In many ways, World War II stole America’s child-like and Puritanical innocence. For the first time in history, the “new media” of the time (photo-transmission, newsreels, radio) exposed the nation to the atrocities of war and the inhumanity of humankind, in almost-realtime. Rather than world events, often weeks or months old, distilled into sterile words on newsprint, Americans saw and heard for the first time a world they’d never thought possible. The war, without a single battle fought on the mainland, changed the nation indelibly.
Post-war Americans, in the wake of this lost innocence, developed an appetite for exploring topics that had been taboo, at least in polite company. Playwrights, screenwriters, directors and movie studios responded to this new taste by pushing the boundaries through art. Enter Tennessee Williams. Enter Elia Kazan. Enter Baby Doll.
Tennessee Williams had been pushing these boundaries for years on the stage as a playwright. One of his most famous works–A Streetcar Named Desire–was made into a motion picture by director Kazan in 1951. Williams’ best works are examinations of American morality and societal struggles which were, appropriately enough, his own struggles. Alcoholism, mental illness, oppressive families, sexuality deemed “deviant” by society’s watchmen–these are the hallmarks of Tennessee Williams’ works.
Elia Kazan directed some of Williams’ best plays on Broadway (Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and the two became lifelong friends. Elia Kazan’s own work explored many of the same themes that were so much a part of Williams’ life: sexual repression (Splendor in the Grass), familial discord (East of Eden), and bigotry (Gentleman’s Agreement). Kazan tapped Williams to adapt the screenplay for Baby Doll from his own play.
Baby Doll opens with a scene that sets the tone for the entire picture: Middle-aged financial failure Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) is creating a peephole in the wall of his teenaged bride Baby Doll’s (Carroll Baker) bedroom wall so that he may watch her. Baby Doll is sleeping on the only bed in the room–a crib with the slats removed–sucking her thumb. She hears the noise of the file, sees it poking through the wall…and all hell breaks loose.
It seems that Baby Doll and Archie Lee had an agreement. She agreed to marry him when she was nineteen and, if he managed to put a fine roof over her head and filled the fine house with furniture, she would allow him to consummate their marriage on her twentieth birthday. Until then, they would live under the same roof, eat at the same table, breathe the same air–but Archie Lee was to keep his hands to himself and off of Baby Doll.
The trouble is, the leased furniture has been repossessed. Archie Lee’s cotton gin is a failure and his credit has run out all over town. And tomorrow is Baby Doll’s twentieth birthday.
The cause of Archie Lee’s troubles, as he sees it, is Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach, in his feature film debut). Vaccaro is a Sicilian who owns the Syndicate Gin, and he’s taken all the business in the delta. Archie Lee desperately needs to gin cotton to make money, so he can take back the furniture and have Baby Doll at last. So while Vaccaro throws a party to celebrate the first anniversary of Syndicate Gin, Archie Lee Meighan burns Vaccaro’s gin to the ground.
Vaccaro knows what Archie Lee has done; Meighan was the only gin owner not at the party. And he intends to exact his special brand of Sicilian revenge on Archie Lee, by taking away the only thing that Archie Lee really values at all. “Tit for tat, tat for tit,” the “Good Neighbor” policy, as Archie Lee himself liked to say. Except Archie Lee Meighan can’t imagine how far Vaccaro will go to exact that revenge.
Baby Doll crackles with Tennessee Williams’ trademark charged dialogue, Kazan’s subtly erotic imagery, and it is suggestive, even by today’s standards. When it was released in December 1956, the Catholic Legion of Decency called the film immoral. On Christmas Day, instead of the usual Christ’s birth-centered homily, the Cardinal of New York City decried Baby Doll, and said that any Catholic who saw it would be committing a mortal sin. The Legion of Decency put pressure on theater owners across the U.S., and succeeded in having most of them drop their exhibitions.
Carroll Baker is flawless as the child-adult-frigid-vixen Baby Doll, a feat in itself. Malden and Wallach lend both dramatic and sexual tension, as well as comic relief, and both are exciting to watch. But Tennessee Williams’ script and Elia Kazan’s vision, this morality play set in the 1950s Deep South, receive equal billing with the actors here. Baby Doll is a wild ride–funny, titillating, heartbreaking–everything a good motion picture should be.
As Baby Doll Meighan said, “Small dogs have a loud bark.” Baby Doll sure does. (A-)