One scene in particular, coming relatively early in the film, well demonstrates how poker was thought of not only as a game for men, but also a ready context in which men could fulfill cultural expectations about masculinity.
The scene -- referred to as “The Poker Night” in Williams’s play -- comes about a half-hour in, by which point we’ve already gotten to know the story’s three primary figures, Stanley Kowalski (played by Marlon Brando in the film), his wife Stella (Kim Hunter), and her sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh). By then we’ve also come to recognize some of the effects caused by Blanche coming to New Orleans to stay with the young couple.
In a way, Blanche moving into their small apartment near the French Quarter instantly draws attention to several differences that exist between her vulnerable, newly pregnant sister and the callous, muscle-bound Stanley, a WWII vet turned factory worker. Stella, like Blanche, hails from rural Mississippi, much different from the gritty urban setting in which Stanley seems comfortable. There is also a class conflict of sorts going on, with Stanley’s modest upbringing clashing with the (now lost) aristocratic heritage of the DuBois family.
The most prominent conflict in the film, however, is the one ongoing between men and women, something Blanche’s upsetting the balance of in the Kowalski household certainly brings to light. And poker night -- happening shortly after Blanche’s arrival -- particularly underscores the contrast between the sexes the film intends to convey.
Stella understands the need for the men to be alone, and thus plans to take Blanche out for the evening. Before they leave, however, Blanche attempts a bit of flirting with Stanley, and when he resists Blanche responds with a back-handed compliment.
“I can’t imagine any witch of a woman casting a spell over you,” she says. “That’s right,” says Stanley, repeating his same terse reply from before. Undeterred, Blanche continues. “You’re simple, straightforward, and honest. A little bit on the... uh... primitive side, I should say. The way to proceed a woman would have to...”
“She would have to lay her cards on the table,” Stanley says, abruptly halting her with a poker metaphor. Some shouting ensues, and their conversation-slash-argument ends without much resolution.
Cut to later that night. In the play, Williams’s stage directions unmistakably reveal his intention for the poker game to highlight the players’ masculinity. Explaining how each of the actors are to wear colored shirts, Williams notes “they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors” they are sporting.
It is upon the ladies’ return that we first glimpse the game, now many hours old. The men are drinking and smoking cigars, the room darkly lit and claustrophobic-seeming. From upstairs comes banging and yelling from the wife of one of the players, impatient with the noise the men are making and wishing for the game to end.
Stella and Blanche hover over the game momentarily while a hand being is dealt. Blanche even goes so far as to lean forward and peek at one of the player’s cards. “Poker’s so fascinating!” she says. “Could I kibbitz?” “You could not!” angrily yells Stanley -- who, not incidentally, has been losing -- and he soon suggests the women should leave.
“How much longer is this game going to continue?” asks Stella. “Until we get ready to quit!” responds Stanley, giving his wife an aggressive slap on the backside when she is slow to exit.
The game continues while the women move to the neighboring room, the card playing having literally segregated the sexes. The sisters start to make noise, laughing and playing the radio, prompting Stanley -- not unlike the wife upstairs -- to yell across for them to keep quiet.
Eventually one of the players, Mitch (Karl Malden), leaves the game momentarily to talk with Blanche, with whom he’s instantly enchanted. Meanwhile, the poker continues, with Stanley announcing Spit-in-the-Ocean once it is his turn to call the game.
Incensed, Stanley gets up and races into the next room. There he grabs the radio and shockingly throws it through a closed window, the glass shattering in a loud explosion.
Stella responds in kind, rushing into the room where the men are sitting and pushing one of the players, the light above the table breaking in the process. An enraged Stanley then begins to beat his pregnant wife, the attack only ending when one of the men knocks him unconscious.
“We should not be playing in a house with women!” Mitch yells out amid the fracas, a line he repeats when Stanley, after finally coming to, throws everyone out. The scene ends with a disoriented Stanley alone yelling for Stella who has taken refuge upstairs -- the iconic “Stella!” scene everyone remembers from the film. Stella forgives him -- this time -- and comes back down.
There are a few possible reasons for Stanley’s outburst, including his well-founded suspicions that Blanche’s story about “losing” the DuBois family estate and being on a leave of absence from her job as a school teacher is untruthful. Such is an issue that will become more significant later in the film when her seduction of Mitch has further progressed.
But really here Stanley seems most upset at how the poker game -- an arena for men to be men, perhaps not unlike the war from which he’s recently returned -- has been disturbed. It is almost as though that “manhood” Williams describes the players possessing has been somehow threatened or at least compromised by the women’s intrusion.
Later Blanche talks to her sister about Stanley, calling him an “animal” and “subhuman.” Poker, too, becomes part of her argument when she refers to “poker night” as “his party of apes.” Blanche, arguing for the arts and other refinements, tries to convince Stella that she shouldn’t stay with Stanley and thus “hang back with the brutes,” but her argument isn’t working.
It is interesting to look back at the way poker was not-so-flatteringly represented in this signature story of mid-century America -- as a game not only reserved primarily for men (and thus a source for division between men and women), but also perhaps an arena in which players might readily indulge their most “primitive” tendencies.