DVD Review: Baby Doll
By Frankie Dees May 12, 2006, 16:22 GMT
Archie Lee Meighan, middle-aged cotton gin owner, can hardly wait for the 20th birthday of his childish bride Baby Doll, when he\'ll be allowed to consummate the marriage...he thinks. But rival owner Silva Vaccaro suspects Archie of burning his gin down, and takes an erotic form of Sicilian vengeance. ...more
An extraordinary, provocative film that’s half melodrama and half black comedy. Coming from Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan, Williams reworked two of his one-act plays – 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and The Unsatisfactory Supper – into what Time magazine declared “possibly the dirtiest American picture ever legally exhibited.”
Highly controversial in 1956, the film was condemned by The Legion of Decency (an organization of the Roman Catholic Church) for its “carnal suggestiveness” which provoked a boycott and led to the cancellation of 77% of theaters scheduled to show it. The film only grossed $600,000, a slim amount even in 1956. Of course, the film plays fairly tame now, but there is enough sultriness and suggestiveness to make one, even now, get a little uncomfortable.
Carroll Baker stars as ‘Baby Doll’’, the nineteen-year old wife of the middle-aged cotton-gin farmer Archie Lee (Karl Malden). Baby Doll was practically given over to Archie Lee when she was 18 by her dying father, so he knew she would be taken care of. Forced into marriage, Baby Doll was not ready to consummate the marriage and an agreement was made - on her twentieth birthday, Archie Lee will finally be able to take what is legally his. The story begins a few days before her twentieth birthday.
We first see the infantile Baby Doll sleeping in her crib (she never made the leap to a real bed) and sucking on her thumb as Archie peers at her through a small hole in the wall he created in the next room. The next few scenes set up the rapport between husband and wife. Archie’s insipid yokel goes to great lengths to fawn at her and touch her as she constantly threatens to move to the local hotel. Baby Doll is a lazy, Lolita-ish simpleton who hasn’t quite accepted her fate. A third character who also seems to lack any intelligence but is completely innocuous is Mildred Dunnock’s pitiful octogenarian Aunt Rose Comfort, who plays Archie’s maid and cook of “Tiger Tail,” the biggest albeit most rundown mansion in town.
Financial troubles abound for Archie Lee, and as all the furniture gets moved out of the mansion, Baby Doll vows not to make good on her agreement until the furniture is back. His run-down cotton gin provides little income and his rival, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach in his film debut) seems to be raking it in. That night, Silva Vacarro’s cotton gin burns down but the local law turns a blind eye to it since Silva Vacarro is an unwanted foreigner, a Sicilian, who dares to live in Mississippi. Suspicious, he heads to Archie Lee’s under the conceit of throwing some business his way. Archie Lee, being not all that bright, suggests Baby Doll keep Mr. Vacarro company while he takes care of the cotton gin.
Mr. Vacarro picks up on Baby Dolls behavior right away – his lecherous, beady little eyes constantly staring through her - and he begins to seduce her as he tries to dig for information involving her husband’s whereabouts the night before. A magnificence sequence plays out as Silva pushes Baby Doll in a swing and then cozies in next to her in sly, swift movements calculating every progression carefully as to not push too hard. Seeing the animosity between her and Archie, he begins to dig for more and more info and finds out that Baby Doll is a virgin and has made Archie wait two years for consummation, a wait that will end the next day.
You can almost see the twisting of the handle-bar mustache routine as Mr. Vacarro figures that he can exact his revenge in more ways than one. Sending Archie Lee off on a fool’s errand and as Aunt Rose Comfort scoots off to a trip of the unstable, Mr. Vacarro and Baby Doll are left all alone in Tiger Tail with Baby Doll’s crib the only furniture left in the house which makes me pause as I wonder if this is the sole film to have a seduction fully realized in a crib. One can hope so.
An outstanding, Southern-gothic sleaze fest with the three lead actors, arguably, never better. Carroll Baker (who deservedly was nominated for a best actress Oscar for this role) was young, gorgeous and sultry and she plays this role to the hilt as a simpering, juvenile twit marked with all the greed, yearnings and conceits of Archie. Karl Malden plays a pathetic simp in which his lust and jealously drives him insane. It is a fantastic performance and ultimately the most sympathetic character of the three leads - especially as a certain gut-wrenching realization sets in. Eli Wallach (who up to this point in career was seen only on television) makes a masterful screen debut, sly and threatening even as he’s towered over by Karl Malden.
Mildred Dunnock plays Aunt Rose Comfort as to what amounts to comic relief, but her character is so mentally beaten upon in the climatic final scenes, that the comedy involved with her character slowly dissipates into pity. Elia Kazan, with an expert eye for extras, cast a lot of the town of Benoit, Mississippi, where the film was shot on location. These locals provide some great faces to surround our main cast with and the aging, African-Americans who hang around Tiger Tail, at one time for work, now presumably out of amusement of the antics of Baby Doll and Archie, are fascinating people on-screen in and among themselves.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:33:1 and while the print shows it age, I can’t imagine this film ever looking better, an amazing showcase for monochrome. Unfortunately, this release only gets one notable extra. The new featurette “Baby Doll: See No Evil” - which is a better-than-usual 12-minute offering due to the fact that the three leads are all still alive and able to offer their thoughts on the sullied, forgotten masterpiece. Definitely a must watch for fans. A Baby Doll trailer gallery is also provided.
Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan worked together 5 years earlier on The Streetcar Named Desire (one of the greatest films of all time) and expectations were high. While the film had controversy-derived financial failure, the film was well-received by critics at the time and I find ‘Baby Doll’ to be my 2nd favorite Tennessee Williams adaptation. Certainly Kazan has no peer when it comes to directing Williams’ material and his treatment and decisions on this picture are amazingly confident and dead-on - to the stark, fetching black and white photography to the interesting, enhancing musical choices. This is a prime example of a Williams’ adaptation done right. The film features peerless acting, an expert script by Williams’ himself, a great jazzy score by Kenyon Hopkins and Elia Kazan at the helm concocting a comic, campy, sexual near-masterpiece.
Baby Doll is now available at Amazon. As of yet, there is not a release date for the UK. Visit the DVD’s database for more information. The DVD is also available as part of the Tennessee Williams Film Collection available at Amazon.