Since he is already going to Hell, Judge Bill Gibron braved this supposedly controversial movie from the pen of Tennessee Williams. But instead of finding naughtiness, what he discovered was a lost gem of sultry, if sometimes silly, Southern Gothic.
She's nineteen. She makes her husband keep away. She won't let the stranger go.
Poor Archie Lee (Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire). His cotton gin business is floundering, thanks to the arrival of Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) and his Syndicate Plantation. The well-organized agricultural endeavor has bankrupted most of the small Mississippi town, and it's made Archie a poor, powerless man. Even worse, it has his child bride Baby Doll (Carroll Baker, Harlow) good and sore at him, what with the constant squabbling between the two and the repo man yelling for the furniture. Only 19, Baby Doll married Archie as a way of guaranteeing her future financial security. It was a promise made to her father on his death bed. But the couple has yet to consummate their marriage, and this has Archie in a state of constant frustration. The entire town knows that he's a married adult male who is not having sex with his own wife and they mock and ridicule him. When Vaccaro's cotton gin burns down, the rumors begin to fly that Archie had something to do with it. With no one in the town willing to help him, Vaccaro plans his own manner of vigilante justice. He will undermine Archie on two fronts. First, he will test, and then take over his business. Then, he will seduce his spouse, the virginal vixen that everyone considers a ready to be bedded Baby Doll.
Boy, but does Baby Doll fail to live up to its notorious legacy. Anyone who's a fan of the Godfather of Gross Out, John Waters, knows that this was the movie that got the young filmmaker all flustered about being a director. The Catholic Church had warned, upon the movie's original release, that anyone seeing this cinematic "abomination" would go straight to Hell, a mortal sin cast upon their soul for all eternity. The reigning American authority on all things religious and moral, Cardinal Spellman, even urged a massive boycott, and with that the film fell out of favor and quickly was pulled from release. Soon, it was a whispered about title trapped in the vaults of Warner Brothers history, a seldom-seen scandal that represented a kind of symbolic snub of first time screen scribe Tennessee Williams. Famed director Elia Kazan jumped at the chance to work with this literary giant, hoping there would be magic in their collaboration (it had happened before with A Streetcar Named Desire). Williams came up with his typical Southern Gothic potboiler about sex and revenge, complete with surreal symbolism and lots of conversational mumbo jumbo. While it would go on to inspire a generation of exploitation films with provocative titles like Moonshine Mountain and Jennie: Wife/Child, Baby Doll was really just a retread of the themes Williams had wowed audiences with throughout his celebrated stage career.
Indeed, when stripped of its sensationalism, Baby Doll is just an over the top hoot, a fragmented fable about love and loss set within a problematic portrait of the regressive race relations of Mississippi. This is a movie that does not shy away from the slurs and sentiments that regularly lead to lynchings. Many of the local residents of the small town where the film was shot had parts in this project, and their intolerant tone infects almost every frame of the film. Thankfully, we have a trio of performers at the center of the story that almost make us forget about the bevy of anti-black epithets. As a Sicilian with a heart of hubris, Eli Wallach does a good job of delivering the proper balance of menace and goofy machismo. His Silva Vaccaro relishes the revenge he gets on his country bumpkin rival Archie Lee, but he's also just closed off enough that we're not quite sure of his final motives. As the henpecked rube still waiting to consummate his marriage, Karl Malden delivers yet another stellar performance in a career full of them. While his accent suggests a lineage slightly above the Mason Dixon line, the actor's awkward Archie Lee is a sweaty, unkempt clod, a contemptible comic creation of easily ridiculed repugnance. Whether it's promising his child bride a lifestyle he cannot deliver, or admonishing an elderly aunt for making "a mess of grass" for dinner, he's all Method and just magnificent.
But for many, the real center of this sinful story is Carroll Baker. Playing the 19-year-old Baby Doll (she was 25 at the time), the actress sells us on the idea of an immature bratling braving the constant advances of her middle-aged husband. Since hers was a marriage of pure convenience (Daddy was dying, and wanted his daughter provided for after his passing), Baby Doll feels somewhat empowered to call the shots. But an "agreement" she made over a year ago is now coming back to haunt her, and she seeks escape from this ironclad connubial "contract." Silva is such a savior, and there is an amazing scene of seduction in Baby Doll that literally steams up the screen. Going on for almost 20 minutes, Wallach and Baker play a strange game of give and take, pushing the limits of lewdness with wandering hands and breathy suggestion. By the end of this sizzling set piece, we truly feel the heat between the characters. It is one of those rare instances where an onscreen pairing delivers the sexual chemistry that so many movies of its kind truly lack. Thankfully, Baby Doll is not just one big tease. There are moments of hilarity, and some forced funny business with Mildred Dunnock as the senile savant Aunt Rose Comfort. Kazan's direction is equally odd, with occasional shots of lazy dogs and sedentary laborers acting as ambient inserts in between the tour de force moments.
In the end, Baby Doll is not some depraved depiction of older man/younger woman wantonness, nor does it have the kind of intense insinuation of other Williams works like Suddenly, Last Summer or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Instead, it's comic and clever, ripe with raw passion and hemmed in by the studio standards of 1956. One could easily imagine this movie being remade in the far more promiscuous '60s, where softcore elements could have been added to up the titillation factor. But Williams wasn't really after something sexy. He wanted to discuss the way in which physicality leads people to permanent dead ends. For Archie, the lure of Baby Doll has driven him to untold levels of shame. For Baby Doll, it's kept her cloistered and closed off. In Vaccaro's case, the hot-blooded Italian uses his romantic demeanor as a way of wooing both competitors and concubines. Remove the underage angle and the sweeping Southern vistas with their undercurrent of intolerance, and you'd have a standard sophisticated drama. Baby Doll does go a little overboard at times, and the results can be a bit drippy, but this is still a favorable facet of the Williams/Kazan collaboration. Too bad it was pulled before it got its proper due.
Warner Brothers release of Baby Doll is delicious, a veritable masterpiece of monochrome. The 1.33:1 full screen transfer is a black and white wonder of deep shadows and blindly bright lights. The detail is remarkable. We can see the stubble running along Malden's chin, as well as the sweat stains on Baby Doll's dress. The Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is more than sufficient. We hear every line of dialogue in crystal clarity, and the musical score by Kenyon Hopkins is a bit of bodice ripping perfection. As for bonus features, we are treated to a collection of trailers and a 12-minute featurette in celebration of the film. Baby Doll's tawdry triangle are still very much alive (Malden is 95, Wallach is 91, and Baker is 74) and all are here to participate in the praise. They all have fond memories of making the movie, and were equally shocked at the denouncement of their efforts. From answers to the question of whether or not Baby Doll and Vacarro "did it," to what it was like filming in the racially tense South, this minor glimpse backstage is a nice revisit for a long forgotten film.
Here's hoping that this new DVD release of Baby Doll revives its sadly sullied cinematic reputation. The movie never deserved the disrespect it got in the first place. Call its criticism a sign of the times or the natural reaction of a Puritanical society, but the truth of the tale told here is that it's witty, wicked, and just a bit weird. Whatever corruptible influence this film once possessed has been dampened by the decades. What's left is an excellent example of acting prowess, and the sort of sultry saga only Tennessee Williams could pen. This is one Baby that's matured quite nicely.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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