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Never one to shy away from provocative material, director Elia Kazan prevailed upon his frequent stage and screen collaborator Tennessee Williams in the early '50s to tweak a minor one-act play entitled 27 Wagons Full of Cotton for the camera. The end result, Baby Doll (1956), is an amusing and frequently audacious black farce of the Deep South that sent prudes of its day into a lather over material made more innocuous over the passage of time.
The story is set in a dilapidated Southern manse owned by Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), a middle-aged blowhard living in constant anxiety over the imminent failure of his cotton gin business. His tension isn't helped any by his 19-year-old child bride Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), a blonde nymphet who still sleeps in a crib bed and sucks her thumb. As part of the marriage pact designated by her late father, Archie Lee had to set her up in the county's (formerly) finest house, and wait until her 20th birthday before consummating the marriage.
In the meantime, the frustrated husband has to make do with stealing peeks through a hole in the bedroom wall. Worse still for Archie Lee, his connubial arrangements are an open secret with the locals, who can't help but snigger whenever the couple passes by. Archie Lee, at the least, is able to address his economic frustrations when he clandestinely torches the state-of-the-art, conglomerate-owned mill that has siphoned off all revenue from the locally owned gins.
The act of arson understandably does not sit well with Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), the Sicilian supervisor of the ruined plant. Not counting on the local authorities for much aid, Silva still has to contend with the cotton that he's obliged to process, and must cut a deal with the closest facility--Meighan's. Hastily heading off to get his gin up to speed, Archie makes the fatal mistake of instructing his young wife to entertain their new business associate.
The slyly seductive Vacarro makes the most of his time teasing and tempting the bored Baby Doll, all the while trying to ferret out the truth about Archie Lee's whereabouts at the time of the fire. Although ultimately getting her to sign off on a written confession, Silva also comes to sympathize with her circumstances as well, leading to explosive consequences when Meighan finally makes his way back home.
Baker had just completed her first screen performance in Giant (1956) when she signed on for Baby Doll; the film was the first for her fellow Actors Studio alumnus Wallach. Both turned in remarkable work; the sexual heat generated during Vacarro's porch swing come-on remains palpable even to this day. Malden, as always, is effective, vesting the blustering, emasculated clod Archie Lee with enough humanity that the viewer can't help but feel sympathy. Also welcome is Mildred Dunnock's dithering maiden aunt whose household presence is barely tolerated by Archie Lee. Look fast for a young Rip Torn making his screen debut.
Baby Doll was shot on location in Benoit, Mississippi, and Kazan integrated many locals into small roles with excellent effect. "They'll direct you," Kazan recounted in Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films. "I set up the camera loose enough and told the cameramen to be alert to their spontaneous moves...After all, they're doing you a favor. They don't have to do it. They've got a job. They're beautiful. It sounds like the corniest thing in the world, but they are."
While the reviews were strong, and Oscar® nominations were given to Baker, Dunnock, Williams, and cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Baby Doll's receipts wound up being only middling. This is due in no small part to the admonitions of the Legion of Decency and Cardinal Spellman of New York, both of which were swift in their condemnation of the film and its subject matter. "There'd be one good week, then a quick slide down. I never made a profit," Kazan recounted in his autobiography. "If you were to look at the film now, you'd see a rather amusing comedy and wonder what all the fuss was about."
Producer: Elia Kazan, Tennessee Williams
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Tennessee Williams
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Film Editing: Gene Milford
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Cast: Karl Malden (Archie Lee Meighan), Carroll Baker (Baby Doll), Eli Wallach (Silva Vacarro), Mildred Dunnock (Aunt Rose Comfort), Lonny Chapman (Rock), Eades Hogue (Town Marshal).
by Jay S. Steinberg