Happy Birthday Carroll Baker, fellow Gemini and forever my baby. A return look at Baby Doll.
"There isn't much of you, but what there is is choice. Delectable, I might say... You're fine-fibered. Soft and smooth…You make me think of cotton. No! No fabric or cloth, not even satin or silk cloth, and no kind of fiber, not even cotton fiber has the absolute delicacy of your skin.”
So says a predatory Eli Wallach to an aroused and "hysterical" Carroll Baker in one of the most notoriously erotic mainstream movies ever produced at that time. A movie that's still sexy today, and sexy in that perfectly unhealthy, steamy, creamy and twisted way -- the only way that works -- the movie was Baby Doll, director Elia Kazan’s tragic-comic follow up to his already sizzling masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire, his controversial On the Waterfront and his poignantly powerful East of Eden. Used to a certain amount of censorship and hullabaloo (especially for Streetcar), Kazan was most likely, not prepared for the maelstrom of controversy when Baby Doll, a sultry Southern gothic he intended as a “sleeper” was released in 1956.
Denounced by the Legion of Decency and deemed "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited" (yes, yes, yes) by Time Magazine, Baby Doll, though not as “dirty” through time (and I mean in the common, modern comedy way -- our current accessibility to salacious cinema isn't dirty in the right way...) still remains as sexually charged, perversely interesting and psychologically complex as it did then. It’s also incredibly funny, superbly acted and weirdly beautiful. Though somewhat, inexplicably forgotten through time (it finally got a DVD release a few years ago), Baby Doll is one of Kazan’s greatest accomplishments -- a masterpiece that stands on equal footing with Streetcar and Waterfront.
Written by that genius of Southern turbulence, Tennessee Williams (Baby Doll was his first original screenplay -- adapted from parts of two earlier one-act plays), the picture gave the great Carroll Baker her first starring role with an entrance that, in terms of cultish cinema, is about as sexually iconic as Marilyn Monroe’s up-swept dress in The Seven Year Itch. Gorgeous, blonde 19-year old child bride Baby Doll (Baker) lies in an infant’s crib, sucking her thumb while her middle aged husband Archie Lee (a wonderfully frustrated Karl Malden|) leers at her through a peephole. Ah yes, marriage.
But why must he leer at his own wife? As we soon learn, Baby Doll is a virgin -- she married Archie for what she thought would be a cushy life of prosperity and Southern comfort. But at this point Archie’s lost his cotton gin to a Syndicate Plantation and is so in debt that his furniture (or, as she drawls "fornichore" which is how every woman should talk when discussing a sofa) has been removed from the house. An exasperated, angry Baby Doll threatens to leave Archie while he desperately waits out the day -- the eve of her birthday ("buhthdaye") -- for their especially provocative “agreement:” that when she turns 20, he can finally sleep with his wife. No wonder he's nuts.
But things take a turn when lumbering, impetuous Archie loses his temper and burns down the Syndicate Plantation and Cotton Gin, managed by the cocky Sicilian Silva Vacarro (Wallach). Wrong man to cross. Seeking sweet revenge, Vacarro finds the one thing that’ll make Archie murderously angry -- the wifey. And not just Archie's wife but, perhaps (not to be revealed here) his wife’s maidenhood as well. That is, if you could call the sassy, sexually curious tease Baby Doll a “maiden.” She’s certainly not as infantile as she looks -- and she will reveal herself to be clever, in her own style -- making her all the more desirable. And yet, sad.
The cat and mouse games and cheap, cheeky tricks played by Baby Doll and Vacarro result in the picture's gleefully demented, yet supremely hot seduction sequence on a porch swing that some viewers found downright pornographic. What were his hands doing? (I know what we're supposed to think) Why is she swooning and breathing and heaving that much? (We all know) This hyper eroticism is heightened by the film’s lovely counterpoint of a blonde, summer dress-wearing Baby Doll to the darkly dapper, swarthy Italian who plucks floating cotton off the bosom of her dress and wields a riding crop, no less (he swats her with that thing while she's literally, weak in the knees). And to further amp things up, in between all of these, well, antics in that shell of a house Baby Doll resides in, Wallach will be seen riding Baby's hobby horse to the rock tune of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Oh my. The beautifully seamy shot of his shadowy rocking suggests a whole helluva lot more is going on here. Yes, a whole lot of s-e-x. Good, bad, dirty southern s-e-x.
But there’s more to the film than just overheated sensuality. Starkly but stunningly shot in black and white, the picture showcases a sad, crumbling South which is perfectly encapsulated via Malden’s distressed and ultimately crazed performance as a cotton farmer being taken over by big business. You feel for poor Malden, as dumb as he is, and the intelligent actor nails sleazy, desperate, sad, cruel and touching all at once. Malden could be a powerful passive aggressive (check A Streetcar Named Desire, in which his "nice" guy ends up being one of the most despicable characters in the picture), and a powerful, noble aggressive aggressive (like his tough priest in On the Waterfront). Here he's just a lost soul who strikes out, but like his relationship with Baby Doll, his fire will ultimately be extinguished. No (for lack of a better word) orgasmic pleasure will come from this. He can't keep anything. Not his gin, not his wife, and not the old Southern way. He can't even be a proper southern gentleman without becoming a leering pervert (after all, in a time when he could have taken her by force without much condemnation, he is honoring her wish to remain a virgin). So as loud-mouth and as stupid as he seems hollering "Baby Doll!" at the top of his lungs, you can see that Williams, Kazan and Malden understand this is a man who has lost all dignity -- and though frequently funny, this is just plain sad.
And really, everyone here, from the stray plantation hands whom Archie sneaks shots of hooch with, to beautifully lush Baby Doll are sad. Vacarro is the future, Baby Doll, with all of her youth and promise, is a ghost. They are all a collection of creeps and rogues and ghosts and sweethearts -- the good-natured Aunt Rose Comfort who steals chocolate from the hospital in particular. And all of them earn our sympathy for each of their dire situations. Baby Doll as the unhappy, cunning though unschooled wife, Archie as the out-moded Southerner and Vacarro as the despised outsider. No one is inherently good, but none of are purely evil either. They are corrupted, vindictive, mean and in the case of Baker -- achingly sexy on top.
And indeed is she achingly sexy. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Baker’s Baby Doll is one of the sexiest film performances in screen history. Baker's performance is brilliant -- innocent and brazen, stupid and smart, ladylike and lazy -- no one, to quote Archie Lee, makes "slopping around in a slip" so casually erotic. Not even Liz Taylor. And that laugh. That childlike, yet manipulative laugh -- one that simultaneously wraps a very young, and devilishly handsome Rip Torn (look for him) around her finger, while distracting the hell out of her husband. I swear, for Baker's laugh alone the picture should earn greater respect through time. It did somewhat in its DVD release (in conjunction with the Tennessee Williams’ box set which also includes that other underrated depiction of frustrated sexuality and a sizzling Lolita Sue Lyon -- The Night of the Iguana) with an accompanying short documentary. Chronicling the film’s scandal (happily all three spectacular leads are alive to discuss the movie -- god bless you, the late Karl Malden for even making it that far) and appreciating the picture’s placement within Kazan’s esteemed canon of work, it’s a nice addition. But I wanted more. I always want more with Baby Doll. More movie, more respect, more thumb-sucking and more ice cold glasses of lemonade. Or, pardon me, lemon-ayde.
As Baby Doll express at the end of the picture, “we got nothin' to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we're remembered or forgotten.” Thankfully and respectfully (maybe ironically so) Baby Doll is indeed remembered. Really, how could it have ever been forgotten? Happy birthday Baby Doll.
Note: Miss Baker, whose career took an interesting turn -- from serious actress to something of a sex pot -- was always interesting. Even in The Carpetbaggers, Harlow and Andy Warhol's Bad. But she also made another brilliant movie, the under-seen Something Wild, directed by her then husband Jack Garfein. I programmed the movie for Turner Classic Movies, to be shown later this fall. More on that movie later.