Is This Funny?

     When I saw the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams' 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan, I could not stop laughing. The trouble is I do not think Williams meant his play to be amusing. Or, maybe he did. I read the play before I saw the screen version, but I did not pick up on the humor until I actually saw the movie.

     Marlon Brando's character, Stanley Kowalski, is the funniest one in the movie. Brando, besides oozing sex appeal, is also a talented actor (in my humble opinion). He plays the Polish-American Stanley to perfection. He swaggers, explodes, and grins in just the right manner. Stanley's way of speaking is what is so amusing about him. With his mouth stuffed with meat from his cold plate, he gives Stella (Kim Hunter) the third degree about the business of Belle Reve. Instead of shortening his sentences, he repeats, as his character does in the original play, in the the same phrases over and over, mismatching grammatical structure in order to sound intelligent: "Have you ever heard of the Napoleonic code? . . . In the state of Louisiana we have the Napoleonic code according to which belongs to the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa. . . . I'll wait till she gets through soaking in a hot tub and then I'll inquire if she is acquainted with the Napoleonic code" (34-35).

     Stanley's review of Blanche's (Vivien Leigh's) personal belongings is done in seriousness, but comes across as amusing. He seems to have an appraiser-friend for everything--he certainly has connections (snicker). For the ratty furs he has "an acquaintance who deals in this sort of merchandise. [He'll] have him in here to appraise it." Likewise, he will get a second opinion of the rhinestone tiara and other pirates loot from his "acquaintance that works in a jewelry store. [He'll] have him in here to make an appraisal of this." . When Blanche hands over the legal documents to the suspicious Stanley, he of course has "a lawyer acquaintance who will study these out" (36, 43).

     Besides Stanley's cartoonishly exaggerated swaggering and comic attempts to use big words and even bigger concepts, another humorous part of the movie is the over-dramatizing of actions. Like most films of this era, Streetcar has not escaped the tendency to overact. This is probably a carry over from the theater stage, where overacting is necessary. However, nobody bites his or her knuckles when he or she is going to scream or cry (he or she may bury his or her knuckle in a wall, but biting? no). I loved the movie, but I would like to know--was I supposed to laugh?

Jenni Sizemore

Table of Contents