicity campaigns in opposition to films deemed too inappropriate or vulgar for viewing.  By 1934, through a series of cultural and economic developments—the advent of sound, the Great Depression, growing Legion-led outcry over the moral bankruptcy of the movie business—the film industry was forced to cave, and a Production Code seal of approval became absolutely vital to ensure a film’s success at the box office.

Joseph Breen

That same year, Joseph Breen, one of the driving forces behind the formation of the Legion of Decency, became head of regulations for the newly-established Production Code Administration (PCA).   He was a polarizing figure in Hollywood, gaining a reputation in some circles for being … well … an asshole. But Breen was nevertheless supported by a majority of the big studio heads, who knew that after the fight to gain PCA endorsement of their films was done, he would then fight for those films in the face of opposition or disapproval from both religious groups and the government. Indeed, Breen was often one of filmmakers’ most valuable allies, as he would generally offer suggestions as to how directors and producers could work around Code-violating material in their scripts.

Breen’s willingness to work with filmmakers was perhaps most evident in the fight to bring A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen.  When approached by Jack Warner in 1950, Breen outlined three major problems in translating Williams’ play to film: the homosexuality of Allan Gray, Blanche’s ex-husband; Blanche’s perceived nymphomania; and the rape scene at the end of the play, in which Stanley forces himself on his sister-in-law.  Other minor changes occurred throughout, including the elimination of “vulgar” language and innuendo that were judged inappropriate for film audiences.  Though Breen insisted that changes be made, he offered ideas for alterations while conceding on several points at the demand of Warner, Kazan, and Williams.  Indeed, in large part, the ultimate success of the film comes in spite of the obstacles that had been placed against it.

On Breen’s first point—Allan’s sexuality—the ruling was absolute: there could be no mention of the character’s so-called unnatural sexual perversion in the film.  In the sixth scene of Williams’ play, Blanche, who had always realized there was “something different” about her husband, tells Mitch of the night she discovered Allan in bed with an older man.  After pretending that nothing had happened, the trio went dancing, and as a polka played (the “Varsouviana,” the same tune that recurs throughout the play as Blanche slips closer to madness), she snapped, telling Allan, “You disgust me,” and causing him to run out of the room and shoot himself in the head.  Blanche’s judgment of her husband’s sexuality reflects the same judgment faced by other gay men in the 1950s—including the playwright himself—and her attitude would not have been an unfamiliar one to audiences of the time.  But the idea of allowing a reference—even a judgmental, biased one—to a homosexual character was verboten according to the rules of the Code.

Breen’s solution, therefore, was relatively simple: any explicit reference to Allan’s homosexuality or the exact circumstances of his death was forbidden.  Instead, Blanche’s ex-husband was described as “weak” in the film.  But savvy viewers can read between the lines; Blanche’s claim that her young husband cried himself to sleep at night hints that he could not sexually perform with her, and the tender nervousness which she attributes to him indicates a stereotypically effeminate homosexual man.

Friday: part two of our examination of censorship and A Streetcar Named Desire.

5 thoughts on “Censorship and a Streetcar: Part One.

  1. Excellent and thought-provoking article on the subject of censorship. I remember reading that Vivien Leigh said (although I can’t remember the exact wording) that it must sound silly for Blanche to say that she was disgusted by her husband because he was a nervous poet. So true.
    Streetcar is a marvelous play, made an equally strong movie with the wonderful cast, Leigh especially. When the restored version was released with scenes that had been cut, it was even better.
    Just simple things, really, like Stella’s sensuous walk down the stairs to Stanley, her remark about Blanche’s having “ridden that streetcar” and Stanley’s remark that “maybe you wouldn’t be so bad to mess with”, gave much-needed information and more depth to the implied sexuality.
    I look forward to Part II!

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  3. An excellent subject for such an in-depth and thoughtful analysis. As problematic as the Code was, I prefer films from that era specifically because I like reading between the lines. 😉

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