Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Baby Doll is not the kind of movie a major studio would green-light in 1956. Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams apparently decided to do a ribald tale without the benefit of studio interference or Production Code oversight, and turned out a Christmas attraction that made news ... of the wrong kind. A shocked Cardinal Spellman declared that Baby Doll was Condemned for Catholics ... seeing it was an official sin in the eyes of the church. Distributor Warners ended up pulling Kazan's film from theaters soon afterwards. It was considered the dirtiest picture "Hollywood" ever made, and it ignited a conservative counterattack against smut in the movies that confused producers, artists and audiences until the Ratings system took over in 1968.
Apart from the censorship issue Baby Doll is a delightfully wicked comedy that does indeed spring from an idea that sounds like a dirty joke. Tennessee Williams thought of combining four of his one-act plays (including This Property is Condemned) but ended up with just two. All we need to know is that, "There once was this lecherous cotton gin owner married to a young girl. But he'd promised her father he wouldn't sleep with her until her 20th birthday ..."
Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) is a desperate man. A newer outfit has displaced his cotton gin, and the resulting poverty in his household has his wife Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) threatening to leave him. Her twentieth birthday is only two days away; Archie has promised not to consummate their marriage until then. To keep her, he burns down the competing gin owned by Sicilian immigrant Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach). Silva turns up at Archie's plant the next day with trucks of cotton to be processed and a very Old-World idea of how to solve his problem: He'll take revenge on Archie through his "innocent" and vulnerable wife.
Despite their protests of innocence, the makers of Baby Doll knew very well that they'd made a Mississippi version of a story suited for Boccaccio's Decameron. The movie has no star power, although future luminaries Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach make their screen debuts -- along with Rip Torn, who gets one scene as a grinning dentist. The main draw is a salacious graphic of Baker in a baby doll pajama lying in a baby's crib. Kazan claimed his movie was about arrested development, not sex. But the image conjures an ad for Jail Bait Quarterly magazine; there are even a pair of Coke bottles in the foreground as visual aids for further fantasies. Cardinal Spellman must have choked when he saw the giant Times Square billboard ... Sodom and Gomorrah had won a foothold on Broadway.
Baby Doll is a special film for all concerned. As it has no wider social issue it's not one of Elia Kazan's later "America" trilogy A Face in the Crowd, Wild River and Splendor in the Grass, but he said he like it better than A Streetcar Named Desire. It's not one of Tennessee Williams' plays, so there are fewer poetic speeches. In a way, it's sort of a black comedy left turn from the world of William Faulkner. The Meighan house is a parody of Southern decay with garbage in the yard, rooms left empty by the furniture re-possessors and a dotty old woman (a Williams fixture, this time played by Mildred Dunnock) trying to cook in the crumbling kitchen. She likes to visit old people in the hospital, so she can eat all of their candy!
Karl Malden's Archie is a cowardly, over-aged cradle robber. What hair he has left is usually flung upward, like a clown's. He can't help but broadcast his impotent whining to his unemployed gin workers, who hang around the property laughing at him. He's practically boiling over with lust, like Wile E. Coyote waving a contract giving him the right to finally catch the Road Runner. Archie's dirty dream falls apart just as it should be coming together -- Baby Doll has no intention of sleeping with him. With Baby Doll humiliating him in public and talking about nullifying their marriage contract, Archie takes drastic measures to improve his financial standing.
Eli Wallach bursts onto the screen as the acting equal of anyone in the Kazan theatrical camp. His Silva Vaccaro is a slick, optimistic Sicilian who understands corruption and is accustomed to making his own justice. In a matter of minutes he has Archie completely on the defensive and in an hour he has a clear field to start working on Baby Doll, to extract an admission of Archie's guilt.
Carroll Baker's Baby Doll is the focus of the film and the characterization that had the Cardinal seeing red. The original poster child for white trash decay, she brings to mind the specter of twelve year-old brides, shotgun weddings and other inbred southern stereotypes. Baby Doll is a technical virgin just learning how powerful sex can be as a tool to manipulate an impatient husband. The image of her in a crib, first seen from a Peeping Tom point of view, is indeed shockingly adult. She's even sucking her thumb, a "baby" function that doesn't make us think of babies. Kazan and company break all the rules when Archie barges uninvited into her bath. Although the action is off-screen, it's not what we expect to see in a 1956 movie.
Tennessee Williams uses the issue of the burned cotton gin to put these three characters in conflict. The business dispute could very well be settled in a short fight but Williams has Silva toy with Baby Doll to bring out the truth. We think first about the impropriety of it all, and then ponder the meaning of seduction. Who is in control, and who is taking advantage of whom? Silva "seduces" Baby Doll in the back seat of a ruined car and on a run-down lawn swing. The sexual excitement of the scene is both funny and disturbing. Again, Baby Doll isn't a minor but the story frames the whole encounter like a statutory rape.
The action upstairs has Silva and Baby Doll playing a lusty game of tease and dazzle, hide and seek (Hide and Seek is said to have been a working title). Silva naps in the baby's crib and it's apparent that nothing happens between them. He obtains the signed statement that Archie's is an arsonist, so the seduction games were only a smart Sicilian ruse ... perhaps. In a later dinner scene right out of a standard "farmer's daughter" tale, Silva remarks that Baby Doll has changed, that she's no longer a child. The exchange makes us think perhaps something did happen earlier in the nursery. They share a serious kiss, just out of eyeshot of the apoplectic Archie. Baby Doll ends with its story up in the air, but its characters have each moved to a new level.
Kazan's total ease with the camera and the Mississippi location are nothing short of remarkable. The script sketches the reality of life in the town without dodging reality. Nobody is shocked at Archie's indiscriminate use of the "N" word, least of all the blacks that laugh openly at his idiocy. Silva is honored by a politician but despised by the local cotton gin owners his modern facility has displaced. Because he's an outsider the local sheriff has no intention of investigating the arson. The law intervenes at the end only in response to Archie's erratic behavior.
Warner's DVD of Baby Doll is actually a Castle Hill presentation not quite up to the quality of the other titles in the set. The non-enhanced 1:33 image is an acceptable but not terrific transfer of an element that shows signs of wear. Dirt and scratches mostly disappear after the first reel. The audio is quite good, with all dialogue clear and Kenyon Hopkins' score heard only sporadically. Kazan peppers the soundtrack with source music, all of it by black performers. A woman sings a few nicely placed bars of "We Shall Not Be Moved," and Baby Doll's phonograph record plays a pre-Elvis rock tune performed by a black musician.
The trailer certainly sells Baby Doll as a sex sensation, and a newsreel clip promoting a block-long New York billboard display shows just how big it is ... the camera can't get back far enough to see it all in one shot. Kazan claims that he thought of it just to annoy the Catholic Legion of Decency.
The main featurette See No Evil scores interviews with all three of the film's stars. Ninety-three year-old Karl Malden remembers how much fun the film was and shares his thoughts about its disastrous reception. Carroll Baker remembers the film with pride but regrets the way its notoriety overshadowed her acting career. She was billed as Carroll "Baby Doll" Baker for years to come. Both she and Eli Wallach claim they were surprised when it was branded as immoral. They also remember how cold it was on location -- note how many of the extras are bundled up tightly even in the daylight. They also assure us that Eli Wallach's unseen hands in the notorious swing scene were down hovering over a space heater, not doing anything to arouse Ms. Baker. Baby Doll caught the full force of the Catholic Legion of Decency ire and became a milestone film for anyone charting the history of censorship in Hollywood. The next sacrificial victim would come nine years later with Billy Wilder's major miscalculation Kiss Me, Stupid.
Some enterprising producer should rush out a sequel, Baby Doll: Fifty Years Later and get these fine actors together again. Maybe the whole thing could take place in a retirement community!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Baby Doll rates:
Video: Good -
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Featurette Baby Doll: See No Evil, Trailer gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 30, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson