The Tennessee Williams Film Collection Review

Courtesy of DVD Pacific, Mike Sutton looks at Warners’ very impressive “Tennessee Williams Film Collection” which contains six films and a bonus documentary.

Tennessee Williams and Hollywood had the good fortune to find each other at the exact time when their stars were ready to cross. The post-war audience, blooded and mature, was willing to taste stronger meat than the studios had been giving them; censorship restrictions were beginning, very slowly, to ease; and a vast swathe of new talent was emerging from Broadway with exciting new approaches to the crafts of acting and directing. Although Williams himself stayed away from the dramatisations of his work until the late 1960s – when Boom helped to destroy his commercial reputation – he was lucky enough to fall into the hands of committed, intelligent craftsmen and the results turned legendary plays into some exceptional movies. The films contained in this box set cover the years between 1951 and 1964, a period during which he reached his apotheosis as a playwright, and each of them is very typical of Williams’ themes and obsessions. It’s book-ended by two absolute masterpieces – A Streetcar Named Desire and Night of the Iguana – but the points in between contain plenty to fascinate and entertain while providing something of a miniature history of the changes taking place in the American film industry at the time.

The work of Tennessee Williams stretched from the 1940s to the 1970s but remains rooted in a deep knowledge of, and affection for, the Deep South of America. Not all of his plays or novels are set there but it would be fair to say that the place is always in his heart even when his head was elsewhere. Yet his affection for the place where he was born – as a clergyman’s son in Columbus, Mississippi – is tempered by a very clear-eyed scepticism. Not just about the sentimental myths attached to the place but about the qualities of the people and the limitations which are placed upon the lives which the people lead. His view of the South is often jaundiced, filled with violence, fear and a stifling sense of patriarchal – or sometimes matriarchal – repression and the strong ties of family, so often celebrated in popular culture, prove to be chains, fixed with implacable force. Williams saw that the steam heat which could facilitate a slower pace of life was also an incubator for mounting tension and violence and the awakening of sexual desires; some of them dangerous, others illicit. Repeatedly in his work, lust of one kind or another is the motor for the ultimate dramatic showdown and it is frequently lust of an unspoken kind – homosexual, incestuous, nymphomaniacal, obsessive, sadistic. Indeed in Suddenly Last Summer, not included in this set, a character is literally consumed by the objects of his desires. Sex itself is rarely uncomplicated for Williams – something compounded by his own sexuality – and he works out the theme of sexuality as something which fucks you up, in every sense, through repeated themes of prostitution, rape, mutilation and sheer bloody desperation.

The constant violence in his work, which Williams draws attention to in his preface to the published version of “Sweet Bird of Youth”, might perhaps seem inimical to Hollywood during the 1950s when the strait-jacket of censorship was only just beginning to loosen. What’s remarkable is how much of the plays got through when adapted to the screen. There are cuts, changes in emphasis and, occasionally, damaging omissions, but many of the meanings and subtexts remain clear to those who choose to see them. There are, for example, images in A Streetcar Named Desire which are so clearly about basic animal lust for sex that no words are necessary to convey the meaning.

Equally, pay close attention to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and it’s very obvious what Williams is trying to say about Brick’s sexual predilections. However, this occasionally leads to an unfortunate effect of anti-climax. The male prostitution theme in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone is a good example. It seems intended that we should gasp at how shocking it is that a nice, distinguished woman is prepared to pay for sex but the film is so indulgent of her as a character that we’re more inclined to be sympathetic than horrified. It would perhaps be more effective if Mrs Stone were more aged and ugly perhaps – Vivien Leigh is patently still a very attractive woman. Put Lotte Lenya (who plays the pimping countess in the film) in the central role and you’d have a more complicated film.

But what Mrs Stone achieves very well is an effect which obsesses Williams – the slow waste of time as everything which eventually overcomes everything. As Williams puts it in Sweet Bird of Youth, his interest is in, “the enemy, time, in us all”. His first major success, The Glass Menagerie is about how everything beautiful eventually shatters and Williams returns time and again to this idea. Sometimes, a character clings onto a notion of beauty – Blanche DuBois in Streetcar – only to have it destroyed by brutal reality in the shape of other people. Alternatively, a character may be all too well aware of how time is destroying them and the effect is savage yet poignant since Williams shows us the destructive process with clear eyed realism tempered by a surprising tenderness.

Blanche and Mrs Stone – and the Princess in Sweet Bird of Youth – are broken queens, clinging on to their paper crowns and they find their opposites in the vast and trunkless legs of stone represented by Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and his youthful counterparts Brick and Chance (aptly, both are played on film by Paul Newman). Many of these people are drinking at their own last chance saloons and to their number can be added the defrocked minister in Night of the Iguana, a figure as comic as he is tragic. What Tennessee Williams is particularly good at is seeing the ridiculous hubris inside these heartbreaking figures and his greatest creations tend to be a mixture of absurdity and heart-rending dignity. Blanche DuBois, for example, would not be so moving if she were not so ludicrous – what redeems her, for all her silliness and dim-headed dreaming, is her incredibly focused awareness of her own preposterousness.

The six films in this set are taken form years of incredible change in American filmmaking, The earliest, A Streetcar Named Desire, was incredibly frank for 1951 and paid a price with the censor, the uncut version only emerging some years later. Baby Doll was, famously, condemned by the Catholic Church but escaped unscathed while Cat on a Hot Tin Roof got through the Production Code restrictions thanks to some judicious dialogue changes which served to obscure, if not eradicate, the implication that Brick has had a homosexual affair.Sweet Bird of Youth was also pre-censored in scripting stage. But both Night of the Iguana and The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone manage to be reasonably frank both verbally and visually and this reflects the slow decline of the Production Code during the 1960s. What’s interesting is that the edits don’t really matter too much. The strength of the material, and particularly of the characters, is sufficient to remain compelling even when the originals are slightly toned down.

A Streetcar Named Desire exploded onto the Broadway stage in 1947 and it had much the same impact when Elia Kazan brought it to the screen in 1951. Even half a century on, it’s not difficult to see why because this remains incendiary filmmaking. It’s not just the subject matter, although the implications of rape, sexual disgust and insanity are still vivid enough to be provocative. Nor is it merely the filmmaking, although few other movies produce quite as clammy an atmosphere or quite so lingeringly bitter an aftertaste. It is largely due to the performance of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, surely one of the two or three most important performances in American cinema. Building on what he did on stage, with much the same improvisatory danger, Brando creates a totally new kind of character; emotions running naked down the muscular lines of his body; voice pitched between anguish and inarticulacy; physical threat always imminent, always unnerving. As in so many of his great performances, Brando’s genius lies in his willingness to go too far, to edge towards becoming embarrassing. He takes risks in front of the camera and the camera loves him and encourages him to go further. It’s possible to see here a fusion of the method intensity of John Garfield with the presence and charisma of Humphrey Bogart and the physical immediacy of Kirk Douglas. The impact was revolutionary and I don’t think it would be going too far to state that the traditions of American screen acting were torn asunder.

But what Elia Kazan realised what that a creature such as Brando needs discipline and a frame in which to work if he is be seen at his best. He was proved right – look at films such as The Night of the Following Day or The Nightcomers and you can see how Brando seems to be acting in a different movie to everyone else; the results are embarrassing, as if a great actor is slumming and knows it. But under the control of a strong director with a unifying vision, Brando slots in beautifully and the result is all of piece. For one thing, the supporting performances are just as strong as Brando’s, even if not quite so ground-breaking. Certainly, Kim Hunter never again reached the peak she does here as Stella – the scene where she exudes rampant sexual desire is still one of the most erotic film moments – and boring old Karl Malden is neither boring nor old in the difficult, unrewarding part of Mitch, whose role is to be the funny best friend until he reveals his nasty side. But it is in Vivien Leigh that Brando finds a worthy adversary. There’s no real reason why this should be so. Leigh, as so many critics have observed, wasn’t a particularly great actress and she’s certainly not in the Brando class but when she desperately wanted to play a role, she could summon up the resources to create a simmering dramatic tension and it may be that sad, mad Blanche DuBois was the role she was born to play – it’s certainly the one part which shares most in common with her chaotic, tragic personal life. She has an intense sexual chemistry with Brando, all the more interesting given the difference in their acting styles. The best scenes in the movie come when the two of them are fighting it out, whether physically or verbally and Kazan has the good sense to get out of their way when they are riveting our attention.

Elia Kazan was always very good on sexual tension of one kind or another, as he showed in films such as Splendor in the Grass and East of Eden, so it’s interesting that he also knew when to make a joke of it. One of the joys of Baby Doll it its high spirits, matching low-down dirty comedy with a quite disarming innocence as it tells a highly dubious story with a delicious comic spin. If I don’t have a great deal to say about it, that’s because it’s such an unimportant, lightweight piece of fluff. But I don’t want to suggest that I consider that a bad thing. Baby Doll is light comedy done with extraordinary finesse by a master craftsman and it makes you regret that Kazan didn’t do more work in the comic field.

Karl Malden, playing farce with a fine comic fury, is very funny as Archie, the cotton miller whose sexual frustration at waiting for the chance to sleep with his child bride Baby Doll (Baker) has started to get pathological. Baker looks the part – and it made her a star – and Eli Wallach has a wonderful time as her would-be deflowerer Silva. The ironic thing is that, actually, no-one gets laid and like in British farce, the humour derives from the lack of sex rather than, as in French farce, the fact of it. Everyone concerned is on top form and although serious issues about seduction, sexual innocence and poverty are broached, they’re never allowed to dominate.

The comedy of Baby Doll keeps bubbling up in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which is otherwise a much more serious film. I think it may well be Williams’ best play because it has a cumulative theatrical power that erupts in a coruscating final act where there is a truly Greek sense of catharsis. Yet it’s not po-faced. The dialogue is witty, often hilarious, and in the character of Big Daddy lies an archetype; the big-talking, large-framed patriarch whose bluster hides sensitivity, pain and love. He’s an absurd figure in many ways but he is aware of it and plays up to the stereotype – the obvious comparison is with Lyndon Johnson, another clever man who liked to play the good ole’ boy.

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof is directed by Richard Brooks, an interesting Hollywood figure who tended to follow his own star while sailing close to the prevailing censorship winds. His career is littered with a fascinating collection of successes and failures, and he was courting controversy right up to the 1970s when he made the frustrating but often brilliant Looking For Mr Goodbar. When his films don’t work, it’s often not for want of trying and you always get the sense that Brooks cares deeply about what he’s doing, even if the audience couldn’t give a damn. His greatest skill as a director is an ability to empathise with his leading actors, drawing out of them performances of unsuspected depth. This is certainly the case here with Elizabeth Taylor doing perhaps her very best screen work and Burl Ives defining his entire screen persona once and for always. You can read my more detailed thoughts on Cat in my review of the 2001 disc here.

Paul Newman, whose Brick was an early career triumph, is given an even better chance in Brooks’ second Williams adaptation, 1960’s Sweet Bird of Youth. I think this is a weaker Williams play – he seems to be treading water with characters who appear in other guises elsewhere in his work – but it works very well with good actors and firm handling and it gets both of these on film. The story of Chance Wayne (Newman), a gigolo who sees faded actress Alexandra Del Lago (Page) as his chance to make the big time, is seamy and melodramatic but its given raw power by the stunning performance. Geraldine Page as Alexandra – hiding under the alias Princess Cosmonopoulos – is simultaneously infuriating and heartbreaking, a difficult combination which she pulls off triumphantly. Her double-act with Newman was developed on the Broadway stage and is finely honed, Chance’s deference hiding ruthless ambition. Newman’s gift for being charismatic yet slightly icky has been rarely used – those blue eyes can hide depths of corruption – but its vital to the effect of Sweet Bird of Youth.

Brooks was forced to bowdlerize the play somewhat and this weakens the film. The revelation that Chance has infected his sweetheart Heavenly Finley (Knight) with venereal disease which has forced her to have a hysterectomy is a highly effective moment in the play but is reduced here to an enforced abortion. Similarly, the ending replaces a mild beating for the original emasculation along with an upbeat conclusion that is a disastrous miscalculation.

But the quality of the acting pulls the film through, even when it seems to be heading towards soap-opera and, perhaps, pantomime. Ed Begley gives a fine performance as the all powerful bully-boy politician Boss Finley but it’s a broad and caricatured role which lacks the shadings that Williams gave Big Daddy.

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone is adapted from a novel rather than a play and it’s very obvious because it lacks the dramatic motor that underlies the other movies. It drifts along in a very pleasant and charming manner, telling us about a frightened, ageing actress who, widowed, moves to Rome and takes up with a gigolo who she makes the mistake of falling in love with. But it takes an awfully long time to get anywhere and relies very heavily on the leading actress. Fortunately, she is Vivien Leigh and this is a very fine, even beautiful performance which reminds us not only of her previous screen roles but also of the hell which she was going through in her life. She began the film shortly after her divorce from Laurence Olivier, a time when she was both drinking heavily and undergoing electroshock treatment for cyclic manic-depressive neurosis. A knowledge of this informs your appreciation of how rich the performance is and how much the sadness which lies behind her eyes comes from her own experience and is fed into the character. It’s a magnificent study of loneliness and despair and, in its way, it’s as good a performance as her work in Streetcar.

In the role of her young paramour, a calculating gigolo named Paolo, Warren Beatty is fairly impressive although more for his physicality than his appalling Italian accent. The rest of the cast contains some memorable grotesques with Lotte Lenya, Coral Browne and the marvellously skeletal Ernest Thesiger standing out. It’s not a particularly well made film – director Jose Quintero was a renowned stage director but very inexperienced with cinema as his static direction demonstrates – but it looks divine, studio sets well combined with location shooting in Rome.

However, the problem I mentioned earlier remains. The subject matter simply isn’t alarming enough to have the shocking impact that seems to be intended – whether or not it was intentional, the ‘shock’ music and the sleazy atmosphere tend that way – and I doubt it ever really was. The subtext, of course, is quite obviously homosexual and in some ways the film works better if you think of Mrs Stone as a man, an ageing queen seeking forbidden love and forced to pay for it. That’s not a criticism of Vivien Leigh’s lovely performance, incidentally, just a reflection of how time has affected Williams work and perhaps made his undertones more vivid than the central stories. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that screenwriter (and brilliant film critic) Gavin Lambert was himself gay and very clued up on the significance of what he described as the subliminal gay influence in movies.

If The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone tends to drift along as if no-one were directing it, The Night of the Iguana is focused as sharply as a lizard’s claws. Clearly the work of a master director, it combines comedy and tragedy with the poise of a hire-wire walker. Such delicacy was, of course, John Huston’s forte and he was adept at finding sharp edges inside the most formulaic genre product. But by 1964 his reputation had foundered somewhat and, ignored by the auteurist critics, he was making interesting, daring and sometimes madly ambitious films like The Unforgiven, The List of Adrian Messenger, Freud and Marilyn Monroe’s beautiful, elegiac farewell The Misfits. It would be another eight years before critics would declare him rehabilitated but he continued to work on a bewildering array of projects.

Huston had an intense affinity with the work of Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, so its no surprise that his adaptation of Night of the Iguana is such an interesting and characteristic work. It is a faithful adaptation of the play and fits well into Huston’s ongoing studies of conflicted characters trapped in various heat-oppressed hellholes – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen, Beat The Devil, Heaven Knows Mr Allison, The Roots of Heaven, The Man Who Would Be King, Under The Volcano. It’s an old theatrical device – trap a group of contrasting characters in one place and watch the sparks fly – to which Huston adds the coruscating, truth-telling effect of oppressive heat. Consequently, Tennessee Williams’ play is perfect for the director – especially since it allows for another of Huston’s strengths, the clash of a carefully chosen star cast. Perhaps too much clash in this case since egos flared during filming, but when you remember Huston’s films it’s often the actors who first come to mind. He’s especially good at double acts and Iguana is basically a series of double acts, all of them revolving around Richard Burton.

The role of defrocked Episcopalian minister Dr T. Lawrence Shannon – condemned to guiding Southern American tourists round a Mexican inferno and considers the only things worse than chastity to be lunacy and death – is so perfect for Burton that it might well have been written for him – although it wasn’t. It offers an ideal fit for his very particular talents; pointed sarcasm; beautiful speaking; drunken lurching; self-hatred; bursts of eloquent redemption. He was a much better actor than he was ever given credit for but since that’s now such a cliché perhaps its time to realise he is finally getting that credit. What Iguana reveals is a riveting performer in complete control of the screen and his material, who provides a fixed (if slightly unsteady) point around which the movie can revolve. Shannon isn’t a very good man – he’s not even particularly honourable on his own terms. But he’s all too fallible flesh and blood, haunted by a deep sadness and capable of transcendent understanding. Seeking refuge in drink and sex, he comes, over the course of the night in question, to realise the gulf between the man he is and the man he always wanted to be and, as such, reaches some kind of middle-ground. He finds connection with two extraordinary women – Ava Gardner’s randy, funny Maxine, a hotel owner who lusts after his body, and Deborah Kerr’s Hannah, granddaughter of a poet who drifts into his life and changes it.

Much of Williams’ work contains occasional grace notes, moments when the banal sadness of the everyday is suddenly transfigured into something extraordinary. Since Huston can do this as well – the obvious example comes at the end of The Dead where Joycean epiphany becomes heartbreaking flesh – its not surprising that there are scenes in Night of the Iguana which have an astonishing power to move. Williams shows us human life as something almost inconceivably difficult to survive unscathed but he rarely leaves us empty handed. This film is full of them, from Shannon unknowingly walking on broken glass and Hannah’s delicate description of a tantalisingly chaste intimate encounter to the scene which shouldn’t work but does, triumphantly, when Nonno the poet (Delevanti) dictates his final work shortly before dying saying, ”I’d like to pray now” and wheeling himself so he can stare at the waning moon.

The meaning of these moments – and the cri-de-couer of the entire film – is contained in Hannah’s line to Shannon, “What is important is that one is never alone” and that’s a line which could be the epitaph to much of Williams’ work.

What Iguana reminds you is that Huston was a great director and had an instinctive rapport with his actors. This results here in one of Burton’s best performances and, for my money, Ava Gardner’s finest screen work. She has a difficult part – carnal earth mother – but she pulls it off with such life-enhancing brio that you fall in love with her all over again (although I have to confess that Claire Higgins, playing the same part in the recent London production, just bests her in my affections). It’s a lovely, physical performance, contrasting nicely with Deborah Kerr’s somewhat self-conscious restraint and Grayson Hall’s deliciously comic repression as the ward of rapacious teenager Charlotte Goodall (Lyon). The cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa glows like a series of silvered illustrations in a treasured anthology. For my money, Night of the Iguana is the best movie in this box set and one of the dozen finest films of the 1960s, one which you owe it to yourself to become acquainted with. It represents Tennessee Williams’ most optimistic statement about our ability to survive the darkest nights that life can throw at us and contains filmmaking so ethereally delicate and beautiful that it is remarkable even by John Huston’s high standards.

The Discs

The visual transfers in the set vary from the just about acceptable to the exceptionally good. In the former category is Sweet Bird of Youth. It’s sharp and detailed while being correctly framed at 2.35:1. But the colours are weirdly off with a preponderance of browns and very unnatural skin tones. In the latter is Night of the Iguana which is a stunning 1.85:1 black and white transfer offering an immediacy and crispness which you feel you could reach out and touch. A Streetcar Named Desire, which has been released before, receives a spanking new monochrome transfer which has nicely subtle shadings. There has clearly been some restoration done here and the lack of damage and excessive dirt is certainly an advantage but it does lead to a slight lack of detail and even a tendency towards a certain blurriness. I think I’d prefer a bit more grain on the whole. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof looks very nice indeed although the colours are certainly not as strong as those on The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone which is often stunning. The anomaly in the set is Baby Doll. Certainly, it’s a crisp black and white transfer with a high level of detail and no serious damage or digital noise. But it’s presented in the wrong aspect ratio – fullscreen when it should be 1.66:1. This isn’t a complete disaster but the picture is cropped at the sides and this is clearly not how the film is meant to be shown. A very odd oversight and not the kind of thing I expect from Warner Brothers.

The audio throughout is excellent; sharp, clean and punchy. Music comes across particularly well. These are the kind of restored mono tracks which give mono a good name.

The 2-disc set of Streetcar is packed with good material but it’s relevant, interesting and measured – you don’t get punch drunk in the way you do with, say, the recent disaster movie special editions from Fox. There is a cracking good commentary from Karl Malden – one of the few actors from the golden age of Hollywood to still be with us – along with Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young. It’s hosted by Laurent Bouzereau who produced the SE and he draws together the three participants who are recorded separately. There’s some good background on Elia Kazan and Malden has some entertaining behind the scenes stories to tell. The first disc also contains a trailer gallery from Kazan’s movies for Warner Brothers – missing out The Arrangement for some reason. The second disc contains five short documentaries which build into a comprehensive making-of feature – very much in the traditional Bouzereau style but containing good archive footage. The combined running time of these is about 84 minutes. The best section deals with the censorship history of the film, for which the real documents are available and very valuable as source material. We also get a 1950 screen test which Brando did for a project called “Rebel Without Cause”, fifteen minutes of visual outtakes and seventeen of audio outtakes. More problematic is the 75 minute documentary “Elia Kazan – A Director’s Journey”. It’s based on an interview with Kazan and is told solely from his perspective. More interviewees would have provided valuable balance, especially for the more contentious parts of his career – the blacklisting era is sort of covered over with a few platitudes and Kazan’s egocentricity becomes wearing after a while. It’s worth it for loads of good film clips but overall it’s not very satisfying.

Baby Doll comes with a short featurette that looks at the major problems which the film had with censorship – eventually being taken off screens after a concerted effort to blacken its name by the Catholic Legion of Decency – and contains good interviews with the three stars. We also get three trailers – a ‘billboard trailer’ which looks at the publicity for the film, the original film trailer and a presumably rare TV spot.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof contains a good, Williams-specific commentary from his biographer Donald Spoto, a ten minute featurette and the original trailer. The featurette is largely about Newman and Taylor but is quite enjoyable, if brief. Note, incidentally, how much better the film looks in this new DVD transfer than it does in the clips on the featurette.

Sweet Bird of Youth comes with an efficient but bland featurette that covers the adaptation of the play onto film and screen tests for Rip Torn and Geraldine Page. The main value of the latter is the inclusion of some explicit dialogue which was later excised for the screen. We also get the slightly hysterical theatrical trailer which goes all out for the sex and sleaze market.

The featurette on Mrs Stone is oddly coy, edging around the gay subtext and hardly mentioning Vivien Leigh’s mental problems which are surely more significant in her performance than her incipient tuberculosis. Donald Spoto is good value but Jill St John doesn’t do much except smile prettily and the narration is horribly saccharine. Also on the disc is the exceptionally pompous theatrical trailer.

There are two featurettes on Night of the Iguana, a vintage short and a new documentary. Neither is especially enlightening about the story behind the difficult Mexican shoot and the new documentary is a bit evasive about the ‘gamble’ which Huston took in putting such huge egos together in one decidedly unluxurious place. However, the vintage featurette is rather delightful with colour footage of the film’s production and lots of ballsy stuff from the great John Huston, including the famous moment when he presented pistols to each of his stars. We also get the original teaser and the full trailer. These extras are a bit disappointing and it would have been great to get a detailed commentary from a Huston expert. However, it’s sheer delight to see the 1964 featurette and that makes up for a lot.

The DVD box set comes with an additional disc which features a 1973 documentary called Tennessee Williams’ South which is eloquent and engaging. The most valuable thing about it is the presence of Mr Williams himself, a pleasantly picaresque figure wandering around the places of his life with obvious enjoyment. It also contains extracts from various plays acted by some fine performers including Jessica Tandy, Colleen Dewhurst, Burl Ives and John Colicos. This was a TV production and is in rather worse condition than any of the films. But the fullscreen presentation is more than acceptable and it’s the kind of rare feature that Warners are very good at unearthing.

Despite some minor problems – no subtitles for the extras and the aspect ratio on Baby Doll being the most significant – this box set represents fantastic value and is an absolutely essential purchase for fans of classic American cinema.

Mike Sutton

Updated: May 20, 2006

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