You know those celebrities who are famous simply for being famous, not for having actually done anything? That's the way I think of the 1956 release "Baby Doll," a film more well known for its risqué notoriety than for its character depth or its rather slim story line.
Still, "Baby Doll" continues to fascinate audiences, and why shouldn't it? Tennessee Williams ("The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire"), one of America's preeminent dramatists, wrote the story; and Elia Kazan ("A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden"), one of Hollywood's preeminent filmmakers, directed it. Williams and Kazan had collaborated earlier on "Streetcar," so it was cinch the pair were not going to make a bad film. Instead, they took a slender idea, added humor and strong emotional appeal, and created a typically compelling Williams-Kazan product. Nevertheless, like a lot of Williams' work, there is less to the affair than meets the eye.
You could always count on Tennessee Williams to create sleazy Southern characters, and in "Baby Doll" he outdoes himself, albeit it mostly for comical purposes. At the center of it all is Baby Doll Meighan (Carroll Baker), an immature, seemingly naive, perhaps not-too-bright, but extremely sexy teenager, married almost exactly one year to a middle-aged leach, Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), with whom she has never been to bed. Before their wedding they made an agreement: He would provide her with the finest house in the county, and she would allow him to sleep with her one year hence. At the stroke of midnight as the story opens, the one year will be up.
The townsfolk know about the situation and never cease to tease Archie about it.
I love this stuff; it's remarkably silly, yet the actors play it so straight you'd think it was "Hamlet." How sordid is the story? Baby Doll sleeps alone in a baby crib in the nursery, sucking her thumb and wearing only a short nightie; and Archie takes to spying on her through a hole in the adjoining wall. The nightgown became so famous, people still call them "baby dolls."
The house Archie provides for his wife was, indeed, a fine plantation estate at one time; like about a hundred years before. But at the time of the story, it is a decrepit, run-down old place, with the plaster peeling off the walls and the attic caving in. Archie is in financial ruin since his cotton gin stopped getting business, and at the moment the moving vans are removing the last articles of furniture from the place. Baby Doll is not pleased, and she still won't let Archie touch her. Archie's only solace is in a bottle.
Enter the story's third main character, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach in his screen debut), a Sicilian newcomer who has cornered the county's cotton-gin commerce. The old-timers in the county dislike and distrust him. No one is unhappy when Archie secretly sets fire to Vacarro's cotton gin, since Vacarro drove almost everybody in the county out of business. Vacarro is sure Archie did it, and, seeing that no one is going to help him, sets out for personal revenge. He determines to get Baby Doll to sign an affidavit saying her husband set the fire, and in the process he isn't disinclined to seduce her as well.
The filmmakers play the whole thing so melodramatically, yet so seriously, it comes off as highly amusing, nearly black comedy if you will. It's like Tennessee Williams poking fun at Tennessee Williams. "I wouldn't dream of eating a nut which a man had cracked in his mouth," says Baby Doll to Vacarro when they are alone. "You've got many refinements," he replies.
The longest sequence in the film is the afternoon seduction. Vacarro intends nothing more than to get Baby Doll to sign a paper implicating Archie in the arson, but it develops into something more, and it's not exactly Vacarro who does the seducing. Yet it's all handled so discreetly that you wouldn't think anything had happened. In the accompanying featurette, the three principal actors are asked if they thought Vacarro and Baby Doll really slept together, and we get three different answers!
Ironically, while the film's implied sexual situations caused a sensation in 1956, the racial slurs and bigotry never seemed to raise an eyebrow. Different times, to be sure. And just how sensational was the movie back then? The Catholic League of Decency condemned it for its "carnal suggestiveness," with New York's Cardinal Spellman going so far as to say that any Catholic who saw the movie was committing a major sin worthy of possible excommunication. Can you imagine the publicity? In 1969 when the motion-picture ratings code re-rated the film, they unaccountably gave it an R rating, despite its having no actual sex, no nudity, no violence, and no profanity. That's how suggestive the ratings board thought the film was.
No, there was no beating Tennessee Williams for steamy, sleazy Southern sex. Then throw in more goofy characters like Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock), Baby Doll's aunt who lives with them, and Rock (Lonny Chapman), Vacarro's right-hand flunky, and you've got a worthy contender for the most-watchable soap-opera parody of all time. And while Malden and Wallach and Dunnock are good, it's Baker who steals the show with her coy, perhaps mock innocence, setting the two men in her life against one another.
Trivia: According to John Eastman in his book "Retakes" (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989), "an amused Eli Wallach repeated for years afterward his account of the house hallway scene, in which Baker kept on kissing him long after the camera had moved away." The filmmakers made the movie on location in Mississippi, and "the house in which most of the filming occurred was the 'old Burras Place,' which had been vacant for twenty-five years.... Kazan never rigidly plotted his scenes, preferring his cast to remain unaware of the camera; instead, he ordered his camera crew merely to follow the actors. He said he preferred this film to his much more acclaimed 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'"
The disc offers the picture pretty much as it was shown in theaters in 1956, in a 1.33:1 ratio closely matching its original 1.37.1 size, and in black-and-white. The print Warner Bros. found appears in excellent condition, no doubt the result of some expert touching up as well, and there are no age spots or blemishes of any kind. A few scenes display the grain that was probably already there, but otherwise there is nothing to complain about. B&W contrasts are quite strong, and object delineation is generally sharp. The Motion Picture Academy nominated the photography for an Oscar, and it's still a pleasure on the eye.
The film's sound is its only minor letdown. The WB engineers remastered it in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, and while it is commendably clear and clean, if turned up to a comfortable listening level one can hear some residual background noise. With its understandably limited dynamic range and frequency response, the soundtrack will win no awards today; but it does a good job with dialogue, and that's all that really counts here.
The disc's primary bonus item is a new, 2006, featurette, "Baby Doll: See No Evil," lasting about twelve minutes and including comments for the movie's three leading actors. It is remarkable that Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, both of whom were middle-aged when they made the film, are so active and healthy today, both men in their nineties. Their observations, and Carroll Baker's, are worth your while. Then, there are three "Baby Doll" trailers; twenty-eight scene selections (but no chapter insert); English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Despite the controversy swirling around the film when it was released, the usually staid, conservative Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated "Baby Doll" for four Academy Awards: Best Actress (Carroll Baker), Best Supporting Actress (Mildred Dunnock), Best Cinematography, Black and White (Boris Kaufman), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Tennessee Williams). The Academy was not so broad-minded as to actually accord it any Oscars, however.
Warner Bros. have made "Baby Doll" available individually or in a six-movie box set, "The Tennessee Williams Film Collection," which also includes "A Streetcar Named Desire" "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Deluxe Edition," "The Night of the Iguana," "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," and "Sweet Bird of Youth."