Time magazine called it “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited”. Banned in Sweden and given a C for condemned rating by the Catholic Legion of Decency, Elia Kazan’s film Baby Doll even gave the name to the sexy dress and for better or worse inspired Courtney Love’s mid-90s fashion. Karl Malden plays Archie Lee, a sleazy half-mad cotton gin owner. He’s married to Baby Doll Meighan (Carroll Baker), an infantilized thumbsucker two days shy of her 20th birthday.
The anniversary is significant as according to a pact between Baby Doll and Archie the marriage will be consummated. As it is she stills sleeps in a crib and the Archie pokes holes in the walls so he can leer at her as she sleeps. They live in a crumbling mansion on the Mississippi Delta with Baby Doll’s senile Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock). Archie’s business is failing with a modern corporate competitor managed by Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), driving him out of business. In desperate straits and with the furniture repossessed Archie burns down Vacarro’s cotton gin and the next day Vacarro turns up at the house with strong suspicions as to the culprit.
Working once more with Tennessee Williams, Kazan presents a dark psycho-drama full of sexual tension and fragility. This isn’t the complete work of Streetcar Named Desire, but Kazan escapes the staged theatrical context of his earlier collaboration and actually directs Baby Doll as a piece of cinema. The environment is hauntingly shot, a despairing place of decrepit southern gothic. He used local characters to play bit parts and some of the shots have the power of Dorothea Lange’s photography. This being Mississippi there’s a race tension with Silva dismisses as a “greasy wop” and the black characters in the background as a bemusedly indifferent audience.
There’s an aspect of crazed farce to the proceedings but the comedy is always on the edge of hysteria. In one scene, during a game of hide and seek that can only be described as rapey, Baby Doll finds herself in the attic where any step might send her through the ceiling. This vulnerability marks her performance and a sexuality akimbo innocence and knowingness. Watching her drink and toy with a bottle of coke and you begin to see what appalled the Catholics. Baker is stunning in the role – a frustrated young woman who finds herself in a trap disguised as a deal.
Kazan – known to pals as Gadge – is justly famed as a brilliant director of actors and aside from Baker we also get a bravura performance in Karl Malden, whose ignorant schemer and miser is so venal he’s unable to disguise his stratagems even crudely. The irony is – as much as Baby Doll is kept in a state of arrested development – so the men of the piece, both Archie and Silva, are locked in their own boyishly cruel games of tit for tat and petty vindictiveness. As WH Auden once wrote we are all “children lost in the wood who have never been happy, who have never been good.” Baby Doll is a stone cold classic that even today retains its power to disturb.
Watch it on CHILI: Baby Doll