[1951] A Streetcar Named Desire

220px-a_streetcar_named_desire_28195129The tiniest of innocuous details, ones that pass by without notice are the crema of legends. Neither are all-time events and figures borne from a single gigantic event; nor more likely is a mythologized film shot in a single take. Every event you’ve heard about has a history in the small, snowballing events that lead up to it. Most films are lucky to have been made but for a perceived slight toward the executive production team. A single turn – not casting Marlon Brando in the lead as Stanley Kowalski – might have doomed A Streetcar Named Desire to an important, but ultimately indexed footnote to film history. As is the case, however, it is monumentally important.

What makes A Streetcar Named Desire odd, right away, is that the streetcar in question, yes named “Desire,” bears almost no weight on what this film tackles. It is a small, innocuous detail, whose point, if there is one, is to usher in the story medias res. The Kowalskis have a life of tumult, so as playwright Tennessee Williams does so featherlike, he drops in a complete mess of a personality via a perfectly normal streetcar. The detail (the name of the car), while tiny, is not extemporaneous or thoughtless. It is a clever and worthwhile misdirection. Blanche is an imbalance, waiting without delay along a fixed path toward disaster. We know this almost immediately and we wait without delay, along a fixed path, to see how this disaster unfolded. It is manifest in American, human experience and we watch this movie to chase the fixed path, deeply arcing toward disaster. Are we meant to look inward? Do we…desire it?

Tennessee Williams was a master playwright. Not only did he understand the confines of stage space and a reasonable parallel to action, he understood, somehow, the capacity of humans to deal with a rotten tomato tossed haphazardly. Sometimes it hits an actor in the face, and she has to wipe it off and keep performing; sometimes it misses completely and shatters the papier-mâché stage behind him; sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. A the cherry bomb is metaphor without being overwrought. How Williams was able to understand the intricacies of the human experience, process them, eulogize them, and repackage them as a confined statement, bold and indirect, is astonishing. This play was built for the screen, too, in an era of limited budgets and a restless postwar America.

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[1947] Gentleman’s Agreement | Crossfire

So the goal here was to watch Gentleman’s Agreement – 1947’s Oscar winner starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire – and, like all my other posts, comment on why it fits the Academy’s modus operandi of picking not the best movie of the year (too subjective, too many), but the movie that best represented its year’s gestalt. In 1947 anti-Semitism either had begun to run rampant or a series of filmmakers and studio executives decided that this was the year to tackle this off-center issue. In the span of a year, then, two movies decidedly different – one an overwrought, but ultimately thought-provoking exposé on Judaism and the tenets of pluralism in society and the other a dark-noir that opens and ends with a deus ex machina of “Jewishness” as the lock-and-key.

Usually, when two films operate in the same arena during a year they offset one another. When two films discuss World War II slightly differently, or deal with race and religion, or fall in the same thematic element, the Academy usually will decide that the theme itself is enough and look elsewhere to appropriate its crown for film of the year. In 1947, they deemed that one film about Jewishness was the best representation of the year in film and in theme and not the other. Why?

It goes without saying that the winner, Gentleman’s Agreement, brought with it a bigger tag. Acting, directing, budget, revenues drove Gentleman’s Agreement above its rival-cum-Judaism, Crossfire; Gregory Peck and Elia Kazan command more attention than does Crossfire‘s relatively unknown cast of characters (save Robert Mitchum) and director, Edward Dmytryk. Yet, noir seems to work best when the characters play second to the mood, so compromise would not have done Crossfire favors toward relevance in the eyes of the Academy voters. Is the tag itself enough to leap Gentleman’s Agreement over Crossfire? The distinction seems arbitrary, even to the sometimes wanton Academy voters.

There is also something to be said for the relative quality of the films compared, not only to one another, but to the rest of the competition. I find it hard to believe that among the nostalgia (Miracle on 34th StGreat Expectations) and the light-fare The Bishop’s Wife, that either Gentleman’s Agreement or Crossfire were that much “better” than the other films, or that much better than each other. Instead, I would contend that the quality of the film rather arbitrarily was ignored this year in favor of a more noble notion – bringing to light the sore subject of religious pluralism after the horror of the Holocaust that most Americans did not witness firsthand. Jews, according to Kazan, were unfairly second-rate citizens and Gregory Peck, perhaps the most Gentile human alive at the time, was to tell us all so through some deliberate method acting and overemphasizing the word “JEW” at every instance. This notion over-scored any nostalgia wrought in 1947.  Continue reading “[1947] Gentleman’s Agreement | Crossfire”