BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE TENNESSEE WILLIAMS COLLECTION

By • May 2nd, 2006 •

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Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) Directed by Elia Kazan
BABY DOLL (1956) Directed by Elia Kazan
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) Directed by Elia Kazan
THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (1961) Directed by Jose Quintero
SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962) Directed and Scripted by Richard Brooks
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964) Directed by John Huston
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ SOUTH (1973) Produced, Directed and Written by Harry Rasky

Even though Williams’ material was a bit too perverse for Hollywood in the 50s and 60s, this is still a fascinating collection of works by the celebrated Southern playwright, a few actually toned down by the man himself, and to cap the collection off, an 80-minute documentary features Williams revisiting his old haunts, and letting his actors do their material, now unaltered, in 1970’s readings.

The cornerstone of the collection is A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. As with most of these works, it’s been done several times on film or TV over the years, gaining in strength of prose content, though not necessarily in artistry. Can there be a better STREETCAR than one that features the talents of Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando? This is a double-disc delight, featuring commentary by 90+ year old Karl Malden, Brando’s screen test, several new documentaries, and a feature documentary on the director’s career, ELIA KAZAN: A DIRECTOR’S JOURNEY. (I wish they’d somehow found a way to include the recent documentary about Kazan and Arthur Miller, but, some day…) This is a must have. Also in the collection there are a few must not have’s, but if you take into account the bonus disc featuring Williams himself, than the collection is book-ended in collectibles.

There have been four STREETCARs, three ROMAN SPRINGSs, 2 SWEET BIRDs, and 2 HOT TINs, but only one BABY DOLL. Redolently art directed by Richard Sylbert, magnificently framed and lit in B&W by Boris (ON THE WATERFRONT) Kaufman, and amazingly well acted by newcomer Carroll Baker, it’s an oddity whose lasting value is due to the impact it had on a conservative industry and country. Pushing the sexual boundaries in the public’s faces, it was pulled from theaters after a few weeks. Though it’s up to you if anything really ‘happened’ between Baker and Wallach in that close-up (and the actors, in the featurette, are divided about it, so why shouldn’t we be), nonetheless, it’s the tone that is so pervasively sexual.

Lovely casting of real people, and the use of real locations, add to the film’s charm, and it’s exciting that Williams got a crack at the screenplay. It runs a little long, but that could be more an editor’s problem, or it could be the result of everyone’s reverence for the material.

In the featurette, an aging Carroll Baker, an old Eli Wallach, and an ancient Karl Malden, remember the experience of making the film down to small, revealing details.

THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS STONE has its blunt connectedness to EYES WIDE SHUT (1999, on DVD from Warner Bros.) – the drifting of its troubled protagonist through an almost dream world of artificial streets. Of course Quintero’s first film was not an assured directorial outing, unlike Kubrick’s haunted, all-of-a-piece piece. Kubrick’s film had its problems, and has its detractors, but not about its superb filmmaking, whereas STONE is directorially choppy, with at least three scenes between the main characters ending abruptly, edited, I presume, to rescue the audience from boredom.

Still, it’s a provocative narrative, with a sense of integrity about itself, and many good moments. Warren Beatty is enjoyable, with his Italian accent and dyed hair. Lotte Lenya got the raves at the time, but she’s on a par with the others today. Vivien Leigh is interesting to watch in her second Williams vehicle, doing a different role from the one she molded in STREETCAR, more so in degree than in type. She reminds me of Giulietta Masina in JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965, on DVD from Criterion) – middle-aged, her essence diffused, a bit lost, in the center of the story but not quite focused or in control of its forward motion. Technically there’s trouble with the disc’s music track. It sounds messy. Visually the disc is quite lovely.

NIGHT OF THE IGUANA isn’t one of John Huston’s best films (contrary to what Donald Spoto so generously gushes in the new featurette). In fact, Huston’s penchant for telling the actors to bring their performances to him (as he states in the old featurette) fails him completely. First of all, it’s Tennessee Williams lite which, as with a few of the others, is an odd thing to get used to. Secondly, despite using people whose lives in some ways parallel their roles, it nonetheless feels miscast, particularly as regards Burton and Ava Gardner. Thirdly, Gabriel Figueroa’s luminous B&W cinematography shows the cast up as just a tad or two false in their characterizations.

I felt all this when I originally saw the film in ’64, age twenty, having dragged Inez Tosti, a beautiful next door neighbor, into Manhattan to a screening. Back then most of it affected me on an intuitive rather than on a critical level. Now, despite its over-riding flaws, I find compelling reasons to stay. Figueroas’s work, Burton’s relaxed realism, and the old featurette, in lush, shadowy colors, making you wish there’d been a color version shot simultaneously – those decadent tones seem so right for the subject matter. Huston looked great then, and Liz Taylor is fun to see, hovering around her boy toy, not yet out of a marriage with Eddie Fisher. The older featurette actually makes it a keeper if one is wrestling over a decision.

Richard Brooks’ treatment of Williams grates on me. I find it hard to watch CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. The performances are too high decibel, and the colors remain garish in my mind. Two things I do like, in CAT, are Burl Ives’ performance, and Donald Spoto’s commentary track. The author of a book on Williams, Spoto is about as passionate as a commentator has gotten, actually raising his voice in defense of the material on occasion. He doesn’t win me over, but he is certainly enlightening.

And finally there’s TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ SOUTH, produced for TV in ’73. Running 80 minutes, like or dislike his personality, this is an immensely rewarding document. Though it is poorly shot on the whole, the prolific Southern author is well captured in long medium shots, quoting his work, expounding on his past and his ideas, and supported by staged readings by the likes of Burl Ives, Jessica Tandy, and Michael York. Ives’ reading, in particular, communicates a sense of what was trimmed from Williams’ translations (even by himself) to the screen in a regretfully timid time.

The masterings of all the discs is excellent (save for the score on SPRING), and particularly splendid when the work of ace cinematographers like Figueroa or Kaufman is on display.


A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – 1951-93.
122 mins. B&W.
2 discs, featuring Karl Malden/Rudy Behlmer/Jeff Young commentary, Brando’s screentest, ELIA KAZAN: A DIRECTOR’S JOURNEY, 5 new documentaries.
Directed by Elia Kazan.
Screenplay by Tennessee Williams.
Produced by Charles K. Feldman.
Cinematography by Harry Stradling..
Music by Alex North.
With: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter.

BABY DOLL -1956.
114 mins. B&W. Featurette & trailers.
Directed by Elia Kazan.
Story and Screenplay by Tennessee Williams.
Cinematography by Boris Kaufman.
Art Direction by Richard Sylbert.
Music by Kenyon Hopkins.
Stunts by Lucky Kargo.
With: Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Mildred Dunnock.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF – 1958.
108 mins. Color.
Commentary by Donald Spoto.
Featurette.
Directed by Richard Brooks.
Screenplay by Brooks and James Poe.
Produced by Lawrence Weingarten.
With: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, Judith Anderson.

THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE – 1961.
103 mins. Color.
Widescreen.
Featurette.
Directed by Jose Quintero.
Screenplay by Gavin Lambert and Jan Read, from the novel by Williams.
Produced by Louis De Rochemont.
Cinematography by Harry Waxman. Music by Richard Addinsell.
With: Vivien Leigh, Warren Beatty, Lotte Lenya, Coral Browne, Jill St. John, Ernest Thesiger.

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH – 1962.
120 mins. Color. Featurette.
Directed and Scripted by Richard Brooks. Cinematographer, Milton Krasner.
With: Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Ed Begley, Rip Torn, Mildred Dunnock.

THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA – 1964.
117 mins. B&W.
Featurettes.
Widescreen.
Directed by John Huston.
Screenplay by Anthony Veiller and John Huston. Produced by Ray Stark.
Associate Producer (and Bartender) Emilio Fernandez.
Cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa.
Art Direction by Stephen Grimes.
With: Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon, Grayson Hall.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ SOUTH – 1973.
80 mins. Color.
Full Frame.
Produced, Directed and Written by Harry Rasky. Produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
With: Tennessee Williams, Burl Ives, Colleen Dewhurst, John Colicos, William Hutt, Jessica Tandy, Michael York, Maureen Stapleton.

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