If playwright Tennessee Williams's Southern gothic writing style makes his works feel more ornately melodramatic than those of O'Neill or his closest contemporary Arthur Miller, they do provide resonant showcases for the actors inhabiting his characters. This is clearly evidenced in this six-film, eight-disc collection that epitomizes some of the most powerful acting to come out of Hollywood in the 1950's and early 1960's, all directed by true filmmaking masters. Probably because they are the least censored by the studio system at least in the form presented now, the best of the set are Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and John Huston's "The Night of the Iguana". The others are Kazan's "Baby Doll", Richard Brooks' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", Jose Quintero's "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" and Brooks' "Sweet Bird of Youth".
A feral, smoldering Marlon Brando justifiably made his reputation as brutish Stanley Kowalski in 1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire", and his animalistic charisma still leaps off the screen. Intriguingly, one of the extras included in the two-disc set for the movie is footage from a 1947 screen test of Brando when he was 23, and his stardom seems assured even then. The plot of the movie amounts to the inevitable clash between Kowalski and his visiting sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle on the verge of a mental breakdown. Having proven her ability to be a convincing Southerner in "Gone With the Wind", Vivien Leigh expertly handles all the florid dialogue with her particular blend of defiance and vulnerability.
Strong supporting work comes from Kim Hunter as Blanche's naive sister Stella and Karl Malden as Blanche's seemingly respectful suitor Mitch. Now over ninety, Malden is on hand to provide his own eloquent recollections of the production on an alternate track, and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young provide more objective commentary on another track. Film critic Richard Schickel's 1995 feature-length look at Kazan is the centerpiece of the second disk, and there is also a more interesting five-part documentary on the film and original Broadway show, the best portion focusing on censorship and the several minutes that have been reinserted in the DVD version of the film.
1964's "The Night of the Iguana" deals with a similarly dysfunctional group of people, but this time the setting is a dilapidated Mexican beach resort where Reverend Shannon, newly defrocked, has taken a group of spinsters from a women's college. Huston made his reputation on his strong literary adaptations, and his affinity shows in the fulsome characterizations, striking visuals and dark humor. Richard Burton is in peak form as Shannon, and there is also sterling work from Deborah Kerr as the spinsterish Hannah and especially Ava Gardner as the slatternly resort owner, Maxine Faulk. The DVD contains a recent making-of featurette and a vintage video, both fascinating.
"Baby Doll" is an entertaining hoot that doesn't seem as sensationalistic as I'm sure it was when the film was first released in 1956. It's simply a Southern-fried farce about the potential deflowering of a nineteen-year old child bride with a nice, pouty turn by Carroll Baker in the title role and a surprisingly funny one by Karl Malden as her randy husband, cotton mill owner Archie. 1958's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is far more vaunted but ultimately hamstrung by the overly careful portrayal of Brick as an asexual protagonist, this in spite of stellar performances from Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives.
Newman is even better as gigolo Chance Wayne in 1963's "Sweet Bird of Youth", and he is matched all the way by Geraldine Page's all-cylinders-on performance as faded movie queen Alexandra Del Lago (a role that would have ironically been ideal for Ava Gardner). The weakest film of the set is 1961's "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" about an aging American actress living in Rome who falls recklessly in love with an indifferent gigolo. A decade after "Streetcar", the glamorous-looking Leigh excels in the title role, while a young Warren Beatty fits the physical requirements as the gigolo Paolo even though his faux-Italian accent is a little too emphatic. All four of these movies come with making-of featurettes and original trailers, and "Cat" also includes commentary from Williams' biographer Donald Spoto.
The focal point of the eighth disc is a 1973 documentary, "Tennessee Williams' South", which highlights insightful interviews with Williams in the New Orleans area. The film also includes classic scenes from his plays reenacted specifically for the documentary. You can have the privilege of seeing Broadway's original Blanche DuBois, Jessica Tandy, and compare her work to Leigh's, as well as an impressive turn by Maureen Stapleton as Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie". This is an incredible film collection for anyone who wants to see some of the greatest performances of mid-20th century American cinema.