Jessica Tandy was originally slated to play Blanche, after creating the role on Broadway. The role was given to Vivien Leigh, after Olivia de Havilland refused it, since Leigh had more box-office appeal. de Havilland turned down the role because her-then husband Marcus Goodrich advised against her playing it.
Composer Alex North wrote and recorded the first ever jazz-orientated film score for a dramatic picture. The score served to colour the sound of the film's steamy New Orleans setting. It has become a well-deserved landmark in the history of film music and paved the way for numerous movie jazz scores.
The Production Code censors demanded 68 script changes from the Broadway staging, while the interference of the Catholic Legion of Decency led to even further cuts, most of them having to do with references to homosexuality and rape. In his memoirs, Tennessee Williams wrote that he liked the film but felt it was "slightly marred by the Hollywood ending."
Despite giving the definitive portrayal of Stanley Kowalski, Marlon Brando said he privately detested the character. However, it should be added that Brando was an eccentric character who loved misleading people and playing pranks.
Vivien Leigh had already played Blanche in the first London production of the play, under the direction of her then-husband, Laurence Olivier. She later said that Olivier's direction of that production influenced her performance in the film more than Elia Kazan's direction of the film did.
During her birthday dinner, Blanche begins telling a joke which Stanley interrupts. In the play, she finishes the joke, which told of an old maid who had a parrot with a lot of profanity in its vocabulary. The joke goes, "The only way to silence the parrot was to cover its cage with a cloth so it would think it was night time and go to sleep. One morning, the pastor comes to visit the woman right after she uncovered his cage, so she had to immediately cover it again. The pastor came inside and heard the parrot say, 'G**damn, that was a short day!'"
Mickey Kuhn, who plays the young sailor who helps Vivien Leigh onto the streetcar at the beginning of the film, had previously appeared with Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939) as Beau Wilkes (the child of Olivia de Havilland's character Melanie), toward the end of that film when the character was age 5. When Mickey Kuhn mentioned this to someone else on the set of "A Streetcar Named Desire," word got back to Leigh and she called him into her dressing room for a half-hour chat. In an interview in his seventies, Kuhn stated that Leigh was extremely kind to him and was "one of the loveliest ladies he had ever met."
Vivien Leigh initially felt completely at sea when she joined the tight New York cast in rehearsals. Director Elia Kazan was able to exploit her feelings of alienation and disorientation to enrich her performance.
After Blanche first arrives at the Kowalskis', she and Stella have an argument in which Blanche says, "Where were you?" In there with your Polack!" In the play, her line was, "In bed with your Polack!" In the movie, Blanche says she has had "many meetings with strangers!" In the play, it was, "many intimacies with strangers!"
By the time the film was made, the Desire streetcar line had been converted to buses, but streetcars were still used in other parts of the city. The authorities were able to lend the production a car with the Desire destination sign for the opening sequences of Blanche's arrival in the city.
Elia Kazan originally resisted the idea of directing the film adaptation, as he felt that he had achieved everything he wanted with the stage version. It was only after Tennessee Williams implored him to take on the assignment that Kazan signed on.
There were clashes on the set between Vivien Leigh and her fellow cast members. Besides being the only major cast member not to have come from the Broadway production, Leigh was a classically trained actress, whereas most of the other actors studied under the "Stanislavsky Method." Even so, Leigh was determined to make a good picture and create a great performance. She reportedly could not wait to get to the set every day, and was often the last lead actor to leave at day's end.
There was some bad blood between Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando at the beginning of the shoot, but these conflicts had nothing to do with acting style. Brando was simply annoyed at Leigh's typically British manners and stuffiness. The two acting giants eventually became friends as the shoot progressed. Brando's dead-on perfect imitations of Leigh's then-husband Laurence Olivier's Henry V did much to break the ice between the two.
For the London stage production, Vivien Leigh bleached her famous brunette locks. She wore bleached wigs throughout the film though, since Blanche DuBois was supposed to have ragged-looking hair and look like someone who had led a rough life. Because she did not trust the American hairdressers, Leigh air-mailed her wigs back to London to be cleaned and redressed by wig-maker and theatrical entrepreneur Stanley Hall.
Marlon Brando was paid a sizeable $75,000 for his work, partially because of the insider scoop that hailed Brando's acting style as the most revolutionary thing to hit Hollywood since the Talkies. Vivien Leigh received a $100,000 salary, making her the highest paid English screen actress of the day.
The Catholic Legion of Decency threatened to sink the box office prospects for the film with a Condemned rating. Elia Kazan made a last ditch effort to get his un-cut version seen by the public. He asked Warner Bros. to try releasing the film in both his director's version and the edited version, with each clearly marked so audience members could choose for themselves. Warners said no, and Kazan then campaigned for his director's cut to be screened at the Venice Film Festival. Again, Warners refused, since the Legion mandated that only their approved version could be released, and the studio didn't want to risk earning a Condemned rating which would hurt the film at the box office. As a result, Kazan's version would not be seen until Warners restored the film in 1993.
Due to the highly contentious subject matter, no major studio would dare touch the property. 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck expressed an interest but had to relinquish the idea when his boss point blank refused to allow it to happen.
For the Broadway production, several Hollywood stars were considered for the role of Stanley Kowalski, including John Garfield, Burt Lancaster, Van Heflin, Edmond O'Brien, John Lund, and Gregory Peck. Marlon Brando, still a relative newcomer to the stage, was originally rejected for the role because he was considered too young and too handsome. It was only because of Brando's agent, Edie Van Cleve, that Brando got a chance to read for Tennessee Williams, who came away from the audition with the assurance that Brando was perfect for the part.
Elia Kazan worked closely with the production designer to create the authentically sordid look. They had the walls of Stanley and Stella's home built in small sections that could be removed, so that as Blanche feels more constricted and threatened inside the Kowalski home, and the walls could literally move in and create a claustrophobic tension within the space.
Vivien Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois. This was actually the second time the two actresses had shared a role. Leigh previously played Ophelia opposite her husband and director Laurence Olivier as Hamlet. Tandy played Ophelia in actor/director John Gielgud's production of Hamlet.
To prepare for the part of Stanley Kowalski, Marlon Brando began a daily workout routine at a local gym, where he exercised with weights to build up his chest and biceps. Prior to this role, the actor was not known for his muscle-bound physique and when Truman Capote first observed Brando's transformation, he said, "It was as if a stranger's head had been attached to the brawny body, as in certain counterfeit photographs."
Della Robbia blue is a color used in the Italian Majolica bas reliefs of Luca Della Robbia (1400-1482), whose famous gates of the Sacristy of the Cathedral were said by Michelangelo to be worthy of being the Gates of Heaven.
At a test screening, Elia Kazan and producer Charlie Feldman received a shock: the audience laughed at Blanche DuBois. Ever observant of his actors, Kazan discovered that the audience was laughing specifically at the scene when the Young Collector reacts to Blanche's bold and yearning way in which she reaches for him from her door. Kazan eliminated Wright King's reaction shots, which did the trick of quelling the unintended laughter.
The varsovienne/varsouvienne/varsoviana, named for Warsaw (Poland) where it originated about 1850, is a slow, graceful dance in 3/4 time with an accented downbeat in alternate measures. It combines elements of the waltz, mazurka, and polka. The dance was popular in 19th-century America, where it was danced to the tune "Put Your Little Foot."
Independent producer Charles Feldman bought the screen rights to Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play. He took it to Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, about making it, but Zanuck point-blank refused, knowing that the censors would strip all the meaning out of the play.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The script follows the Tennessee Williams play closely with several small changes. However, there are three notably large alterations of the original plot. The first is the exclusion of Blanche's late young husband's homosexuality, which is referred to explicitly in the play, but only obliquely referred to in the movie. In the play, Blanche caught him in bed with another man and she screamed at him, calling him weak, and he killed himself; she blames herself for not understanding his feelings and for his resulting suicide. In the movie, the fact that her husband committed suicide is masked with a line from Blanche that says that "she killed him herself" by leading him to suicide. The second large difference is the rape scene. It is not explicitly shown/described in the play, but it is more obviously alluded to than in the movie. Two of Stanley's key lines in the scene were omitted from the theatrical release: "Tiger, tiger, drop that bottle top," which has since been added back to the movie, and "We've had this date with each other since the beginning!", after which Stanley grabs Blanche and hauls her off to the bed. Both of these changes were made for censorship reasons, but they've changed the story in some basic ways and led to some confusion, especially about the rape scene, which is key to understanding Stanley's final breaking of Blanche. The last change from the play is the ending. In the play, Stella stays with Stanley at the end: "He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse." The reason she left him in the film was that the punishment of the rapist was demanded by the Hollywood moral code.
Of all the cuts suggested by the Production Code censors, the one that Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams were most adamantly against was the rape of Blanche. Kazan threatened to walk off the production if the scene was to be deleted. And in an August 1950 missive to Joseph Breen, the director of the Production Code office, 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..."