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The working titles of this film were Twenty-Seven Wagon Loads of Cotton and Mississippi Woman. The film's title card reads: "Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll." In her autobiography, Carroll Baker reports that on her last day of shooting, director Elia Kazan offered to change the film's title from Mississippi Woman to Baby Doll, her character's name, as a "present" to her. Kazan, in his autobiography, claims that Williams only "half-heartedly" contributed to the screenplay, and that it was, in fact, Kazan, himself, who wrote most of the script. He also reports that although he urged Williams to stay in Benoit, Mississippi, the film's location, for the duration of the shooting, Williams departed after only a few weeks because "he didn't like the way people looked at him on the streets." Hollywood Reporter production charts add that the film was also shot on location in Greenville, Mississippi and New York City. According to Kazan, the film's final bittersweet lines, uttered by "Baby Doll" to "Aunt Rose Comfort," were later sent by Williams "as a consolation" for his departure.
According to studio production notes, African Americans from the Benoit area were featured in bit roles. Production notes also state that Uncle Pleasant, purported to be 107 years old at the time of shooting, and Sam General were in the cast, and that Boll Weevil "served as both actor and utility man for nearly three months with the location unit." A plantation house, built in 1848 and known as "Old Burras Place," was used in the film. According to Baker's autobiography, Kazan had each actor choose props for the house to reflect his or her character's personality.
The film created controversy immediately upon its release. Although a Code seal for the film was granted, the Legion of Decency found the film to be "grievously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency," and gave the film a "C," or condemned, rating. In an December 8, 1956 article, Motion Picture Herald complained about the picture: "Both the general principles of the Code and several specific stipulations thereof are tossed aside in granting the film a Code seal. Among these, the law is ridiculed, there are sexual implications, vulgarity, and the words 'wop' and 'nigger.'" A November 28, 1956 Variety news item noted that Baby Doll marked the first time in years that the Legion of Decency had "nixed" a major American production, particularly one with the Code seal.
The Legion of Decency's ruling set off a storm of debate in religious communities. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, forbade parishioners to view the film, calling it "sinful." According to a December 19, 1956 Daily Variety news item, Catholic War Veterans wired Warner Bros., promising to see that the release of the film would "result in a financial fiasco for the company coffers and a grievous moral blow to Warner's reputation." According to a December 25, 1956 Los Angeles Times article, Rev. Dr. James A. Pike, dean of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, devoted his entire Advent sermon responding to Spellman's attack on Baby Doll. Pike argued that the film The Ten Commandments contained a great deal more "sensuality" than Baby Doll, but had nonetheless been deemed "excellent" by "a leading New York prelate." Pike further stated that "the church's duty is not to prevent adults from having the experience of this picture, but to give them a wholesome basis for interpretation and serious answers to questions that were asked with seriousness."
A January 7, 1957 Los Angeles Times article reported that the Roman Catholic authorities of the Paris Archdiocese, led by Cardinal Feltin, also disagreed with Spellman's attack, and that Father John Burke, head of Britain's Catholic Film Institute, had called the film "a powerful denunciation of social and racial intolerance and as such is something for thoughtful people to see." In addition, the ACLU complained that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Albany's motion to forbid Catholics to attend the local Strand Theatre for six months in protest of the film's opening there was a violation of the First Amendment. In his autobiography, Kazan writes that although Spellman made Baby Doll famous, his attack ultimately hurt the film, and that Kazan never made any money on it.
According to memos in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the first rough script of Baby Doll was received by PCA director Joseph I. Breen on August 1, 1952. In a memo to the producers, Breen suggested rewriting the police roles, so that they would appear more decent and sympathetic to "Silva Vacarro." Breen also worried about a scene (eventually cut) in which a "Negro girl" offers herself to Vacarro "for sex purposes," and the fact that Vacarro "deliberately and with malice" uses adultery to get back at "Archie Lee Meighan." The latter, Breen wrote, is "impossible under the Code." On October 24, 1955, PCA official Geoffrey M. Shurlock wrote to studio head Jack Warner about the "serious Code violations" in the script, especially the suggestion of an adulterous affair between Vacarro and Baby Doll, which Kazan previously had promised to avoid.
Shurlock also warned that "the element of Archie's sex frustration" was in violation of the Code and that this element would have to be removed if the film was to be approved. In a letter to Warner dated November 15, 1955, Kazan asked Warner to "assure Sherlock and Vizzard once more that both Williams and I specifically do not want there to have been a 'sex-affair' between our two people." Kazan pointed out several places in the script where he had eliminated hints of sex between Baby Doll and Vacarro, but stated that, "I cannot reduce the element of Archie Lee's sex frustration. I will, you can be sure, handle it delicately and in good taste." In the same letter, Kazan argued passionately that in order for theatrical films to survive, their makers must offer viewers fare that cannot be seen on television. Kazan urged Warner to break taboos and "strike out for increasingly unusual material." On July 25, 1956, the PCA deemed the film's basic story acceptable, including the "sex frustration" element.
The film received the following Academy Award nominations: Carroll Baker for Best Actress, Mildred Dunnock for Best Supporting Actress, Boris Kaufman for Best Black and White Cinematography, Tennessee Williams for Best Writing (Screenplay-Adapted). Baby Doll marked the first screen appearance by Eli Wallach, who had played "Mangiacavallo" in Williams' The Rose Tattoo on Broadway. In her autobiography, Baker states that Marilyn Monroe was an important contender for the part of Baby Doll, and that the famous actress acted as an usherette at the film's New York premiere, which was a benefit for the Actors' Studio.