Scripted by playwright Tennessee Williams, who got sole credit for this adaptation of two of his shorter plays, “Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton” and “The Long Stay Cut Short,” Baby Doll (rated R; 1956) is a starkly shot, trashy black comedy—the only one Elia Kazan directed, and a minor classic at that.
The story involves Archie Lee Meighan (a sweaty, grody Karl Malden), a middle-aged yokel married to a grubby 19-year-old virgin, Baby Doll (an incredible Carroll Baker), who sucks her thumb—a clear case of arrested development. Per an arrangement with Baby Doll’s father, Archie supports her financially but can’t consummate the marriage until she turns 20. That day is nigh; and that’s when Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach, lecherous to a tee), a business rival and opportunistic wolf, shows up. Archie destroys Vacarro’s cotton gin, which makes Vacarro dependent on Archie’s mill. Thirsting for revenge, Vacarro toys with Baby Doll, whose seduction could be the ultimate coup.
Even though Baby Doll is tame by today’s standards, and we see nothing overtly sexual, the Legion of Decency condemned it, an act that resulted in many a theater deciding not to show the film during its initial run. New York’s Cardinal Spellman, who of course had not seen the film (but was, I’m sure, familiar with the suggestive poster and assorted stills of Baby Doll in her crib), proclaimed it “evil in concept… certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it.” Unsurprisingly, the movie made some money—boosted, you could say, by its scandalous reputation.
Well, the movie plays. It does so on the strength of the performances and Kazan’s feeling for the hothouse of the deep south. Shot in crisp black and white in Benoit, Mississippi by cinematographer Boris Johnson, and using locals as extras, the movie keeps things simmering, imbuing each frame with a textured, you-are-there quality to offset the talkiness of the script. The humidity that drips down the walls of Tiger Tail, Archie’s decrepit country mansion, is tangible; and the leads appear invested in their roles, broad but never so much that they devolve into brittle camp.
Baby Doll is seedy and funny—but not shocking. I find Kazan a filmmaker hard to swoon to (perhaps it’s his periodic overindulgence of the Lee Strasberg Method school of acting, the naturalistic style of dramatics best exemplified by some of Kazan’s own films), yet he cranks the atmospherics into overdrive on this one—and only a true oaf would deny his ability to coax great performances from some of the best actors to hail from the Actor’s Studio in New York, three of whom (Malden, Baker, and Wallach) are cast perfectly here.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray includes the film’s trailer and a featurette, Baby Doll: See No Evil.