BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Carroll Baker plays 19-year-old Baby Doll Meighan and Eli Wallach in his first major role as the seductive cotton gin owner Silva Vacarro.
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“BABY DOLL” – WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION
Blu-ray; 1956; R for adult themes and sensuality
Best extra: “See No Evil,” a 2006 documentary about the film
EVEN IN in the year 2021, there are things about the Elia Kazan-directed (“On the Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire”) Tennessee Williams-written “Baby Doll” that may still shock viewers.
An early scene, in which a grimy middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) peeps through a hole in the wall at a beautiful young woman, is enough to raise the creep hackles on anyone. The object of Archie Lee’s lust is known as Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), his beautiful 19-year-old wife – who is asleep, her body clad in skimpy baby doll pajamas, in a baby’s crib and sucking on her thumb. (Ick.) So one can only imagine the reaction to this and many other extremely suggestive scenes by audiences in the 1950s – not to mention the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency. To put it mildly, they didn’t like it. In fact, it was unequivocally condemned by the Church, and Warner Brothers decided to pull it from circulation.
The film’s plot centers on an agreement between Baby Doll and Archie Lee, after her father arranged their marriage, that she wouldn’t actually consummate the union until she turned 20, an occasion that is imminent at the start of the film. The couple lives in a rotting plantation house on the outskirts of a small Mississippi town. Most of the furniture in the house has just been repossessed because Archie Lee’s cotton gin business is on the brink of failure. We eventually learn the only remaining bed in Archie Lee’s house is the crib.
(1&2) In the shocking opening Karl Malden, one of Kazan’s stable of actors, plays husband Archie Lee Meighan, who uses a screwdriver to make a peephole to watch his young wife sleep. (3) She reminds Archie Lee that they can’t consummate their arranged marriage set-up by her father until she turns 20.
Enter a savvy Sicilian immigrant named Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach, in his first, explosive, screen appearance) who owns a rival cotton gin that’s doing a land office business. After learning of Silva’s booming success, Archie Lee sneaks over to Silva’s gin one night and sets a fire, burning it to the ground. Suspicious that Archie Lee is the culprit, Silva visits him – and meets his beautiful wife. When Baby Doll accidentally lets slip Archie Lee’s alibi for when the fire started is a lie, Silva begins to exact his revenge, with Baby Doll the means to accomplish it. The great Mildred Dunnock plays Baby Doll’s ditsy aunt Rose Comfort, who’s been living in the old house and doing a pretty poor job at cooking and housekeeping, to Archie Lee’s constant irritation.
In addition to the almost pedophilic vibes of Archie Lee and Baby Doll’s marriage – modern audiences will likely be horrified by the frequent use of the “N-word,” casually spoken by Caucasian characters throughout the film. The African American characters, however, are not treated with derision. In fact, they tend to be portrayed as knowing, mocking observers of the shenanigans going on among their employers. All performances are excellent and, despite its enormous controversy, the film won numerous prestigious awards, including Oscar nominations for both Baker and Dunnock, as well as Best Writing for Tennessee Williams, and Best Black-and-White Cinematography for Boris Kaufman. Director Elia Kazan and Carroll Baker won Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Actress respectively.
This Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray comes from a new 2K master, and looks terrific. Kaufman’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous and is absolutely pristine, filled with fine detail and every nuance of shading, in addition to a satisfying filmic grain throughout. The authenticity of the production design is highlighted by the artful lighting and composition of the sets and locations, whether indoors or out, day or night.
The mono DTS HD soundtrack is also excellent, with effects always realistic, Kenyon Hopkin’s jazzy score well-balanced, and conversations clear.
(1&2) Baby Doll and Archie Lee are yellers as they prepare to head to the small Mississippi town for his dental appointment. (3) The dentist tries to figure out how he lost a game of checkers before he looks at Archie’s mouth. (4) Before returning to their rundown farmhouse Archie buys Baby Doll an ice cream cone. (5) Mildred Dunnock plays Baby Doll’s ditsy aunt Rose Comfort.
Aside from a vintage trailer, the only extra is the 13-minute “making of” documentary from 2006, which is quite informative and entertaining. We hear from the late Eli Wallach, who died in 2014: “I think Time magazine said this is the most pornographic movie ever made.” While Carroll Baker says, “None of us found the script shocking … none thought it was anything out of the ordinary or objectionable. We were all terribly hurt [by the controversy]. I got a lot of backlash; people were yelling at me on the street! It was not a good time … For years.” She adds, “I tried to live down the title ‘Baby Doll.’ I never have.”
Dr. Drew Casper, author of “Postwar Hollywood,” chimes in, “For Tennessee (Williams), sex was a celebration of life … He was very against the puritanical take on sensuality and sexuality.” Elia Kazan offered Williams the chance to write his first screenplay, Casper says.
Wallach points out the film was shot on location in the deep South, in a small town in Mississippi. “Down there it was very tense,” he recalls. The cast and crew arrived not long after the notorious lynching of Emmett Till. Baker notes that it was still segregated in Mississippi, and residents were wary of Kazan’s production. “I think they were afraid we were going to do a film about segregation,” she says. “Make fun of them and present them as uneducated rednecks.”
Malden, who died in 2009, laughs about the opening Peeping Tom scene of the film, in which a dog keeps getting in Archie Lee’s way: “I didn’t know the bloodhound was going be let into the room,” and as the dog tried to get close to the peephole and lick Malden’s face, the actor improvised. Kazan encouraged improv, Baker says, who came up with the idea of Archie Lee buying Baby Doll an ice cream cone when they go into town. Baker talks about an outdoor scene on a swing, when Silva is attempting to seduce Baby Doll. The weather was supposed to be brutally hot, but the shoot took place during an unusual cold spell in Mississippi. Heaters were blasting at the actors’ feet, notes Baker, who says, “We were chewing ice so our breath wouldn’t show.” Wallach adds, “When (Kazan) said ‘Action,’ we spit the ice cubes out!”
Soon after “Baby Doll” was released, Cardinal Francis Spellman, the New York Archbishop, gave a sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in which he told the congregation that anyone who saw the film would be committing a sin, and could be excommunicated. Baker laments, “They lost track of the fact that (‘Baby Doll’) was very funny … wonderful, unique … I was so proud to have been part of it.”
Critics agreed it was a good film, as did the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, New York Film Critics, and the Writers Guild of America.
— Peggy Earle
(1&2) Vacarro’s cotton gin mysterious catches fire and he’s determined to find the arsonist. (3) Vacarro is forced to use Archie Lee’s gin, which is badly in need of repair.
(1&2) Vacarro begins his daylong seduction of Baby Doll to get her to sign an affidavit that Archie Lee started the fire. (3) Vacarro ends up taking a nap in her crib as Archie realizes he may not have an alibi from his wife.