A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire is the title of a 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams, adapted in 1951 for the big screen by director Elia Kazan. It is undoubtedly one of the most famous film depictions of the City of New Orleans, despite the fact that the much of the production took place in Burbank, California film studios. Williams lived in the French Quarter throughout much of his adult life, he lived in this apartment at 632 1/2 St. Peter Street while writing A Streetcar Named Desire.

The creation of Streetcar and its ongoing impact on the image of New Orleans is particularly interesting in our modern era of “runaway production,” in which many states offer tax incentives to lure production to locations outside of Hollywood. In the early 1950s however, film crews were much less mobile and the industry was highly concentrated in Southern California.  [1]

Regardless of the filming location, even today, the sultry depiction of New Orleans’ French Quarter provides a draw to tourists interested in seeing where Stanley (played by Marlon Brando) famously bellowed “Hey Stella!” to his wife from the base of the curving wrought iron stairs of their rundown apartment.

Streetcar begins with Blanche (Vivien Leigh) arriving at her sister Stella’s (Kim Hunter) run-down apartment in the French Quarter. Blanche lives in a “dream world of long-gone gentility,” and is dismayed by her sister’s way of life, including her marriage to brutish Stanley (Marlon Brando). Throughout the script, Stanley taunts Blanche, eventually revealing a secret that sends her into a complete breakdown. Ultimately Stanley is rebuffed by his wife and friends, left alone to witness the result of his cruelty.  [2]

The famous opening scene of the film shows Blanche arriving at Stella’s French Quarter apartment aboard a trolley car displaying the name “Desire,” on the front. This is referential to the Desire Streetcar line, which ceased operation before the film was released. One of the “Desire” cars was recalled from retirement by then Mayor Morrison and New Orleans Public Service for the shooting of the opening scene at the L&N station at the foot of Canal street.  [2]

Richard Day, who won an Academy Award for the sets he created for the film, “had to create a scene that was both real and believable, yet symbolic of decay and gradual disintegration.” Further, “they had to be the kind of scenes you might see in certain parts of New Orleans.” Day traveled to New Orleans for several weeks before production began to find inspiration in “picturesque aspects of various street and buildings of the Vieux Carre,” resulting in a “striking set for the “Elysian Fields apartments” in which the majority of the film’s action is set.  [1]

Whether the scenes of A Streetcar Named Desire were filmed on location in New Orleans or recreated on a Hollywood Sound Stage, the image of the city was spread throughout the states. A press booklet promoting the theatrical re-release of the film after the 24th Academy Awards (where the film received five awards) suggests, “A Streetcar Named Desire reveals a side to the lovely Southern city that has startled American play and motion picture fans.”  [3]

In 1965, fourteen years after the release of the film, state tourism director John Carroll attempted to revive the imagery of the Desire Streetcar to spur tourism interest. Originally from New Orleans but trained in Hollywood, Carroll emphasized that the state needed to “think big if it wanted to get into the big league in tourism.” One of his suggestions included putting the “streetcar named Desire” on a trailer and send it “rolling around the country loaded with promotional materials for potential visitors.” Additionally, an undated, but probably 60s-era tourism brochure featured a map of the Desire streetcar line’s former route.  [3]

Today, visitors to New Orleans have a few options for “Streetcar” tourism since much of the movie was filmed on set in California. Each year in late March the city plays host to the Tennesse Williams Festival, featuring lectures, performances, and a "Stella" screaming contest to honor the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Visitors can also visit Stella! or Stanley, two restaurants in the French Quarter named after the characters from the story.

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632 1/2 St. Peter Street