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  • Hollywood's Tennessee: The Williams Films and the Postwar Years
  • Philip C. Kolin
R. Barton Palmer and William Robert Bray. Hollywood's Tennessee: The Williams Films and the Postwar Years. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 353. $60.00 (Hb).

Previous studies of Tennessee Williams and film, such as those by Gene Phillips, Maurice Yacowar, or Leonard Leff, have interpreted Williams's [End Page 277] film adaptations in relation to the source texts. In their fascinating new book, Hollywood's Tennessee: The Williams Films and the Postwar Years, R. Barton Palmer and William Robert Bray go in a different direction. Using previously unavailable archival materials - from the Production Code Administration; the Legion of Decency (the Roman Catholic Church's censorship arm); studio files, including memoranda, press books, and marketing plans; and directors' and Williams's own "frantic" correspondence - the authors offer a meticulously researched "analysis of the complex negotiations (financial, commercial, legal, formal, generic, cultural, etc.) that brought [Williams's] adaptations into being" (x). In 1951, Geoffrey Shurlock, who worked for the PCA or Hollywood's "moral guardian," declared: "The stage got a shock from Tennessee Williams. We got twice the shock" (qtd. at 64). Palmer and Bray track the double shock waves Williams's plays sent through the film industry.

Williams occupies a unique place in the world of film. No other American playwright has seen so many works adapted for the screen: fourteen plays and a novella during his most popular years, the 1950s and 1960s. America's most cinematic dramatist, Williams had a "virtual obsession" (18) with film, an interest that translated into incorporating filmic techniques (dissolves, close-ups, crosscuts) in his plays. With their exotic sets and characters, the plays appealed to Hollywood's desire for the sensational and its need to attract a better educated and more liberal post-war movie-going audience. Hollywood also knew that Williams was "bankable" and wanted to capitalize on his box-office draw. Yet despite his success in Hollywood, Williams was "profoundly ambivalent about the screen versions of his works and the popularity that they did, or did not, achieve" (25). Losing authorial control, he was forced to collaborate with directors and screenwriters, a "confection" he frequently found distasteful. To meet, circumvent, or bend the censors' and studio's demands - which often meant blunting his sexual themes - Williams's plays underwent major changes that redefined the life of the script.

According to Joseph Breen, the martinet head of the PCA, films had to uphold a "primary moral order" and portray the "correct standard of life" (73). But, as Palmer and Bray ably spell out in their book's eight chapters and four appendices (including one on televised Williams), the censors' standards of morality were neither Williams's nor necessarily those of his directors, especially Elia Kazan. Particularly vulnerable to the censors' (and sometimes the studio's) knife were Williams's endings. (He once quipped that "people should by all means go and see [the] movies, but that they should leave before the final five minutes" [26]). Breen, for instance, read the concluding monologue in The Glass Menagerie as incestuous and wanted it "eliminated or toned down" (55); the inexperienced screenwriter MGM assigned to Menagerie, Peter Berneis, acceded to [End Page 278] Hollywood's demand for a "woman's picture" and introduced sequences involving a new gentleman caller at the end of the film. The filmed Streetcar ended with Stella abandoning Stanley, Hollywood's punishment for what he did to Blanche, while in Williams's play Stanley kneels beside Stella as his "fingers find the opening of her blouse" (142). In the last scene of Sweet Bird of Youth, Chance Wayne is castrated; but in the film version, he is brutally beaten up and left with a broken nose - a submerged phallic signifier that bent the censors' rules, metaphorically speaking. Sometimes the censors took issue with more than sex. For example, the "breezy paganism" and Seraphina's "superstitions" in The Rose Tattoo, according to Breen, undermined established religion (115).

It is well known that Williams and Kazan slugged it out with the censors and the studio over A Streetcar Named Desire, but in unearthing new information...


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