When playwright Tennessee Williams decided to pick up where he left off on the play-in-progress he called The Poker Night, it was 1946 and he was comfortably ensconced in New Orleans in a French Quarter apartment overflowing with fine antiques.
Less than a year earlier, Williams's The Glass Menagerie had opened on Broadway. With this play, in the words of playwright Arthur Miller, Williams "lifted lyricism to its highest level in our theatre's history." But Williams struggled before this success came, suffering lean years after winning a special prize given by The Group Theatre in 1938. Though he had received grants, gotten a play produced and even been under contract as an MGM screenwriter during those years, none of it had panned out. His play Battle of Angels, starring Miriam Hopkins, previewed in Boston to good reviews, but created a furor and closed. He flopped at MGM, unwilling or unable to create "a celluloid brassiere for Lana Turner."
|Laurette Taylor, star of The Glass Menagerie|
A lifelong wayfarer, Williams had spent time in The Big Easy before and found it a most congenial city. When he returned to linger for a while in 1946, he quickly settled into a regular routine. Writing throughout the early part of the day, he would need a breather by afternoon and head for a favorite nearby watering hole. There he indulged in the bar's specialty, a Brandy Alexander, and played the jukebox until it was time to get something to eat and, later, go for a swim.
|Hotel La Concha, Key West|
Irene Mayer Selznick had been a true Hollywood princess. Her father, Louis B. Mayer, was the head of MGM for more than 25 years, and Irene and her older sister Edie were the only children of L.B. and his first wife, Margaret. The girls' lives were incredibly charmed as well as profoundly sheltered.
Irene and Edie both married in 1930, their weddings only weeks apart. Irene's husband was David O. Selznick, the movie-making wunderkind who later headed his own studio and masterminded the production of Gone With the Wind and the career of Jennifer Jones.
L.B. Mayer had famously remarked that Irene could've run MGM...if only she'd been a boy. What Irene did run for many years was the complex Selznick household, the at-home version of Selznick's studio...an opulent, frenetically busy 24-hour operation. Selznick may have lived to make movies, but he also gambled, womanized, popped speed and swilled alcohol at a breakneck pace. By 1945, Irene had had enough. Late one night her husband turned to her in bed and asked why she was still awake - she blurted that the the jig was up and she wanted out...then promptly rolled over and fell asleep.
|Irene and David Selznick|
Though she and David Selznick didn't immediately divorce and her father tried to induce her to stay on the West Coast with a high level job at MGM, Irene relocated to New York. She had dreams of becoming a theatrical producer and, on the advice of good friend Moss Hart, rented an office and hired a general manager. Her first outing was the production of an Arthur Laurents play, Heartsong, starring Shirley Booth. The play closed in Philadelphia but evolved over the years (and with another title) into a Broadway hit that still later became David Lean's Summertime (1955) with Katharine Hepburn.
Irene's first production may not have made it to Broadway, but she was noticed. Soon after, she heard from literary agent Audrey Wood who told her, "My most cherished and important client has a play I would like to put in your hands. It is his best play yet. His name is Tennessee Williams." Irene received the script on her 40th birthday.
Wood, aware of Irene's inexperience but appreciative of her taste, dedication and connections, cajoled and coaxed and eventually arranged for her to meet Williams in Charleston, South Carolina. The playwright asked the up-and-coming producer if she preferred the play's original title, The Poker Night, or the one he was presently considering. And he asked her about the newer title - did she prefer "called desire" or "named desire"? The encounter had begun with both parties ill-at-ease, but in the end contracts were signed and the pair was set to embark on the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
|Irene Mayer Selznick, Elia Kazan and Tennesee Williams|
Actor Hume Cronyn, a financial supporter of Williams in his early days on the scene, had recently produced and directed four one-act plays at The Actor's Lab in Hollywood. Three were by Williams and one of them, Portrait of a Madonna, starred Cronyn's wife, Jessica Tandy. Cronyn arranged to have this play staged for Williams when he, Irene and Kazan were on the West Coast. All three attended and were astonished by Tandy's performance. She was quickly signed to play Blanche. For the primary supporting roles, Karl Malden was the only actor considered for the part of Mitch, and Irene suggested Kim Hunter for the role of Stella.
Bette Davis was Irene's first choice for the role of Blanche Dubois, the female lead, but she was unavailable. Margaret Sullavan was considered, but Williams didn't think she was right for the part, he "kept picturing her with a tennis racquet in one hand." Fay Bainter's name came up and Kazan apparently mentioned Mary Martin, but it was through Williams that the play's leading lady was found.
|Jessica Tandy as Blanche Dubois|
John Garfield was everyone's first choice for the male lead, Stanley Kowalski. The actor had worked steadily on the New York stage before venturing to Hollywood in the late '30s. His screen career began with a star-making turn in Michael Curtiz's Four Daughter's (1938). In 1947 Garfield was about to begin production on Kazan's film adaptation of A Gentleman's Agreement. He would be available afterward and was interested in the play - but his demands proved to be too great.
Next to be offered the role was youthful Burt Lancaster who had just debuted onscreen in Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946). Though Lancaster didn't take the role, he later told Irene that he'd "yearned" to. Other actors considered for the part included Van Heflin, Edmund O'Brien and...Gregory Peck.
|Marlon Brando (center) in I Remember Mama|
When the play opened in New Haven, Louis B. Mayer was there. Irene hadn't wanted to be distracted by his presence and tried to discourage him - to no avail. Despite technical difficulties, the consensus was that Streetcar had played well. But Irene was disappointed at the lack of excitement expressed by the group gathered in her hotel room after the show. She recalled that there was "too much respect floating around and not enough enthusiasm." Then her father asked to speak with her privately. He told her "you don't have a hit, you've got a smash...you wait and see," then he told her to go back to her guests - but not to listen to them.
A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 3, 1947 and was an instant sensation, receiving a standing ovation that lasted for half an hour. Jessica Tandy, who was universally singled out in the opening night reviews, won a Tony Award, the play was voted the best play of 1948 by the New York Drama Critics Circle and Tennessee Williams won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Streetcar ran for two years and 855 performances and it was the last play of Marlon Brando's theatrical career. The actor soon left for Hollywood, enormous fame and a long, erratic, if often brilliant, film career.
In 1949 Laurence Olivier directed Streetcar on London's West End. Vivien Leigh starred as Blanche with Bonar Colleano as Stanley.
|Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh|
When the play was adapted to film in 1951, all the Broadway principals were retained except Jessica Tandy. The role of Blanche went to Vivien Leigh. Years later Karl Malden observed, "If Jessica had played it, I wouldn't have been in the movie and neither would Kim Hunter. Because Jessica was no star, and neither was Brando. But Vivien, who after Gone With the Wind was the biggest thing you ever saw - she could carry us all." Kazan, who accepted the casting of Leigh, remembered, "She had a small talent, but the greatest determination to excel of any actress I've known." Brando thought Leigh was a perfect Blanche because, "...in many ways she was Blanche." Kazan allowed that her emerging psychological problems may have been an asset to her performance as the disintegrating belle, and Leigh later said that the grueling role had tipped her into madness.
Elements of the play, particularly the seamy details of Blanche's past, were toned down or altered for the film, but Kazan was able to preserve the integrity of Williams's creation, masterfully translating its dark poetry and palpable sensuality to the screen. Streetcar was much celebrated, nominated for twelve Academy Awards and winner of four - including a Best Actress award to Vivien Leigh. It is considered the classic among film adaptations of Williams's work.
More than 35 years later Irene Mayer Selznick would look back and reflect on that spectacular evening when A Streetcar Named Desire opened in New York. For all that the play's success meant to her that night, she did not foresee the impact it was about to have. With her first Broadway production, she became an established, sought-after theatrical producer. The play, she remembered, made Elia Kazan "a king" and changed forever the lives of all four of its principal players. Most fittingly, she wrote, "it gave Tennessee enduring glory."
March 26, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tennessee Williams. The University of Texas at Austin, home of the Williams archive, is presenting "Becoming Tennessee Williams" from February 1 - July 21. The exhibit includes manuscripts, correspondence, photos and artwork. Click here to learn more.
Memoirs (1975) by Tennessee Williams
A Private View (1983) by Irene Mayer Selznick
The Kindness of Strangers (1985) by Donald Spoto
Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994) by Marlon Brando
Elia Kazan (2005) by Richard Schickel