A vibrant examination of Tennessee Williams's role beyond the stage and the lasting impact of his films in postwar American culture.
No American dramatist has had more plays adapted than Tennessee Williams, and few modern dramatists have witnessed as much controversy during the adaptation process. His Hollywood legacy, captured in such screen adaptations as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly, Last Summer, reflects the sea change in American culture in the mid-twentieth century. Placing this body of work within relevant contexts ranging from gender and sexuality to censorship, modernism, art cinema, and the Southern Renaissance, Hollywood's Tennessee draws on rarely examined archival research to recast Williams's significance.
Providing not only cultural context, the authors also bring to light the details of the arduous screenwriting process Williams experienced, with special emphasis on the Production Code Administration—the powerful censorship office that drew high-profile criticism during the 1950s—and Williams's innovative efforts to bend the code. Going well beyond the scripts themselves, Hollywood's Tennessee showcases findings culled from poster and billboard art, pressbooks, and other production and advertising material. The result is a sweeping account of how Williams's adapted plays were crafted, marketed, and received, as well as the lasting implications of this history for commercial filmmakers and their audiences.
- Chapter 1. Williams, Broadway, and Hollywood
- Chapter 2. The Glass Menagerie: A Different Kind of Woman's Picture
- Chapter 3. Bending the Code I: A Streetcar Named Desire
- Chapter 4. Bending the Code II: The Rose Tattoo
- Chapter 5. Bending the Code III: Baby Doll
- Chapter 6. Tennessee Williams and '50s Family Melodrama
- Chapter 7. The Williams Films and the Southern Renaissance on Screen
- Chapter 8. Tennessee Williams and the End of an Era
- Appendix A. Filmography with Principal Cast Members
- Appendix B. Select Small-Screen and Television Productions, with Principal Cast Members
- Appendix C. Some Notes on Produced and Unproduced Works
- Appendix D. Key to Collections
Challenging the Existing Theatre
While the Broadway theatre has witnessed the emergence and flourishing of dozens of playwrights since the 1930s, none has achieved more enduring popular appeal and critical acclaim than Tennessee Williams. Although Williams did not enjoy the production of four plays in a single annus mirabilis (as did Clifford Odets), he did see fifteen of his plays produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1961, far more than any of his notable contemporaries, including Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Edward Albee. Perhaps even more remarkable is that seven of these plays (as well as his novella, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) were adapted for the screen during this time, a record unsurpassed by any other writer of the immediate postwar era—dramatist or novelist. Odets, Somerset Maugham, Neil Simon, and many others may have captivated play-going audiences for a few years, but Williams, by producing a varied and extensive oeuvre, remained the leading figure of the Broadway throughout its remarkable and unexpected renaissance during the first fifteen years of the postwar era.
The film versions of his plays and fiction mostly met with a similar popularity and critical acclaim, and all added substantially to the notorious reputation he had gained through his stage productions. The screen presence of his works quickly made him a central figure not only in New York and Hollywood, but internationally as well. By 1961, in fact, the shy and retiring (though ambitious) Williams had become a household name in America and abroad, arguably more recognized than any American writer of the century had been, including Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the most relentlessly self-promoting author whom the national culture has ever produced.
Tennessee Williams, however, was no Neil Simon or Somerset Maugham. He was by no means a purveyor of sophisticated entertainment, titillating audiences with witty, craftily designed comedies of manners that easily pleased, rarely challenged, and never disturbed. As with the work of Eugene O'Neill, Miller, and Inge, Williams's plays explored, in innovative and dramatically effective fashion, the drama of the self, probing the dark corners and difficulties of desire and exploring the ties of love and family that bind (and entrap) troubled characters. His vision of the human condition, together with the poetic form with which it was enacted, quickly achieved recognition for their unique beauty and depth. In the space of only a few years, he won four Drama Critics' Circle Awards, two Pulitzers, and a Tony, being quickly elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. To be sure, Williams experienced his share of commercial failures and negative reviews, yet his critical success was unrivaled by any other playwright during Broadway's most fecund artistic period.
The work that Williams later produced did not earn him either the acclaim or the box-office receipts and movie-rights returns he had enjoyed during the "golden period" of his early career. From 1962 until his death in 1983, Williams managed to have a string of plays produced, sometimes on Broadway but also, as the New York theatre changed and his work was less easily accommodated to the more popular venues, in off-Broadway theatres. As testimony that he was still thought a quite bankable author by those in the film industry, eight more Hollywood versions of his plays hit the domestic and international screen in the last two decades of his life, making him one of the most adapted authors of all time, as Williams joined the elite company of such beloved writers of enduring appeal as William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. In this later part of his career, Williams also devoted a considerable portion of his inimitable creative energy to other literary forms. He wrote another novel (Moise and the World of Reason, 1975), oversaw the assemblage of collections of his considerable body of poetry and short stories, and penned the autobiographical Memoirs, which achieved a world-wide succès de scandale for its sensationalized revelations about the playwright's private life, especially his homosexuality.
Williams's output was enormous, matched by few authors of any age, but the true range of his writing was not revealed, at least to the public, until after his death. It then became clear that he had left behind a huge volume of works, including poems, plays, and stories, that had never seen publication. Despite the considerable accomplishments of this mature period, Williams's work after The Night of the Iguana (1961) has often been regarded as inferior to what he produced as a young writer. His later plays were neither as popular nor as well received by journalistic critics. This was, perhaps, because they demonstrated the playwright's growing interest in art theatre and avant-garde practice, as well as his progression from the "poetic realism" of his earlier period. As critic Annette Saddik remarks, "Throughout the 1960s Williams was becoming increasingly suspicious of realism's desire to naturalize the relationship between stage presentation and the outside world." In fact, in these late plays he habitually rejected virtually any artistic concession to realism, and this departure made them less appealing to theatergoers who had grown accustomed to the more accessible early productions.
However, these later plays have attracted the interest and admiration of academic critics in the two decades following the playwright's death. Many have enjoyed successful new productions that have prompted more favorable evaluations of Williams's accomplishments. Most contemporary students of Williams, in fact, would agree with Saddik about the undeserved neglect and, sometimes, disdain with which his new plays were greeted in the 1970s and 1980s: "His later reputation . . . tells us more about the critical biases in the popular and academic press in this country than about Williams's work per se." In any case, the evaluation of Williams's oeuvre very much remains a task in progress. Any final judgments must await not only the production of newly discovered plays, a task that has been proceeding with energy and much success since the 1990s, but also the publication of the various texts in other genres Williams completed before his death. This project promises to take many more years because of both various codicils involving the literary estate and the sheer volume of material involved. Yet the debate over the relative value of Williams's later writings, and the somewhat unknown worth of what was left unpublished at his death, have not affected the very high regard his other achievements continue to enjoy today, not only with playgoers and movie spectators (as new stage productions and films continue to appear with some regularity), but also within literary circles, where his influence on the American theatre is exceeded only perhaps by that of Eugene O'Neill.
Liberating the Stage
Williams was certainly driven by the artist's compulsion to create art for its own sake. But he also felt a strong desire for critical approval, a well-deserved popularity, and financial success. As is true for most artists, Williams's struggle for (and with) recognition and eventual fame was long and difficult. Although the playwright won some early literary awards and achieved modest popular success with the St. Louis Mummers during the 1930s, his first major production, Battle of Angels (1940), never made it to Broadway. The directors of the Theatre Guild, who had sponsored the production, imprudently chose Boston for the play's tryout instead of a more liberal New Haven or Philadelphia. Conservative Bostonians were completely unprepared for a play that melded the sacred and the profane. In the manner of European drama, Battle of Angels invoked the power of Christian myth (à la John Milton), even as it provided a heavy dose of southern-gothic wit and bawdiness—a recipe too spicy for many New Englanders. Voicing a typical judgment, the critic for the Boston Globe opined, "The play gives the audience the sensation of having been dunked in mire."
After the Boston debacle, Williams remained determined to prove himself. He focused his energy on various stage and screen treatments of the life he had led as a young adult with his family in St. Louis, a story that, after achieving several widely divergent incarnations, was destined, as The Glass Menagerie, to become his first commercial success. Although he longed to see his name on a Broadway marquee, Williams's iconoclastic view of the then-current theatre fare made him feel very much the distraught outsider. Mailing his agent Audrey Wood The Gentleman Caller (as the initial version of The Glass Menagerie was called) for her to evaluate, he wrote that this would be the last play that he would write for "the now existing theatre."
The young playwright's judgment, however, is somewhat inaccurate, for Williams perhaps slights the innovative, though neither radical nor audacious, nature of The Glass Menagerie. For example, Tom's unconventional (for its time) framing the play in the present and then reappearing as a character from the past surely caused some early confusion among audiences accustomed to missing-fourth-wall realism. If his largely autobiographical first Broadway production recalls the family-centered drama of then-celebrated playwrights like Lillian Hellman, The Glass Menagerie eschews the stagy melodramatics of plays such as her The Little Foxes (1939), with its clear-cut, climactic moment of recognition that assigns the characters simple moral labels. In The Glass Menagerie, by way of contrast, Laura's realization that hopes and dreams are likely to evaporate quickly hardly resolves the play's several dramatic tensions either simply or completely. Menagerie consists entirely of Tom's memories of life with his mother and sister. And in the present frame from which he narrates the past, Tom exhibits precisely the same unbreakable attachments of love and dependency that earlier compromised his struggle for independence. In the expressionist manner, Williams's world established on stage is thoroughly subjectivized (even as it is ironized) by the framing narration, which emphasizes Tom's nostalgia for a past that must be understood as corresponding to both his guilt and his longing.
Williams's first commercial success rejects the predictable formulae of what passed in the postwar era for serious drama. In fact, as later works would demonstrate in more striking detail and depth, Williams's expressionistic innovations, which he called his "new, plastic theatre," helped liberate the American stage from restrictive traditions of realism, established genre, and notions of structural and thematic correctness. No doubt, Williams's theatre, its serious themes complemented by complex, even contradictory emotional appeals, helped transform audiences' appetite for the customary light fare found on Broadway—the musicals, domestic comedies, and well-made topical plays that had dominated the scene until the advent of Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge. Of course, this postwar renaissance of the American art theatre had been prepared by O'Neill, who demonstrated, decades before Williams arrived on the scene, that intellectual seriousness and Broadway productions need not be mutually exclusive.
But beyond O'Neill's pioneering efforts in the 1920s, and despite, in the next decade, the partial reorientation of the American stage under the leadership of the Group Theatre toward social realism and political engagement, Broadway, during World War II, found itself committed only to customary forms of dramatic entertainment. The range of offerings was quite limited. Diversion of an amusing and heartwarming kind was offered by comedies such Harvey (1944) and musicals such as Oklahoma! (1943). Plays with an ostensibly serious theme tended to be military pageants, such as Moss Hart's Winged Victory: The Air Force Play (1943), or melodramatic antifascist tracts, such as Hellman's Watch on the Rhine (1941). Williams summed up his feelings about those current Broadway offerings in a letter to his mother around 1941, complaining that "serious, poetic plays" "have not had a fighting chance this season," and observing that "drum-beating, flag-waving, and pure musical comedy entertainment are the chosen fare. The dice will be loaded against us till after the war—but of course popular stuff dies quickly and the future accepts more readily what the present rejects."
This prediction certainly proved accurate when Williams's luck dramatically changed in December 1944. At the pre-Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie in Chicago, while much of the country was gripped by the decisive battles being waged in western Europe, audiences and critics began taking note of this exceptional talent who, Prometheus-like, was intent on breathing life into a moribund theatre. Menagerie quickly moved to Broadway and opened on March 31 to twenty-four curtain calls. Before it finished its run of 563 performances, the play had won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as well as the Donaldson and Sidney Howard Memorial awards. No doubt, America had found a new voice on the stage. Distinctly southern, it displayed the poet's unswerving determination to pry open the secrets of the heart, betraying, as C. W. E. Bigsby has remarked, "the romantic's fascination with extreme situations, with the imagination's power to challenge facticity, with the capacity of language to reshape experience, and the self's ability to people the world with visions of itself."
A Romantic's Fascination with Extremes
This energetic romantic visionary quickly achieved a rare real-world feat. Williams found himself with back-to-back spectacular successes when A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on December 3, 1947, going on after spectacular notices to enjoy an amazing run of 855 performances. Streetcar was the first play to win the Pulitzer, New York Drama Critics' Circle, and Donaldson awards. The play was also notable for launching the stage career of Marlon Brando and for establishing Williams's long and mutually profitable stage and screen collaboration with Elia Kazan, arguably the most talented stage director of the century and a central figure in postwar Hollywood filmmaking as well. With Streetcar, Williams showed his commitment to a drama that probed the discontents of sexual desire, not the least of which was a violence that the American stage had never before witnessed. Not only did Streetcar break with Broadway tradition, it also demonstrated that Williams, after the poignant, even genteel domestic tragedy of Menagerie, had found the subject matter and themes that would define the remainder of his career.
Still a relative newcomer to Broadway, Williams had written, and seen produced, two plays that would almost immediately become classics of world drama. It was perhaps inevitable that his third commercial production would prove something of a letdown. Summer and Smoke, Williams's allegory of the flesh and the spirit, opened on October 6, 1948, to tepid reviews. Almost all critics compared the play with The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar, and the consensus was that Summer and Smoke lacked the punch of the playwright's previous efforts. Variety called it a "pale, disappointing facsimile of his previous 'Streetcar' and 'Glass Menagerie.'" In late 1948, Williams traveled to Italy and published his first collection of short stories, One Arm. The playwright soon found himself enamored of Italy—a love affair that would last his whole life. He became particularly fond of Sicily, which was the ancestral home of his longtime lover Frank Merlo. The next year he began to outline what would become his first novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Italy began to feel like a second home for Williams as he cultivated friendships with Anna Magnani, Luchino Visconti, and Franco Zeffirelli as well as other major players in the Italian film industry. His experiences there prompted Williams to craft what was, in some respects, a vehicle for Magnani.
The popular actress, however, did not accept the playwright's gift of a leading role written expressly for her. When The Rose Tattoo opened in Chicago at the end of 1950, Maureen Stapleton (a first-rate performer but by no means a sex goddess) played Serafina. Williams's first full-length "serious comedy" moved to the Martin Beck Theater on February 3 of the following year and opened to generally positive reviews, despite its celebration of Dionysian bawdiness. Some critics found the sexual references gratuitous and the playwright's intentions prurient. George Jean Nathan, for example, christened The Rose Tattoo Williams's "latest peepshow." Others, however, praised Williams's inventiveness and his turn toward a comic embrace of the primitive. In 1951, Brooks Atkinson wrote that Williams was "at the top of his form," and Walter Kerr summed up his meteoric rise to prominence by declaring that "Tennessee Williams is the finest playwright now working in the American theatre." The Rose Tattoo won a Tony and has gained stature over time because of superb revivals and Magnani's inimitable incarnation of Serafina in Daniel Mann's famous film version, for which she won an Academy Award.
Confident of his grasp on popularity, Williams was ready in 1952 to launch his boldest experiment to date—Camino Real. As with all of his works, this play evolved from several earlier versions, including the one-act Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, which he wrote in 1946. To direct the play, Williams returned to the collaborator for whom he held the greatest respect—Elia Kazan. Williams felt that only Kazan would appreciate the play's lyricism and find the dramatic means to transfer the poetry successfully to the stage. Williams called this play his "Mexican poetic fantasy," and certainly the "poetic fantasy" was not a form of drama that the American stage—and perhaps no stage—had ever seen before. Walter Kerr, usually a strong advocate for Williams's more unorthodox efforts, called it "the worst play yet written by the best playwright of his generation."
Reinvigorating the Plantation Myth
With two successes and one failure of almost equally astounding proportions, Williams had by early 1955 come to regard Broadway as the most fickle of mistresses, realizing that his commercial popularity (and hence career) could end at any time. As he prepared his revisions for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he told a reviewer, "If this new one doesn't make the grade, I'll have to go back to writing plays for art and little theatre groups." Fortunately for Williams, Cat succeeded beyond his most optimistic expectations. It opened at the Morosco Theatre in March 1955 and became one of Williams's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful plays, winning the Pulitzer and the Drama Critics' Circle Award and running for almost 700 performances. It certainly did not hurt the play's business that Cat, in typical Williams fashion, generated considerable controversy along the way because of its treatment of homosexual desire and the intimacies of married life. Even more than Streetcar, Cat explores the discontents of desire—and its polymorphous perversity as well. This may not have been new territory for Broadway to explore. Plays with a homosexual theme (albeit generally muted) had certainly hitherto been produced and favorably received (a notable example is Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, which opened in 1934). No previous production, however, had dealt at such length and in such depth with sexual questions, contesting not only notions of, as contemporary cultural critics would say, heteronormality, but also the view that women were as much the subjects as the objects of physical desire. Broadway's leading critic, Brooks Atkinson, judged that after the success of Cat, Williams had proved that "he is not only a man of poetic sensibilities, he is a master dramatist with a terrifying knowledge of the secrets of the mind."
In just ten years, Williams had won most of the cherished Broadway and literary awards (some more than once) and had proved, with three major film adaptations of his work, that his characters and themes enjoyed a wide popularity. He had challenged American theatre audiences to explore previously forbidden psychological territory and to confront sexual themes that no playwright before him had dared investigate. He had liberated the sensibilities of the play-going public with his inimitable combination of lyricism and sensual (and for its time) even lurid language. Williams, who had helped change public taste and Broadway productions (at least in part), would now turn toward more mature and realistic portrayals of human relationships and desires. Williams had attained a powerful position in the commercial theatre, for, in those days, as Arthur Miller said, "the playwright was king of the hill, not the star actor or director."18
The postwar renaissance had made Broadway a leading institution of American culture, thanks to the energies and talents of authors eager to remake the literary scene into which they had been born. As Arthur Miller said, "I could not imagine a theatre worth my time that did not want to change the world, any more than a creative scientist could wish to prove the validity of everything that is already known. I knew only one other writer with the same approach, even if he surrounded his work with a far different aura. This was Tennessee Williams."19
Exploring A Poetics of Violence
In the fall of 1956, as Cat was completing its twenty-month run, Williams published his first collection of poems, In the Winter of Cities, and remained in New York City reworking Battle of Angels, making extensive changes even as he provided the play with a new and more appropriate title, Orpheus Descending. He hoped that Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando would agree to star as the leads Lady Torrance and Val Xavier, but, occupied with other projects, they both declined (although Brando and Magnani would later appear in the film version, The Fugitive Kind). Orpheus premiered at the Martin Beck Theatre on March 21, 1957, to mostly negative reviews. It closed after two months and probably would have done so sooner had Williams's considerable reputation not boosted ticket sales.
This failure was not easily endured, and quickly precipitated a psychological crisis. Williams recounts: "Orpheus brought all my problems to a head. I knew I must find help or crack up, so I went to an analyst and poured out all my troubles." The short run and the bad reviews coincided with the death of Williams's father and also with his growing estrangement from longtime lover Frank Merlo. To add to these difficulties, he was becoming increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol to soothe his considerable anxieties and bouts of depression. Desperate for help, Williams began psychotherapy in 1957 with Dr. Lawrence Kubie, a Manhattan Freudian analyst. He advised Williams to take a sabbatical from writing and to separate from Merlo. Believing, like most therapists of the time, that homosexuality was a developmental failure that could (and should) be cured, Kubie hoped these measures would result in Williams's conversion to "normality." The advice did not strike the playwright as a workable plan: "I wouldn't break up with Frank, of course, so I broke up with Kubie. Besides, if I got rid of my demons, I'd lose my angels." His experience with psychotherapy, however, helped provide material for one of his most compelling and suspenseful plays, Suddenly Last Summer.
Here William's art once again served as a thin veil for his own experience. For the dialogue and plot, he drew on not only his therapy sessions with Kubie, but also the lobotomy his sister Rose underwent in 1943. Though he had treated bisexuality, drunkenness, frankly acknowledged lust, and rape in his previous plays, even Williams must have wondered how audiences would react to a play that featured a young woman threatened with lobotomy, a talented poet who arranges for his mother and cousin to procure young men to satisfy his insatiable sexual appetite, and a bizarre reversal in which the exploited youths kill and eat the man who had hired them for sex. The play premiered at the York Theatre off-Broadway on January 7, 1958, under the title Garden District (it was paired with a superb one-act, Something Unspoken). Writing for the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs found Suddenly Last Summer "an impressive and genuinely shocking play." Walter Kerr, appalled by the play's "pure horror," nevertheless found it a "compelling . . . serious and accomplished work to be seen." Williams apparently felt more comfortable having his most controversial play to date staged in the off-Broadway venue because of the increasing critical and financial pressures for producing a "major hit." He also believed it was impossible to continue living up to his growing reputation as America's greatest dramatist. As he told Mike Wallace in a 1958 interview, "nobody is as good as publicity makes them appear, and if he's reasonably objective with himself he knows that that's true and it gives him an awfully shaky feeling. And this increases with each production—the reputation grows as he becomes more conscious of the discrepancy between the reputation and the actual self."
However, Williams was sufficiently cheered by the success he found with Suddenly to make another attempt at a full-scale Broadway production. He teamed up once again with Kazan for Sweet Bird of Youth, which enjoyed a successful run at the Martin Beck of 383 performances. Most critics praised the play, but there were some dissenting influential voices. Robert Brustein found it "disturbingly bad"; Harold Clurman wrote that "it interested me more as a phenomenon than as a play"; and Brooks Atkinson was repelled because he thought the play "ranges wide through the lower depths, touching on political violence, as well as diseases of the mind and body." In its theme, Sweet Bird explored what had become familiar Williams territory: its main character is an aspiring actor at the end of his youth who, employed as a gigolo by a fading Hollywood star, returns to the small town of his birth to claim the affection of the girl he had left behind. These plans quickly go awry when he learns that on a previous visit he infected Heavenly with a venereal disease that required a mutilating hysterectomy; at the play's end, Chance undergoes a mutilation of his own—castration.
Connecting the Domestic and the Spiritual
While Sweet Bird was still in rehearsals, Williams began work on something strikingly different. His domestic comedy, Period of Adjustment, was a response to complaints that he wrote only about the distressing aspects of experience. About this play, Williams said: "I am through with what have been called my 'black plays.' From now on, I want to be concerned with the kinder aspects of life . . . with more concentration on the quieter elements of existence." Although the play deals with a potentially serious subject—dysfunctional marriage—the plot seems more Neil Simon than Tennessee Williams. It is a bedroom farce that closely resembles Plaza Suite and Barefoot in the Park (among other Simon hits that apparently followed Williams's lead) and only barely accords with the playwright's declaration that "these non-black plays won't be all white."
Williams had begun work on what was to prove his last major critical and commercial success, The Night of the Iguana, during his first visit to Mexico, in 1940. Produced on Broadway in late 1961 at the Royale (after a lengthy series of road tryouts), it is perhaps his most ambitious drama. In the manner of Camino Real, Iguana traces the unpredictable, illuminating encounters among a bizarre gallery of characters (notably Shannon, an Episcopal priest undone by sexual excess, and the virginal Hannah, an older woman traveling with her poet grandfather). Critical notices were mixed, but the play won Williams his fourth Drama Critics' Circle Award.
As Iguana drew to a close after 316 performances, Time magazine put Williams on its cover and devoted a long article to evaluating his career. Drama critic Ted Kalem praised Williams as a "consummate master of the theatre," noting that his only "rival," Arthur Miller, "has been silent on Broadway for more than six years." While Kalem praises Williams's artistic abilities, his article also emphasizes the sensational, notorious themes of his plays, echoing perhaps the then-current public judgment that Williams was a dramatist intent on shock and provocation. Kalem's brief, distorting summaries of the plays read mostly like entries from a textbook on aberrant "He is the nightmare merchant of Broadway, writer of Orpheus Descending (murder by blowtorch), A Streetcar Named Desire (rape, nymphomania, homosexuality), Summer and Smoke (frigidity), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (impotence, alcoholism, homosexuality), Sweet Bird of Youth (drug addiction, castration, syphilis), Suddenly Last Summer (homosexuality, cannibalism), and The Night of the Iguana (masturbation, underwear fetishism, coprophagy)." And yet Kalem found that this "nightmare merchant" was also "the greatest U.S. playwright since Eugene O'Neill and barring the aged Sean O'Casey, the greatest living playwright anywhere."
The Nightmare Merchant Rejects Realism
During the remaining two decades of his life, Williams succeeded in having multiple revivals as well as six new plays produced on Broadway (The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, The Seven Descents of Myrtle, Slapstick Tragedy, Outcry, Vieux Carré, and Clothes for a Summer Hotel). Others enjoyed significant off-Broadway productions or had their main runs in major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta. Williams never stopped working and never lost interest in having his plays staged, but, as he had predicted, his drama clearly underwent changes that saw him move beyond the poetic realism that characterized not only many of his early plays (including all the commercial successes), but also the best received and most popular productions of his notable contemporaries Arthur Miller (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge) and William Inge (Picnic, Bus Stop, and Come Back, Little Sheba). Audiences and critics alike were totally unprepared for Broadway's nightmare merchant to become an art dramatist in the mold of Jean Anouilh, Harold Pinter, or Edward Albee.
Voltaire wrote, with a double sense of cynicism and self-satisfaction, that "fame is a heavy burden," and no one could have shared the sentiment more than Tennessee Williams. For roughly seventeen years, from 1945 to 1962, no American playwright at home or abroad was more lionized. During his last two decades, however, no American author was more vilified, perhaps because he more or less publicly turned his back on the kind of work with which he had hitherto pleased Broadway audiences. Though Iguana had completed its successful run only a year before, Williams's critical obituaries began to be written as early as 1963, the year Milk Train was produced on Broadway. The theme of Richard Gilman's devastating review, entitled "Mistuh Williams, He Dead," was obvious from the infamous title. The playwright, in Gilman's view, was an incarnation of the overreaching protagonist of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, who expires in the horrifying world of violence and degradation he helped create. Later critics (especially academics) defended Williams against these scurrilous attacks. In a study of the reviews, John McCann concludes that "the castigation of Williams in this decade would reach a pitch of verbal abuse that rivaled the most scabrous criticism of the past thirty years as a whole." Because of his early, stupendous success, Williams found himself in a no-win situation at this stage of his career. If he returned to familiar territory, his new play would be unfavorably compared with the classics of his "golden period." And yet if he took off in some boldly experimental direction, the critics would plead for another Streetcar or Menagerie. These critical denunciations took their toll on the playwright. As he told an interviewer in 1970, "Almost every time, at least in ten years—I had a play on Broadway, I swore I'd never write a Broadway play again. . . . But as you start to write again, and when you've written something that has potential, there are pressures. There are producers and there are agents. And you find yourself giving under those pressures and going back to Broadway, where you said you'd never go again."
The consensus among contemporary students is that the playwright's post-Iguana work never received a fair hearing from the professional critics. Annette Saddik concludes that "in his later years, Williams was defeated before he ever began; reviewers tended to exhibit hostility toward experimental drama in general, and Williams never had a chance to be taken seriously in the first place by the critics." In 1975, he won the National Arts Club gold medal for literature. But that same year Williams, sickened by caustic reviews, also expressed his disgust with the direction of American theatre: "I'm quite through with the kind of play that established my early and popular reputation. I am doing a different thing, which is altogether my own, not influenced at all by other playwrights at home or abroad, or by other schools of theatre."
Yet if fame is a heavy burden, it is cyclical. Twenty years after his death, Williams's popularity with audiences and critics is approaching that of his glory years. In 1999, Not About Nightingales, one of his apprentice plays, opened to wildly enthusiastic reviews on Broadway and in London, garnering Williams more praise in a few months than he had received during the last ten years of his life. New productions of old and previously unpublished work were given a major showing at Hartford Stage in September 2003. A new film version of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was broadcast on Showtime the same year. The Kennedy Center sponsored a Williams festival in 2004 that featured several revivals as well as the first public stagings of several one-acts. In 2003, a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof appeared on Broadway to great critical and popular approbation, and 2005 witnessed major revivals of Streetcar and Menagerie. Following and summarizing a popular trend, as is its wont, USA Today proclaimed in a front-page banner that "Tennessee Williams Is Hotter Than Ever." The release of a collection of his most notable films on DVD in 2005 affirmed his still-developing status as a mammoth figure in American culture. His long-forgotten screenplay, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, was produced in 2007.
Throughout his long career, Tennessee Williams always tried to give his audiences more than just a show, even if, while following his inspiration more uncompromisingly as a mature artist, he was obliged to seek out friendly and accommodating stages a few blocks away from the bright lights of Broadway. No doubt, audiences of the era were eager for an art that provided difficult satisfactions rather than the deceptive pleasures of wish fulfillment. In short, the vein of taste mined by Williams, Miller, Inge, and others was resolutely high cultural, accommodating tragic themes and modernist techniques, scorning traditional pieties, including what had hitherto been a more or less tacit ban on those "adult" subjects, such as homosexuality, drug addiction, sexual predation, and prostitution, that were so central to Williams's conception of dramatically arresting character. Catering to a minority, elite culture, the Broadway stage in the postwar era could, and did, readily adapt to the new vision offered by Williams and others. We should not forget that when Williams turned more resolutely to experimentalism and avant-garde themes, his plays continued to find commercial production, even if audiences and critics, at least for the most part, were baffled and displeased by the direction in which his mature artistic vision led him.
A Movie-Made Playwright
Williams would have become a central, controversial figure in American culture in the fifties and sixties had no movie ever been made from any of his plays or works of fiction. But if Hollywood had not been receptive to the playwright's earnest efforts to have his plays brought to the screen, he would never have become the most familiar (even notorious) literary figure in a country where playwrights, even world-famous ones like O'Neill, had never found real celebrity. Scornful of Hollywood because he believed, with some good reason, that it was a dream factory manufacturing ersatz art, Arthur Miller showed little interest in having his plays filmed, at least until he married a movie actress of some note (Marilyn Monroe) and determined to provide her with a tailor-made part. The Misfits, despite a famous director (John Huston) and able costars (Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, and Montgomery Clift), proved a spectacular miscalculation. No worthy Hollywood production was made in the fifties from either of Miller's two spectacular stage successes—Death of a Salesman and The Crucible—mainly because of the playwright's indifference. Williams, in contrast, sought from the very beginning the popular reputation and the considerable financial rewards that the filming of his plays would provide.
Tennessee Williams was twenty-seven when he first visited Hollywood, and it was only some eleven years later that he began to play a substantial role in the film industry centered there, when he helped director Irving Rapper and producer Jerry Wald adapt The Glass Menagerie for the screen. Approaching forty, Williams was almost ancient to be a novice in a business that counted youth among its most valuable commodities. Though he undoubtedly got a late start, the playwright had in some respects been preparing for a career in filmmaking all his life, especially after leaving rural Mississippi at age seven (1918) and moving to St. Louis, one of the country's most populous and bustling metropolitan areas. Despite the gloomy setting depicted in The Glass Menagerie, the Williams family established itself in an upscale urban neighborhood called University City, where film theatres were within easy walking distance or a short streetcar ride. In early childhood, Williams became a habitué of the local picture palaces, like the famous Tivoli, which were then doing a thriving business. His experiences with a medium still very much a sensational cultural novelty exerted a powerful fascination. Growing up in what film historian Robert Sklar has termed a "movie-made America," where "movies were the most popular and influential medium of culture," Williams developed a lifelong interest in, and an enthusiasm for, films and filmmaking.
Young Tom Williams's obsession with the cinema was by no means exceptional; it was certainly shared by many of his generation and time. The 1920s and 1930s saw Hollywood secure its hold on a broadly middle-class audience of all ages. The films of the era offered entertainment of different kinds, some of which were viewed by the more conservative and religious within American society as immoral because of their sexually suggestive or violent themes. But in 1930, by the time Williams had graduated from high school, the studios were in the process of adopting a production code that was intended to ensure the wholesomeness of their product and its consistent support of consensus values. In 1934, the Production Code Administration office was founded, and under the strict stewardship of Joseph Breen, all Hollywood productions began to be carefully vetted. Only those deemed to be in conformity with the code were granted the certificate necessary for nationwide release to theatres. Issuing from the studios in increasing numbers as producers sought to satisfy a huge popular demand, the Hollywood films of Williams's youth offered idealized worlds of glamour, adventure, and romance where the problems of life found unambiguous and crowd-pleasing solutions. Such fantasy was intoxicating and addictive, especially for an unhappy young man with an exceptional imagination. At home, there were a mother and father who constantly battled; at school, he enjoyed little relief from the teasing to which the shy and physically unaccomplished are subjected. Not surprisingly, Williams found that the make-believe world conjured up on the screen offered a ready refuge from the daily anxieties and depressing episodes of his St. Louis childhood.
A Cinematic Imagination
Especially after the conversion to sound at the end of the 1920s, the spectacular forms of Hollywood performance art also appealed to his developing artistic sensibilities. The complementary processes involved in moviemaking, especially the coordination of musical, lighting, and camera effects, fascinated Williams, who, much more than other playwrights of the era, was to devote great attention to conceiving his plays as multilayered productions that put heavy demands on art designers, lighting experts, and sound engineers. With its uninterrupted formal flow and its shots linked by narrative, graphic, and aural devices, the classic Hollywood film also deeply influenced his conception of theatricality. Williams usually wrote fluid scenes and rarely seemed comfortable with the conventional division of stage plays into discrete acts.40 In an important statement of his dramatic principles, he argued for the necessity of a "sculptural drama" that emulates cinematic mise-en-scène, with the playwright, like a film director, designing elaborate tableaux as if for the camera. Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie and many of his apprentice works, such as Stairs to the Roof, with both stage and screen production in mind, and he even tailored some of his short stories for ready film adaptation. For Menagerie, Williams designed a "screen device" on which images would be projected; such a technique (described at length in the notes he penned for the original version of the play) shows how in his mind the boundary between the artistic forms of theatre and film occasionally became productively blurred.
One book published posthumously—Stopped Rocking and Other Screenplays—contains four never-produced film projects, and Williams's unpublished work includes a considerable number of other screenplays. In the production notes for major plays such as Sweet Bird of Youth, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, and Camino Real, he discusses scenic and staging effects designed to liberate, as filming might, the dramatic structure from the physical confines of a three-dimensional platform. It is hardly surprising, then, that scholars have often remarked on the cinematic structure of his theatre. George Brandt, for example, notes that Williams's deployment of fluid scenes and his "careful orchestration of sound—music as well as effects" are more closely aligned "to a cinematic vision of reality than to the [stage] expressionism of the post-World War I period."
Contemporary critics may be enthusiastic about the cinematic elements in Williams's dramatic art, but the influence of Hollywood tinsel on young Tom was viewed by his own family with a disapproval bordering on alarm. In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda Wingfield turns to her son and says, "Tom, you go to the movies entirely too much." Amanda is never reluctant to offer her opinion about how Tom, somewhat given to aimlessness and self-indulgence, should spend his time, and neither was Williams's mother, Edwina, upon whom the character is closely modeled. According to Dakin, Tennessee's younger brother, Edwina thought that her older son's interest in the movies bordered on unhealthy obsession. Like Amanda, Edwina did in fact wonder whether her son was actually spending so much time in movie houses, and if so, whether those many hours in darkened auditoria had led him to even worse forms of moral dissolution.
Worrying about the supposed deleterious effects of frequent movie viewing on the young had, by the end of the 1920s, become something of a national obsession, to which not only religious leaders, but also the intelligentsia were moved to pay considerable attention. Outraged in the 1920s by "what the films are doing to young America," sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross warned that "more of the young people who were town children sixteen years ago or less are sex-wise, sex-excited, and sex-absorbed than of any generation of which we have knowledge." Edwina Williams was by no means alone in demanding that her son take less interest in the movies, and Tom was by no means alone in ignoring her admonitions.
A Sort of Life in Pictures
If Williams, like many aspiring writers, actually entertained thoughts about moving west to seek a career in the "pictures," he did not act on them, at least for many years. His virtual obsession, first in junior high, then thorough high school and while in college, was to write—whether poetry, stories, or plays—and he enjoyed limited success in all three genres at a relatively young age. After attending the University of Missouri and Washington University, Williams graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938 and soon moved to New Orleans. It was at this time that, anticipating the beginning of his professional writing career (and needing to alter his name and birthday to suit the requirements of a writing contest), he started signing his name as "Tennessee Williams." After about six weeks of French Quarter life, drinking in the ambiance and meeting people whom he would eventually rework into many of his characters, he set out with friend Jim Parrott for Los Angeles. But the golden coast was not what he had expected. Once there, Williams ended up spending a few days alone at the downtown YMCA. The scene was desolate, decaying, and lonely—far from the romantic vision he had formed of California culture. He soon joined up again with Parrott, but the miserable first impression he had formed of Los Angeles and Hollywood would stay with him for life. Tennessee wrote his mother: "I have not decided to stay in Hollywood—how you got that impression I don't know. My original impression of the place still holds good—it is about the last place on earth that I would want to live. . . . it is full of sham and corruption and the atmosphere of the place is generally putrid." That same year, however, Williams found work at a shoe store in Culver City just one block from MGM studios, where he would later work as a screenwriter. After spending several desultory months on the West Coast, he briefly returned to St. Louis, and then lived the next several, unsettled years in New York City, Provincetown, Key West, New Orleans, and other cities in the states. In the meantime, he pursued his writing career, slowly building a reputation and becoming a client of well-known agent Audrey Wood.
No one was more surprised than Williams himself when Hollywood suddenly beckoned in the spring of 1943. Wood sent him a telegram that changed his life: "Come at once to New York. Have arranged writing deal pictures which necessitates your leaving New York in time arrive California around fifteenth of May." Williams was less than enthusiastic about this opportunity, even though it meant steady employment. In fact, adopting something of a conventional pose for the serious writer, he complained he had been "sold to Hollywood." But he did not refuse the offer, and that summer began working for MGM at the standard rate of $250 a week. The playwright-turned-screenwriter considered this munificent salary "dishonest," and as it turned out, he spent most of his energy working on his own material rather than on assigned projects. Williams had agreed to the standard seven-year arrangement, which contained a six-month option. If his performance was judged satisfactory, renewal was automatic; otherwise, the studio could drop him without further obligation. His first assignment, a quite typical one, was to rewrite a script for a Lana Turner vehicle that another writer had penned. Williams confessed his frustration with the project to Audrey Wood: "It would be useless for me to describe the script I have to work with, a scenario prepared by Lenore Coffee. It contains every cliché situation you've ever seen in a Grade B picture. They want me to give it a 'freshness and vitality' but at the same time keep it 'a Lana Turner sort of thing.' I feel like an obstetrician required to successfully deliver a mastodon from a beaver."
For six months, and with increasing futility, Williams worked on the Turner script and other projects (including a treatment for a film about Billy the Kid), but during this time he also began devoting full attention to his rough treatment of The Gentleman Caller, which would, of course, become The Glass Menagerie. This same year (1943), his beloved sister Rose Williams underwent a prefrontal lobotomy, and chances are that the distraught playwright, in drafting The Gentleman Caller, sought catharsis by fully concentrating on his most autobiographical play. Had Williams been given full license to write his own material from the beginning, however, he might well have produced work that would have pleased studio executives. Many writers hired by Hollywood, even famous and gifted ones such as Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, were discouraged or even forbidden from working on original material. At that time it was more common for properties thought promising, generally published works, to be purchased by the studio, often after competitive bidding. Producers then determined on a proper approach to this "presold" material, and their judgment about how to proceed would usually be based on short treatments prepared by contract writers. Once the project had reached this stage, it could be handed it over to still another writer (or writers) for development, who worked under the always-watchful eye of the producer. Screenwriting credit for the film was determined by negotiations that were sometimes complex and even acrimonious; the Screen Writers Guild, formed in 1933, carefully oversaw the process.
Unlike playwriting, working on scripts for the commercial cinema was a collaborative activity over which no one writer exercised complete or, often, even substantial control. It was an occupation that might prove attractive to energetic hacks who had developed some facility for reinventing the formulae spelled out in screenwriting manuals or who could be depended on to write a scene or two of snappy dialogue, but it could hold little appeal for a romantic individualist like Williams, who believed that writing was, at its best, the most sincere and honest form of self-expression, the communication of hard-won inner truths.
No Spiritual Zombie
The advent of talking pictures required more elaborate forms of drama and dialogue, and so many of America's most talented writers, Nathanael West, Clifford Odets, and Ernest Hemingway among them, were lured by promises of steady, easy money to the coast, even though they regarded the movies as a negligible, debased medium. Williams agreed with such distinguished colleagues that much of what the commercial film industry produced was insipid, pseudo art, ruined by an overcommitment to conventions and clichés. But he felt a genuine enthusiasm for the better Hollywood productions and for film as an artistic form. Working in the industry was an eye-opening disappointment. Williams found that the hired piecework of scriptwriting deprived writers of individuality, discretion, and responsibility. He complained to Audrey Wood in 1943 that a palpable malaise infected the studio writing corps: "I sensed it first in the writers I met out here. All spiritual Zombies it seemed to me." Williams quickly determined that what Hortense Powdermaker has aptly termed "the dream factory" hardly provided the intellectual environment conducive to his own writing projects. He explained to his friend Donald Windham that "the atmosphere makes you lazy. I only work in spasms, not continually like I do other places."
Having produced little that his employers could use, Williams was terminated after six months, when MGM exercised its nonrenewal option. Before he left Hollywood, Williams gave MGM a chance to purchase The Gentleman Caller. A diffuse, overly complex drama substantially different from the play that would soon be extracted from it, this property was promptly rejected, at least in part for being yet another story about southern women. This was a subgenre not only exemplified by Hollywood's most famous production, Gone with the Wind, but also by other more intimate and smaller-scale films, such as Frank Borzage's dark melodrama Moonrise (1948). Studio executives thought that this kind of narrative had already exhausted whatever limited popularity it might attain. They would regret this judgment. Once The Gentleman Caller became the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Glass Menagerie, there was a bidding contest for the screen-adaptation rights to this attractive property, which a now eager MGM lost to Warner Bros. The studio's initial position was that since Williams had been under contract while writing the story, the material was theirs, but this view was quickly shown to have no legal standing.
That The Glass Menagerie would be adapted for the screen pleased Williams immensely, and he was very concerned that the film be a popular success. Williams understood the power that film adaptations could give his plays, in effect providing them with productions that, frozen in time, never closed, and, by their very nature, reached a much broader audience. Williams was interested in helping transfer his work to the screen. In various ways, he often labored long and hard at these different adaptation projects, despite the fact that he did not always do all the screenwriting himself. Though he understood that changes, often quite substantive, would need to be made in order to adapt his material for a broader audience, Williams hoped a film would emerge in each case that would honor the original work.
Williams and Censorship
The playwright, of course, was well aware that in the late 1940s, Hollywood offered less freedom of expression than Broadway. There were signs that American audiences were becoming more accepting of "mature material," as we shall discuss in more detail below, but filmgoers were still quite conservative in their tastes, at least by early twenty-first-century standards. Even on the commercial stage, as we have seen, Williams's first play had been considered provocative and even risqué. His experiences in Boston with Battle of Angels would be repeated several times over in Hollywood during the 1950s, with Joseph Breen and his colleagues at the Production Code Administration often outraged by, and antipathetic to, his stories and themes. In the postwar era, the PCA began to show signs of weakness in the face of insistent social change, but the censors still narrowly circumscribed how approved films might treat sexual matters, even as they consistently condemned particular themes (such as rape, homosexuality, incest, and "promiscuity") central to Williams's exploration of the inner lives of the socially marginalized and the psychologically maladjusted.
To make matters even more difficult for Williams and others who wished to go beyond conventional Hollywood formulae, a second, informal body of censors stood ready to enforce moral standards sometimes even harsher than those of the PCA. The Legion of Decency, a Catholic lay organization that charged itself with protecting the morals of the nation's largest Christian denomination, wielded considerable power in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. The prospect of a "condemned" rating from the legion meant that Catholics, at least those that honored their pledge to abide by legion judgments, were prohibited from attending a film, and the disfavor of the organization might be enforced by theatre picketing and boycotts. The prospect of such economic difficulties and adverse publicity could reduce exhibitors and studio executives alike to fear and trembling. If more informally than the PCA, the legion had considerable ability, Williams was chagrined to discover, to effect changes in material and motifs that its reviewing staff found offensive and immoral.
It would be a mistake, however, to understand the code as embodying principles of story construction that were essentially at odds with mainstream industry practice; the studios, we must remember, created the PCA, whose function, at least in part, was to level the playing field for producers. The code's rules and regulations, in fact, accorded with central conventions of the Hollywood narrative that had been carefully enshrined in screenwriting manuals long before the PCA was established. An outdated aesthetic, confirmed by past success and enforced by an overly conservative and moralistic PCA, prevented Hollywood from making contact with the generation that had come of age in wartime America. Or at least this is what many young directors and producers of the period believed, Elia Kazan prominent among them. Robert Rossen spoke for this group when he said: "We have a new audience, an audience that has grown up out of the war and been in contact with greater realities." The audience may have been new (if only in part), but by the time Williams started work on the screenplay for The Glass Menagerie, in 1949, Hollywood had yet to modify its approach significantly. For more than half a century the industry had enjoyed much success with stories featuring sympathetic characters who, their troubles resolved, are brought to a happy ending that emphasizes success rather than failure. It was still the case that in the typical Hollywood films of the era, righteous men triumph or find themselves vindicated, discover romance with the beautiful girls of their dreams, and are rewarded with wealth and social position.
Poetic Champion of the Outcast and Disconsolate
Williams, by contrast, was fast becoming the poetic champion of the outcast and disconsolate, of those who fail to achieve financial security and a glamorous spouse, of loners confused or undone, not transfigured, by the vagaries of desire. For Williams, abandoning the Broadway tradition of the serious play (with its high-minded or politically engaged comment on the American scene) meant dramatizing the psychosexual inner lives of the emotionally traumatized and socially marginalized, those either dispossessed of happiness or indisposed to grasp it. His main characters have been bypassed by the great American dream of public acclaim and bourgeois prosperity, often because of some sexual crime, indiscretion, or disability that alienates them from more respectable others. The drama that entangles them is always personal, seldom overtly political (after the apprentice plays of the 1930s at least), a function of complexly intimate relations with family or with fellow travelers met by chance on the road to self-confrontation.
The power and intensity of Williams's early Broadway plays revealed the well-made theme dramas of the time to be, by comparison, mistakenly committed to the visually uninteresting portrayal of irrelevant public selves. Not surprisingly, Williams's plays required spectacular forms of stagecraft because missing-fourth-wall sets often did not suit either his more fluid conceptions of time and space or his artful coordination of special effects (lighting and music) with dramatic action. Williams's characters, so possessed of inner lives, could be fully realized only by the kind of archly naturalistic acting that was capable of representing conflicted, multilayered selves: the so-called "Method" that had recently come into vogue with the founding of the Actors Studio.
Williams's drama appealed to a sophisticated, well-educated audience of playgoers much affected by the growing fashion for psychotherapy and the widespread endorsement of Freudian theory as an explanation of the human condition. They applauded Williams for putting sex on the theatrical agenda and sympathized with the guilt-ridden vulnerability of his protagonists. Responding to a contradictory historical moment that featured an intensifying Cold War but the proclamation of the "end of ideology," these playgoers did not resent the nearly complete absence of social or political engagement (at least in any overt or direct sense) in Williams's plays, or the pessimistic bleakness of his vision, focused on the problems of the individual. Because Williams was committed to thematizing sex and psychological discontent in new, more central ways, his plays seemed startlingly realistic and appeared, despite their stylized dialogue (and often obtrusive intellectual schemata), to move beyond the restricting decorum of the previous theatrical age. The poetry of Williams's transforming vision seemed to connect with life as it was most deeply and authentically lived.
Compromising with Hollywood
In contrast, the Hollywood film industry by the late forties had established itself solidly in another, rather distant area of cultural production: providing, for general audiences, clean, wholesome entertainment. Given the predilections of the industry (reinforced by many years of profitability), Williams's more complex vision of the human condition simply could not be transferred wholesale to the screen, as the playwright soon realized.
In 1954, after considerable experience with the triumphs and discontents of Hollywood filmmaking, Williams observed to Audrey Wood: "Films are more lasting than play productions and I'm afraid that my plays will be remembered mostly by films made of them, and for that reason it is terribly important to me that I should get as much artist's control as possible in all film contracts." As an insider at one of the industry's largest studios, Williams learned early how the myriad decisions about production were made; he also discovered who within management hierarchy was authorized to make them. He was then better able to navigate the economic and political channels that determined the fate of each picture, acquiring (through careful contract negotiations) and then exercising (through astute intervention during production) "as much artist's control as possible."
Williams's extensive correspondence with agents and lawyers, producers and studio executives, as well with as various officials at the Production Code Administration, reveals his growing sophistication in (and consequent ambivalence about) dealing with the many factors that affected the production of each picture. No doubt, however, he was never able to share wholeheartedly the views of studio professionals about the kinds of dramatic structure and themes that the mass-public film audience would accept and enjoy. Main Street USA, where the nation's film theatres were located, was not Broadway, even though Williams, never much of a realist in such matters, always expected it to be.
Because a form of artistic re-creation over which he exercised little control was involved, Williams was profoundly ambivalent about the artistic value of the screen versions of his works and the popularity that they did, or did not, achieve. Because his reported or published comments are sometimes contradictory, it is difficult to determine exactly how the playwright felt about any film based on his work, if indeed he was ever of one mind. When asked whether an adaptation should be faithful, Williams took issue with the conventional wisdom: "No, I do not. I think they should create something entirely new in a cinematic form, you see. But they don't somehow get organized that way. They're afraid to. I don't know why they are. But they stick too close to the stage play and a stage play is not always effective on the screen, you know."
Williams was often incensed at how the Hollywood versions of his plays substantially altered their conclusions, in his view, for the worse. Sometimes these alterations were to satisfy the demands of the PCA for a poetically just finale, in which either the virtuous might emerge victorious or, when they did not, a proper emphasis could be put on what code officials termed "compensatory moral value." Sometimes alterations would need to be made to satisfy the interests of producers or directors in a conventionally happy ending, such as "boy gets girl." Williams once told an interviewer that people should by all means go see his movies, but that they should leave before the final five minutes. He had a point. The studios considerably altered the endings of virtually all his films, often compromising, even reversing, the thrust of the dramatic action and character development. In 1960, Williams vented his frustrations about working within a Hollywood system in which writers did not enjoy the power they did on Broadway: "It [the film] passes through so many other hands, minds, tastes, and must cater to so many restricting attitudes not favorable to an art form that, I hate to say this, but I think that autocracy, or to put it more gently, autonomy, is the first essential of purity in making a work of art. All of the dramatic arts are essentially collaborative, but in writing for the stage you're fairly sure that your writing will always be your writing. But in the film, you're much less certain of this."
During his Broadway career, Williams, of course, sometimes had to accommodate the views of others, especially director Elia Kazan, and revise his original play script accordingly. But he did not have to trust his works to the tender mercies and different sensibilities of other writers, and the plays remained "his" in ways that the film versions could never be. Williams is officially listed as the screenwriter for only six of his Hollywood films, and in four of these productions the writing was a shared (but not usually a collaborative) task: The Glass Menagerie (with Peter Berneis), The Rose Tattoo (with adaptation by Oscar Saul), Baby Doll, Suddenly, Last Summer (with Gore Vidal), The Fugitive Kind (with Meade Roberts), and Boom! It is not insignificant that the two films for which Williams received full screenwriting credit (Baby Doll and Boom!) were made with directors (Elia Kazan and Joseph Losey respectively) who took a very active role in the shaping of the final film script. All the productions based on his original properties certainly bear his collaborative fingerprints, as we will demonstrate in later chapters, but none of them allowed Williams that "autonomy," which is "the first essential of purity in making a work of art." Frustration with this forced collaboration led Williams in 1960 to complain to Arthur Gelb that he would never do another adaptation and that The Fugitive Kind would be his last movie. He was mostly true to his word. There were eight major films produced after The Fugitive Kind, but Williams participated as screenwriter on only one of these projects, Boom! (1968), quickly forming an interesting partnership with an intellectually inclined director he greatly respected, Joseph Losey.
Something New and Different
Williams was understandably reluctant to view the adaptation process from the viewpoint of those who paid him huge sums for the screen rights and pressed him to participate in production. But why did producers seek out properties with themes that were so different from the usual Hollywood fare and would prove so difficult to screen? This question suggests a more general one. What were the needs and requirements of the institution that undertook the adaptations of Williams's works? The thesis of this book is that Williams's works played an important role within the unsettled and problematic evolution of the American cinema in the years immediately following the end of World War II, when Hollywood started to lose much of its audience and tried, with increasing desperation, to entice paying customers back with the promise of something attractively different on the screen. This "attractively different" something included what producers like Charles K. Feldman and Jack Warner thought, and quickly discovered, Williams could supply. Such a development was surprising. It might seem that postwar Hollywood, riding high on its success with established formulae and genres, would have had little use for Williams's two early successes, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. And indeed not a few in the business initially thought them too arty and too dependent on "adult" themes. But that would quickly change as Hollywood, enjoying its greatest success ever as World War II drew to a close, unexpectedly slipped into deep crisis.
The Postwar Boom Busted
During the 1940s, Hollywood filmmakers took care not to offend the more traditionally minded within their audience. Some Hollywood productions of the era, particularly the series now known as film noir, with its exposure of the dark underside of bourgeois respectability, voiced dissatisfactions with the existing order and catered perhaps to a segment of the audience already distancing itself from mass tastes. For the most part, however, commercial films eagerly promoted an idealized and conservative vision of American values and society. The war films that began to dominate the nation's screens after 1942 drew pointed, often oversimplified contrasts between the benefits American democracy bestowed and the many evils perpetrated by European fascism and Japanese militarism. Such a strong endorsement of the national way of life was especially apparent for the duration of the war. Hollywood was allowed to continue to produce and exhibit films despite the fact that this was a business activity that used up "strategic materials" but did not contribute directly to weapons making.
The reason was that the industry was called upon to support the aims of the government, which it then did energetically by making many morale-boosting and enlistment-encouraging films in close cooperation with the Office of War Information. As hostilities drew to a conclusion and U.S. military might was confirmed in its world dominance, the industry rode a boom in ticket sales. And so nothing of their experience during the war suggested to studio executives that there might be any problems with their time-honored strategy of appealing to a general, undifferentiated audience. Hollywood remained committed (at least for the most part) to purveying the same kind of glamorous fantasy that had entranced, and then disappointed, the young Tom Williams two decades earlier.
In 1946, the first year of peacetime exhibition, box-office receipts hit an all-time high ($325 million) as returning servicemen fueled a dating boom and consumer goods were not yet available in sufficient quantity to compete for the entertainment dollar. Weekly attendance at film theatres, in fact, almost equaled the nation's population, at the time close to 140 million; this staggering figure indicates how important moviegoing had become for the many who must have attended religiously numerous times a week. Studio profits ran close to $120 million, nearly doubling the record figure of $60 million that had been earned just one year earlier. Gross revenues were an astounding $1.45 billion (also a record), and this box office success was largely fueled by a string of five films that each earned more than $5 million in domestic rentals, far exceeding expectations.
Each of these blockbusters was in some sense a genre exercise: The Bells of St. Mary's (1945, religious melodrama), Road to Utopia (1945, musical fantasy, part of an ongoing "franchise"), The Jolson Story (1946, musical biography), Duel in the Sun (1946, western), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, a war melodrama). These last two films did hint at new directions for the industry. Though it emphasized three romantic (re)couplings, Best Years offered an unaccustomedly realistic engagement with current social and political issues, showing that viewers were eager for more than a heartwarming depiction of intimate relations. The romance (if we may call it that) between Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun was far from conventional; the striking finale shows the star-crossed lovers gunning each other down with near-orgasmic fury, and consequently, it provoked PCA ire and conservative protest. The sensational success of the film, which was quite risqué even with the cuts demanded by Breen, certainly predicted a shift in audience tastes toward a less Victorian treatment of sexual attraction. Otherwise, the five blockbusters were thoroughly conventional in theme and structure. An impartial analysis of the exhibition scene in 1946 would surely have supported the view that Hollywood should expect continuing success with "business as usual," especially if its approach were updated just a bit.
Because it had played such an important role in the war effort, Hollywood had established its closest working relationship with the government (though this was compromised to some degree by the death of industry-friendly Franklin Roosevelt in the spring of 1945). More importantly, fueled by wartime success, Hollywood had moved beyond Depression-era worries about profitability and audience shrinkage. It was hardly surprising that studio executives were optimistic about the future. America had become a global power, and with the reopening of vital foreign markets, the industry had every reason to hope for helpful support of its international operations. Domestically, despite labor problems and shortages (particularly in urban housing), the national economy managed to maintain momentum as wartime production was shifted to satisfying consumer demand, inaugurating a decade and a half of unprecedented growth that expanded the middle class and provided most Americans with a lifestyle that was rich beyond the wildest dreams of their parents.
Ill-Equipped for the World of Tomorrow
The film industry, it surprisingly turned out, was not to share in the country's good fortune. As Thomas Schatz declares, "Hollywood proved to be singularly ill equipped for 'the world of tomorrow,'" suffering instead both "an economic tailspin and a sustained fall from social grace." The most newsworthy crisis was ideological: the investigation of purported communist influence in the industry by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which led not only to a bitter confrontation between right- and left-wing members of the film community, but also to the jailing of ten "unfriendly" witnesses and a blacklist that endured for years, ruining many careers. More destructive in the long run, however, was the fact that production costs, fueled by rising wages, rose steadily in the postwar era, while earnings, instead of matching the increase, fell substantially. By 1950, studio profits were down to about $31 million, only about 25 percent of what they had been in 1946, while those of exhibitors had slipped about 60 percent, to $111 million. The problem of profitability can be seen most easily in box-office gross earnings, which did decline, but only by a bit more than 20 percent, from $1.692 to $1.376 billion. A substantial difficulty was that the income from foreign markets did not meet expectations: American films were denied access to Iron Curtain countries; revenues were frozen or protectionist policies prevailed in many nations; and Britain, the most profitable overseas venue for the Hollywood product, suffered severe and long-lasting financial decline.
Profitability was hurt by problems closer to home as well. In an era that witnessed assertive union movements and recruitment, with organized labor achieving a position of unassailable power, commercial filmmaking suffered from the destructive competition between the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Conference of Studio Unions. The eventual victory of IATSE led to substantially higher wages for skilled film workers—but this was a mixed blessing for those whose pay packets grew fatter, because union employment in the industry fell precipitously, by more than 35 percent from 1946 to 1949, as financial crises forced the studios to cut production and eliminate many contract workers.
Such developments by themselves would have posed a serious enough threat to the industry. Even more disastrous, however, was the fact that Hollywood, through large-scale social changes it could not have anticipated and could hardly adjust to quickly, began to lose much of its traditional main market: the middle-class urbanites who lived close to downtown and neighborhood theatres. A severe inner-city housing shortage hit the country in the immediate postwar years, and the unexpected solution to this problem was quickly found in relatively cheap suburban developments. The building boom beyond city limits was largely fueled by the government loan programs mandated in the G.I. Bill of Rights. This new housing was far from movie theatres and frequently off public-transportation routes, making a trip back into town for the movies inconvenient and expensive.
A Runaway Audience
To make matters worse, a substitute for moviegoing that was home-centered and free of charge soon appeared in the form of television, whose broadcast service coverage and popularity expanded rapidly. By the end of the 1950s, most families in the country owned a set to which they tuned in many hours a week. With the establishment of a consumer economy devoted to the production of "durables" and the emergence of entertainment alternatives from boating to bowling, Hollywood's traditional customers increasingly chose to spend their discretionary income on washing machines, vacation travel, and do-it-yourself projects. Thousands of theatres around the country closed their doors forever, since it appeared that Americans after forty years had finally wearied of their fascination with the motion pictures. By 1963, when the decline flattened out, America had actually lost nearly half the houses that had been operating in the banner year of 1946.
There was a further, though less surprising, blow that the five major studios (Paramount, Warners, RKO, MGM, and Twentieth-Century Fox) had to endure. For three decades, an essential element of the majors' success had been vertical integration, in which production, distribution, and first-run theatrical exhibition were organized under one corporate umbrella. Such economic muscle allowed them to corner screen time and hence rental returns through coercive practices: blind bidding (the securing of exhibition contracts before a trade show of the film) and block booking (the offering of desired films for exhibition only when included in a group of less desirable ones). After decades of legal wrangling over the legality of such business arrangements, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1947, in a case involving Paramount, that blind bidding, block booking, and even vertical integration itself were all illegal.
The Move to the Package-Unit System
In what precipitated a radical reorganization of the business, the major studios were all subsequently forced to sign consent decrees that led to their divestiture of theatrical holdings. Without a secure market for their product, the studios could no longer function as "factories" turning out hundreds of films annually by assembly-line methods. A gradual switch was made to one-off production (the so-called package-unit system), involving, as film historian Janet Staiger puts it, "a short-term film-by-film arrangement" designed to serve a market no longer controlled by group rentals. As she relates, producers now were required "to differentiate the product on the basis of its innovations, its story, its stars, and its director." In particular, the competition from television encouraged the industry to outclass the fuzzy black-and-white images and tinny audio then available on the tube. Filmmakers also set out to provide the kinds of serious, gritty dramas that programmers of the new medium could not broadcast because they were answerable to sponsors, tightly controlled by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) protocols, and forced to operate on very limited production budgets.
The pressing need for innovation and differentiation led filmmakers to emphasize two dissimilar products. More traditional, in both story and their dependence on glamorous spectacle, were the blockbuster Technicolor films in one of the new wide-screen formats. These were filled with stars and featured elaborate, expensive production values (especially the proverbial "cast of thousands"), and they did not neglect the big-screen appeal of the scantily clad human body. The decade's run of biblical and historical epics, including The Ten Commandments (1956), Quo Vadis (1951), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), treated religious subjects and fully exploited the titillation possibilities of period costumes. The "other" of the blockbuster was the small-budget black-and-white film, whose appeal was hardly what is now termed "eye candy," but rather an affecting, dramatic, stylish engagement with serious, arty, perhaps even adult themes.
An amazing, trend-setting success in the immediate postwar era was achieved by film noir and the social-problem drama, closely connected and sometimes indistinguishable genres that featured not only the thematization of discontents with American society but also the complex intersection of opposed stylistic regimes: expressionism and documentary realism, a mixture to be found in the Broadway theatre of the period as well. Arthur Miller's All My Sons, for example, was readily assimilated to the noir series when adapted for the screen in 1948, and the flashback narrative of The Glass Menagerie had been a staple of the noir tradition since Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity in 1944. The advent of film noir and the social-problem film was certainly unexpected. As if in anticipation of the economic and legal troubles soon to descend upon the industry, "American movie screens suddenly darkened," as Thomas Schatz puts it, yet this was a good omen, for it meant the opening of commercial exhibition to products other than those offering simple wish fulfillment.
Such a maturation of audience tastes coincided with the coming of a new generation of directors to Hollywood, and the darkened screens that resulted could be explained, Schatz opines, as a kind of psychic release from "five years of enforced optimism and prosocial posturing." But who were Hollywood's actual customers? Some proponents of the well-established forms of Hollywood entertainment in the late 1940s, most prominently reviewer Manny Farber, complained that Hollywood had moved away from the "old flowing naturalistic film" to embrace "mannerist works" that betrayed the accepted function of the corner theatre, that "simple mansion of leisure-time art." Hollywood, so the conclusion ran, had chased away its traditional paying customers by catering to the arty set. Gilbert Seldes, in contrast, concluded that the film industry had continued to disappoint its more educated and discerning patrons through the marketing of lowest-common-denominator narratives; the current trend in further "juvenilization" was only making matters worse. Empirical research into audience composition of the period, summarized by Leo A. Handel's famous book, Hollywood Looks at Its Audience (1950), points toward the opposite conclusion. Among other trends, Handel found that in the postwar era, people higher up the socioeconomic scale tended to attend the cinema more than those lower down and that the regularity of movie attendance increased with the level of education. These findings suggest (though they are not exhaustive enough to prove) that postwar movie attendance declined more among the less well-off and those of limited education. If true, this goes a long way toward explaining the increasing popularity of various forms of the small film during the era, which intellectuals, including influential film critics such as Bosley Crowther, found particularly appealing.
The Small Adult Film
In any case, the small films of the postwar years were often showcases not only for topical themes, but also for excellent acting, literate scripts, and interesting forms of visual stylization. It is hardly an accident that Elia Kazan's second Hollywood feature, Boomerang! (1947), was a noirish re-creation of a sensational crime committed in suburban Connecticut; the murderer, though revealed to the spectator, is never brought to justice, thus denying the narrative the most conventional form of closure. Boomerang! melds visual styles, developing effective contrasts between its real location exteriors (shot in Stamford, where the crime had occurred) and claustrophobic studio interiors, carefully dressed and lit in the noir chiaroscuro style to suggest entrapment and enigma. For Bosley Crowther, the result was a "drama of rare clarity and punch" that "eschewed the stale patterns and photography of conventional cops-and-courtroom films."
Many of the acclaimed films of the period were similar small pictures, notably Academy Award winners On the Waterfront (1954) and Marty (1955). Also filmed in black-and-white and featuring literate scripts, topical subject matter, and unconventional endings were the winners for best picture in 1950 (All About Eve) and 1953 (From Here to Eternity). Otherwise, spectacular productions garnered industry accolades in the era: musicals (An American in Paris in 1951, Gigi in 1958), a star-packed travelogue (Around the World in 80 Days in 1956), an outsized showbiz melodrama (The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952), the big-budget remake of a sentimental Christian epic (Ben-Hur in 1959), and a thematically unconventional but epic-sized war adventure (The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957).
The two film types most characteristic of 1950s production were innovative in different ways: the blockbusters offered seldom-before-seen forms of visual spectacle, while the small films attracted audiences by their departure from Hollywood conventions. The small films tended to be more realistic, less connected to genre, less dependent on bankable stars, relatively uninvested in the confirmation of conventional pieties, and more open to theatricality in every sense. Unlike the new forms of spectacle quickly popularized by the blockbuster, such unconventionality required more effort from the spectator. The small adult films of the fifties were more difficult to understand than the standard studio product of previous decades. They elicited more complex, often contradictory and provocative forms of emotion. Not surprisingly, the small films also stretched the boundaries of theme, challenging the Victorian aesthetic and moral principles of the production code and frequently forcing industry censors into lengthy and difficult negotiations about what would be permitted and what would have to be excluded.
If, by the middle 50s, television had largely assumed Hollywood's former function as the provider of audiovisual entertainment for a mass public of all ages and tastes, then the film industry was surely wise to colonize a new area of production, one whose popularity with an important segment of the film-going public had been well established by the exhibition of European art films, especially those of the Italian neorealist tradition, such as Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1945) and then Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief, which was recognized by the Motion Picture Academy as best foreign picture in 1949. Though film exhibition in general suffered greatly from the end of the 1940s through the end of the 1960s, theatres that specialized in screening art films, mostly from Europe, became much more numerous and profitable at this time, yet another indication that there was indeed a loyal audience of educated adults who would pay to see a "film," even if they despised Hollywood "movies" as the mindless products of a hopelessly compromised culture industry.
Art Films and the "Sensational"
Because European films were not produced under the watchful eye of the PCA, they often transgressed the official standards the industry had established, especially with regard to the representation of sexual themes. Joseph Breen was inclined to view all European art films as smut, and he was at least half right. By the end of the 1950s, the term "art film" had become, if only in part, a euphemism for soft-core pornography. Normally, all films, including imports, needed PCA approval in order to secure exhibition contracts. The importers of The Bicycle Thief were refused a certificate because Breen objected to two scenes that they refused to excise: one in which a young boy pauses by the side of a wall, apparently to relieve himself; and another in which a thief is pursued into a bordello whose inhabitants, though fully clothed and otherwise decent, are obviously assembled to engage in the world's oldest profession. Though the film had been recognized internationally as an artistic triumph (and championed by the American liberal establishment), the PCA stuck by its decision. Even the Legion of Decency did not go along with the PCA, declining to issue the film a "C" (for condemned) rating. The lesson for film producers was obvious. There was a market for films that were "artistic" and violated or at least tested hitherto generally accepted limitations on the representation of sexual themes. The PCA had lost a good deal of clout in its defense of what now began to seem unnecessarily old-fashioned or prudish standards. Exhibitors could do well even with controversial films that lacked PCA approval, but only if these could be justified as either artistic or sensational.
Conditions within the industry, in other words, were right for the production of American films modeled on European prototypes, small productions that would be intellectually satisfying, artistic, and perhaps even titillating. This was a trend to which Williams's groundbreaking plays could make an important contribution if they were adapted in the proper fashion. Purchasing the film rights to The Glass Menagerie, independent producer Charles K. Feldman, in cooperation with producer Jerry Wald at Warner Bros., intended to do just that, preserving the distinctive, innovative quality of Williams's poetic yet drab domestic drama, but making it into a film that the general public, with tastes quite distinct from those of Broadway audiences, would enjoy and appreciate. If later Williams texts were to become part of Hollywood's successful strategy of making small adult pictures in the 1950s, providing shock and sensation in carefully calibrated doses, Menagerie was easily assimilated to an already existing and much more conservative series: the woman's picture, or melodrama.
“In this rich, compelling, well-researched volume, Palmer and Bray show exactly how Hollywood dealt with Tennessee Williams and, in turn, how he often subverted the very authorities that sought (in vain) to keep him in check.”