Release Date(s)1956 (February 16, 2021)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D
Baby Doll is one of the raciest movies produced by Hollywood in the 1950s. The Catholic Legion of Decency gave the film a C rating, forcing many theaters to cancel their bookings, and Time Magazine stated that it was “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.” New York’s Cardinal Spellman declared the film was “evil in concept… certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it.”
Tennessee Williams wrote the screenplay based on two of his one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and The Long Stay Cut Short. Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) is a pathetic, near-bankrupt cotton-gin owner who married Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), an uneducated, naive 18-year-old, after promising her dying father that she would remain a virgin and continue to sleep alone in her crib until her 20th birthday, now only two days away. Constantly tormenting her frustrated husband about his appearance and bathing in front of him, Baby Doll escalates tension by openly flirting with Archie’s Italian business rival, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach).
The three principals are all excellent. Malden is especially good at projecting frustration, perennially sweating, sneaking gulps of whiskey, and steaming under his neighbors’ open ridicule. Embodying jealousy and resentment, Malden operates on the same level throughout, glaring, shouting at the top of his lungs, wildly racing up and down staircases.
Baker plays Baby Doll as a girl on the cusp of womanhood realizing that, because of an old promise, she will soon have to give herself up to a man she can’t stand. She openly flirts, wears little at home, and dresses provocatively when she goes into town. She knows the power of her charms and uses them to drive men, especially Archie, crazy. Baker captures the animal attraction, naivete, vanity, contempt, and simmering passion of Baby Doll.
Wallach, in his screen debut, plays the seductive threat to Archie’s relationship with Baby Doll. Physically, though, he doesn’t come across as a hot-blooded stud (Marlon Brando would have been better suited). In a lengthy scene on an outdoor swing, Vacarro elicits from Baby Doll clues about who may have set fire to his cotton gin. Wallach oozes charm, sidling up against Baby Doll, who can’t resist his sensuality and exotic looks, qualities Archie sorely lacks.
Mildred Dunnock plays Aunt Rose Comfort, who lives with the unhappy couple and earns her keep by doing the cooking and keeping an eye on Baby Doll. She constantly incurs the wrath of Archie but seems to take his temper tantrums and outbursts in stride. As Dunnock flits around the cavernous house, every bit the poor relation dutifully trying not to be a burden, her Aunt Rose comes across as another victim of the bleak atmosphere.
Director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) sets the film in a once grand, now decaying plantation mansion in rural Mississippi. His approach is at a fever pitch for the most part, with one major exception—the scene between Baby Doll and Vaccaro. In an atmosphere dripping with Southern Gothic, the film is an interesting companion piece to Kazan’s Streetcar, though with far less subtlety. Malden’s histrionics are often very funny, as he tries to maintain his dignity as “lord of the manor” despite feeling like the cuckold. Kazan frequently cuts to Archie’s idle cotton gin workers watching the melodrama between Baby Doll and Archie just as we, the audience, observe their odd relationship stoked by sexual frustration. Kazan used many of the people in Benoit, Mississippi who provide local color.
Featuring 1080p resolution, Warner Archive’s new HD master restores the film’s original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 from the 2006 DVD release. Boris Kaufman’s black-and-white photography nicely captures the decadence of the crumbling old plantation mansion with its dirty walls, cavernous bare rooms, elegant staircases, and uncurtained windows. With creaky porch steps, cracked stone columns, a rusty old car, and other debris scattered outside, the setting exudes despair. When we first see Archie, he’s wearing wrinkled pajamas and spying on Baby Doll sleeping in a crib in the next room. She takes her time to look her best when the two go into town. The contrast reflects their disparate self-images. The monochromatic cinematography is perfect for this melodrama as color would have made everything look too pretty and undermined the mood. Director Kazan favors occasional cutaways to minor characters who wordlessly observe the action. A huge fire in Vaccaro’s cotton gin is a major set piece, opening up the story. A long convoy of cotton wagons is shown when Vaccaro brings his raw cotton to Archie’s gin.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional subtitles in English SDH are available. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout. Baker and Wallach sound Southern but Malden makes no attempt at a regional accent. Other characters, played by locals, have stronger accents. The jazzy score by Kenyon Hopkins nicely suits the story and is heard intermittently throughout. During the cotton-gin conflagration, the music is exciting and is mixed with sounds of the cracking flames and the collapsing structure. Archie’s old, dented, muddied convertible is gunned as it makes its way at high speed down rural dirt roads. Malden’s outbursts are loud and insistent, underscoring his impatience and frustration with Baby Doll and his growing jealousy of Vaccaro. Multiple shotgun blasts break the calm when Archie Lee, in one of his temper tantrums, starts firing the gun all through the house. In a sequence in which Baby Doll and Vaccaro play a game of hide and seek, Vaccaro jingles a chandelier, tweaks a piano string, blows a trumpet, and makes other sounds to tease her.
Bonus materials on the R-rated Blu-ray release include the featurette Baby Doll: See No Evil and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Baby Doll: See No Evil – “It was a film that sizzled with raw sexuality.” Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, and Eli Wallach reminisce about the making and aftermath of Baby Doll. Baker says she and the rest of the cast never felt the film they were making was objectionable and were terribly hurt by the widespread condemnation that “incited a nationwide boycott that forced it from the screen.” Baker recalls receiving backlash from people who saw her on the street. In the aftermath of World War II, audiences had become more sophisticated and were able to deal with adult themes. The sexual mores of the period were in transition. Tennessee Williams didn’t subscribe to the puritanical view of sex and saw it as a celebration of life. Director Elia Kazan decided to shoot the film on location in the deep South. The townspeople of Benoit, Mississippi were initially wary of the film company, thinking the film would be about segregation and portray them as rednecks. The swing scene was shot when the weather was very cold. Heaters surrounded the actors and Baker and Wallach had to suck on ice cubes and spit them out just prior to filming to prevent vapor from issuing from their mouths. The advertising campaign and posters featured Carroll Baker in the crib. Because of the controversy surrounding the film, many bookings were canceled and Jack Warner pulled it from theaters after a couple of weeks even though it received a number of favorable reviews.
Theatrical Trailer – This 3-minute trailer opens with references to Elia Kazan’s star-making movies A Streetcar Named Desire (Marlon Brando) and East of Eden (James Dean). The narrator refers to Carroll Baker as having the “same special raw electricity you found before only in Marlon Brando and James Dean.” Several abbreviated scenes from the film are included.
Though there’s no nudity or sex depicted on screen, Baby Doll is definitely sexually charged. At one point, Archie notes, “There’s no torture on Earth to equal the torture a cold woman inflicts on a man.” Despite the controversy, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Carroll Baker. Subversive for its time, Baby Doll features intense performances and an effective blend of melodrama and dark humor.
- Dennis Seuling