Broadway plays, even in the 1940s and 1950s, were not subject to much censorship. Tennessee Williams’ controversial play “A Streetcar Named Desire” was quite popular on stage in the later years of the 1940s. However, the 1950s brought with it a new era of Hollywood filmmakers looking to push the status quo. Among them was Elia Kazan, by that time already an Academy Award winner and two-time Tony Award-winning director not afraid of telling controversial stories. In 1951, he helped turn A Streetcar Named Desire into what would become one of the most highly-regarded classics in American cinema.
But despite Kazan’s penchant for pushing the limits of acceptability on film, the version of A Streetcar Named Desire he filmed isn’t the same as the one audiences saw live on the stage. While directors like Kazan helped pave the way for the eventual destruction of the censorship mandates active in 1951, Streetcar was still under the thumb of censorship that mirrored the whims of conservative American society, and forced changes to some of the narrative’s key plot points. The rules were known as The Hays Code, which dictated three basic tenants that all films were to follow:
1. 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.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
“By sanitizing controversial material for film audiences, however, the [Hays] 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.” - TrueClassics.net
What the Hays Code also did was require filmmakers to come up with creative ways to bypass the censorship. Directors and writers were forced to use ingenuity, metaphor, and subtext to say the things they wanted to say without being outright about them, leading to an emergence of hidden messages and clever film moments.
At the time of Streetcar’s production, arch-conservative Joseph Breen headed the Production Code Administration (PCA), the official censoring body for Hollywood films. Colloquially, the PCA was known as the Breen Office thanks to Breen’s extreme power over film content. After seeing the A Streetcar Named Desire adaptation presented by Oscar Saul, who adapted the material for the screen, Breen insisted on a list of major and minor changes from the original Broadway play’s content. Not surprised, Williams and Kazan were concerned these changes would destroy the artistic integrity of the film. What were they? Among the most substantial alterations were:
Eliminating references to homosexuality. In the play, Blanche’s husband is identified as a homosexual. In the sixth scene, when Blanche is out for the evening with Mitch, she tells him about the evening she found her husband, Allan, in bed with another 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.”
In the film version’s take on this scene, Blanche indefinitely tells Mitch “the boy was tender” as she recollects on the memory, verbiage which carefully expresses he was gay. She also notes him crying himself to sleep, likely commenting on his inability to make love to her. Those familiar with the material would pick up on the hinting dialogue, but the unaware would likely brush past the statements without an inference of homosexuality.
Eliminating or considerably weaking the rape. On stage, though the action happens offstage, it’s clear that Stanley rapes Blanche late in the story. The film renders the attack more ambiguous - maybe Stanley just roughed her up, maybe it was a rape - the details are in the editing.
Kazan chose to utilize a series of symbols that carry various sexual overtones. As Stanley is threatening Blanche, she hurls a whiskey bottle at him, which crashes into a mirror. The resulting motions are seen through reflections in the busted glass, as Stanley picks up Blanche in his arms. The screen goes dark, and transitions to a street cleaner washing debris with a powerful spray, which fades into a drizzle. This phallic symbol is a forceful cut that underlines the rape implicitly without ever showing any component of the physical act.
Omitting the rape was Kazan and Williams' greatest point of contention with the Breen office. In an August 1950 missive to Joseph Breen, Williams wrote, "The rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society. It is a poetic plea for comprehension..."
Outlawing erotic behavior in Blanche or Stanley’s conduct. Stanley and Stella were obviously a sexually active couple, but neither engaged in any form of erotic contact with one another. Similarly, while Blanche breezes past the details of her sexual promiscuity with colorful language, her nymphomania was not to be addressed specifically or acted upon in any way. Those who don’t pay attention to the language of Blanche’s stories may not even grasp the reality of what she’s confessing in regards to her promiscuous past, and that is in direct accordance with censorship guidelines.
Punishing Stanley for the rape. Finally, one of the largest alterations was changing the end of the film. The Breen office felt that Stanley needed to be punished for the rape of Blanche, even though the rape itself isn’t shown or directly mentioned in the narrative. Those who understood what happened deserve closure, and the decision was that Stanley should not be allowed to get away with the rape. The censors felt that Williams’ original stage ending, in which Stella embraces Stanley as the final action, conclusively dismisses the act and lets Stanley get away with the crime. The film has Stella run upstairs to a neighboring apartment, child in arms, declaring to the child they’ll never again go home.
This ending punishes Stanley, but is undermined by Stella’s weakened resolve, already advertised in an earlier scene where she runs to the same apartment after he gets eruptive during a poker game. In the film’s famous “Stella!” shouting scene, she breaks down and goes back to him after just a few minutes. It’s easy to assume she’ll do the same again.
What Kazan did with the censor requests was an attempt to turn their potentially damaging repression of the play’s content into clever beats that worked practically in the movie. Aside from the opaque ending the filmmakers were forced to live with, the clues to the play’s controversial core material were embedded within the film's clever subterfuge.