Wah-wah… With those two notes, Alex North’s groundbreaking score for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE(1951) ushered jazz elements into the world of dramatic film music. Jazz was no longer content to serve as mere source cues, and audiences didn’t know what to make of this new sound coming from the screen.
Tennessee Williams’s psychological drama of animal lust and raw sexuality inspired North to write emotional, “lowdown basin street blues…sad, glad, mad New Orleans jazz.” What he liked to term “mental statements.”
No scene from the film is more famous than Brando in his torn T-shirt bellowing “Stella!” at the top of his lungs. Kim Hunter’s performance was cut by the censors on the grounds that her physical reaction to Brando’s yell represented “a moment of orgasm,” and North had to replace his music because it was considered too “suggestive.” The original jazz clarinet solo remained, but a “mournful” French horn and strings replaced the “sensuous music” that North originally composed. Such were the production codes of the time.
Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, the film took home a whopping three statues for Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, and another for the stellar art direction. Ironically, Marlon Brando, whose signature legendary performance influenced generations of actors, went home empty-handed. (Though it’s hard to be upset at Humphrey Bogart finally taking home an Oscar for THE AFRICAN QUEEN.)
In one of the most inexplicable wins in Oscar history, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS beat STREETCAR for Best Picture. North was also nominated (in addition to his score for DEATH OF A SALESMAN), though he lost to Franz Waxman’s more traditional, though excellent, romantic score for A PLACE IN THE SUN.
If you’ve never seen STREETCAR, you’re in for a treat. A quartet of great performances, North’s legendary score, and dialogue from a master playwright that drips from the tattered walls like the beads of sweat on Brando’s back.