Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Leave It to Elia Kazan's Baby Doll

(Elia Kazan, US, 1956, 114 mins.)

Today is the fifth day of November. Tomor-
row is the sixth day of November, and the
day after that is November seventh. And
you know what day that is, don't you? No-
vember seventh is your 20th birthday.
-- Archie Lee Meighan to Baby Doll

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

If Elia Kazan had created a sitcom,
it probably would've looked like
Baby Doll
. Well, "looked" might not be the best choice of words.
Jean Vigo and Sidney Lumet favorite Boris Kaufman (L'Atalante,
The Pawnbroker
, On the Waterfront) did, after all, score an Os-
car nomination for his flavorful black-and-white cinematogra-
phy (Dick Sylbert aids immeasurably with his high baroque-
gone-to-seed art design). But the richly comic premise
could've fueled at least a season's worth of hilarity.

First, there are all those domestic comedies from the
1950s, like Ozzie and Harriet and The Honeymoon-
, in which married couples slept in separate beds.

Then there are all those
slick dramedies from the
1980s, like Moonlighting
and Remington Steele.

In their early days, the
latter crime-solving duos
acted as if they were wed
(unlike Hart to Hart, where
the central twosome really
were married). They work-
ed together, fought toge-
ther, and spent their free
time together. But they
didn't sleep together.

Instead, they generat-
ed sexual tension via wit-
ty repartee. And once they
actually kissed, the tension
began to evaporate. At least Remington Steele waited until the finale to suggest that the Big Day had arrived--Irish castle included. Moonlighting, unfortunately, couldn't keep its pants on. And with that premature coupling went the will-they-or-won't-they suspense that made the show such a hit.

In Kazan's tragicomedy, Carroll Baker, another Academy Award
nominee, and Karl Malden's Archie also sleep in separate beds--sep-
arate rooms even. In fact, they haven't consummated the marriage.

They wed when she was almost 19, and she promised he could have
his way with her when she turned 20. Now Baby Doll is two days from
that milestone, and Archie can barely contain himself. Within the first
few minutes, he spies on her as she sleeps. In a crib, thumb in mouth.

Later, Archie enters her room while she's getting dressed. Baby Doll tries
to kick him out, but he won't budge, so she turns her closet into a dressing
room. Then, while she's taking a bath, he attempts a soggy grope. Kazan
suggests the move while Baby Doll is in the water, a shower curtain artful-
ly concealing her chest. Then she screams and Archie flees, but Kaufman's
camera waits respectfully outside. Instead of "Archie," Tennessee Williams
could've just dubbed his hubbie "Blue Boy." Rarely have the movies pro-
duced a man more desperate--to get with his own wife. Then again,
Kazan did cast Malden as the pious priest in On the Waterfont.

Yet the future Streets of San
gumshoe doesn't play
Archie with sadness or self-pity,
but rather antic energy. He zips
about his cavernous Southern
home, running up and down rick-
ety steps, and yelling at Baby
Doll's dotty Aunt Rose (Mildred
Dunnock, alternately hilarious
and heartbreaking) to do this, that, and the other thing. Baby Doll is just a big, dumb kid, and managing a household is beyond her
limited skill set, but Rose is hard-of-hearing and possibly senile (poor
Dunnock; as if having a psychopathic maniac kick her down the stairs
and enduring marriage to a suicidal salesman weren't bad enough).

Worse yet, the former plantation serves as a 24-hour stage show for its
African American audience. Some, like "Boll Weevil," are servants. With
others, it's hard to tell as they don't seem to do anything--other than
laugh at bigoted ol' Archie's ridiculous antics, that is. And these aren't
boisterous guffaws, but silent chuckles (deadpan derision at its finest).

Archie ends up doing most things himself, but he rarely gets what he
wants. That doesn't bring him down either. It's par for the course. Like
Ricky Ricardo by way of Wile E. Coyote: he'll never capture the object
of his desire. (Ricky, on the other hand, may have enjoyed off-screen
relations with Lucy, but who's to say he ever really "got" his wife.)

Then Baby Doll makes fun of him because he's losing his hair. There isn't
anything desirable within Archie's reach: wealth, affection, respect--a full
head of hair. He can't even be pathetic in private. Rose knows he's got it
bad, as does the "audience," and as it turns out, the whole damned town.

Archie, Baby Doll, and Rose could almost serve as prototypes for the
Beverly Hillbillies before they struck it rich and moved to the city. Into
this Li'l Abner atmosphere enters smooth-talking Silva Vacarro (Eli Wal-
lach in his first film appearance). Silva is everything Archie is not. Archie
blames the outsider for stealing his business, so he sets fire to Silva's gin.

For some reason, the townsfolk find the resulting blaze funny, too (osten-
sibly because he also stole their jobs). Yep, these "people of Benoit, Mis-
sissippi" as the credits would have it, operate exactly like a studio audi-
ence. Instead of chortling at things clearly intended to be funny, they
direct their mirth at those which normally would seem tragic.

Chortling aside, Silva is the
designated straight man.
While Wallach is too char-
ismatic to suck the air from
the scenario, he's closer to
a fully-realized human than
a stylized cartoon, and Ba-
by Doll
's comedy shifts
towards melodrama when
he hits the scene. Granted,
with his pencil-thin mous-
tache, black togs, flat-top-
ped hat, and riding crop (?!),
he looks like a low-rent Zor-
ro, but that serves to em-
phasize his "ethnic" other-
ness (and Archie looks as-
kance at all non-whites).

Kazan brings the men
together when Silva borrows Archie's worn-out machinery to con-
vert his cotton into gin. Silva suspects Archie set the fire, so his offer
has nothing to do with generosity. In fact, he's cooking up a plan. And
it involves, as he seethes, "Biblical justice." While Archie processes Sil-
va's cotton, the Texan-born Sicilian processes--er, charms--his virgin-
al wife. It's mostly talk, of course, but Baby Doll is clearly...intrigued.
Silva acts like he is, too, though that may simply be part of his plan.
In either case, Baby Doll becomes less of a caricature in his presen-
ce as she accelerates from flirtatiousness to fear to acquiescence.

When Archie realizes something's going on between his rival and his wife,
he also changes, in his case from an amusing loser to a potential killer. He
grabs a gun and starts wailing Baby Doll's name (yes, Malden almost out-
does Brando's iconic "Stellaaa!"). Along the way, the ultimate question
comes to light: Did the two get it on in Archie's absence? I say no, but
you'll have to decide for yourself (and I don't consider that a spoiler,
since her deflowering wouldn't have appeared on screen anyway).

Nonetheless, Time magazine condemned the film, the Legion of
Decency censored it, thousands of Catholics boycotted it, and a
reported 77% of the scheduled theaters cancelled screenings.

That's the old
news. I'm more
interested in
the way the
film plays to-
day. When I
wrote that it
resembled a
sitcom, I had-
n't yet watch-
ed the whole
thing. Once
Archie turns
arsonist, the tone changes. Since situation comedies now top out at 22 minutes, I still feel that the
first act plays as such, but then drama dominates the proceedings.

With its sexual suggestiveness, Baby Doll never really would've made
it as a 1950s sitcom--not when it barely got a chance to make it as a mo-
vie--but in light of the small-screen, fornication-free sex comedies of the
1960s, like I Dream of Jeannie, or even the '90s, like Married with Chil-
, it's hard not to imagine that Baby Doll paved the way for all
those scantily-clad women, ineffectual men, and double entendres.

Then there's Baby Doll's crib. Though she's past the age of consent,
her infantile predilections suggest that, like Nabokov's Lolita (as op-
posed to Kubrick's or Adrian Lyne's), she hasn't entered adolescence.
And when Kazan introduces Silva's riding crop, the kink factor goes
through the roof, even if he never uses it (he does, however, flick
Baby Doll a few times, claiming he's "swatting flies"--yeah, right).

Of course, television writers have played around with the concept of
strange sleeping quarters before. Note that Adrian Pasdar's offbeat at-
torney in the too-quickly-cancelled Profit slept in a cardboard box. But
that took place in the '90s. There was nothing suggestive or controver-
sial about that; it was just creepy in a post-Twin Peaks kind of way.
Well, it was masochistic, but not in the sexual sense of the word.

Nowadays, some consider Baby Doll a classic, others a disappointment or
even an embarrassment. To me, it's none of those things. Rather, it plays
more like self-parody (specifically of Kazan's previous Williams adaptation,
A Streetcar Named Desire
), Tennessee Williams in general (his first script
combines two one-act plays), the Actors Studio (from which the core trio
originated), and the Deep South (though the cast denies it). The irony is
that it was made by all these insiders on location, rather than a bunch of
outsiders on a studio back lot. The good news is that it's just as entertain-
ing now as it must have been in 1956. It's also much funnier (intentional-
ly or otherwise). Not as funny as 30 Rock, perhaps, but close enough.

And lest it seem as if I pulled that name out of a hat, the film also feat-
ures the debut of TV star (and 30 Rock guest) Rip Torn. An unrecog-
nizably scrawny fellow in the '50s, Torn plays a freshly-minted dentist
from whom Baby Doll attempts to finagle a receptionist gig. I'm not
about to suggest that Baby Doll led directly to Torn's small-screen
triumphs--most notably The Larry Sanders Show--but it can't
have hurt. For that achievement alone, viewers should be grateful.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Of course, I knew who Tennessee Williams was. He was a bad man because the
nuns in Catholic Sunday School had told us we'd go to hell if we saw that movie
he wrote, Baby Doll-the one with the great ad campaign, with Carroll Baker in
the crib sucking her thumb, that made Cardinal Spellman have a nation-wide
hissy fit. The same ad I clipped out of
The Baltimore Sun countless times
and pasted in my secret scrapbook. The movie I planned to show over and
over in the fantasy dirty-movie theater in my mind that I was going to
open later in life, causing a scandal in my parents' neighborhood.

-- From John Waters' introduction to Williams'

Baby Doll is available from Warner Bros. (extras include a bit about
the infamous billboard and a featurette with Baker, Malden, and Wal-
lach). It's also part of the Tennessee Williams Collection. Images from
AFI, DVD Town, Film Freak Central, & Honeymooners Resource Page.


  1. It's not a stretch to call it a comedy--the subtitle of one of the plays it's based on is "A Mississippi Delta Comedy". The Unpublished Letters of Tennessee Williams includes a letter where he talks about reading it out loud with a friend and laughing until they had tears in their eyes at Flora (the character who became Baby Doll). He goes on to wonder if a play so sadistic can be called a comedy, and what must be wrong with him to write such a play.

  2. There's some funny stuff, to be sure, but I wouldn't call it a comedy--maybe as (originally) written, but not as directed. Then again, that isn't a genre with which I usually associate Kazan. The first act is so amped up, it feels like overcompensation on his part. But it does make me wonder if he wasn't, at least subconsciously, trying to compete with the broad, physical humor of '50s television.