Baby Doll (1956)
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Elia Kazan
Stanley Kubrick called fellow director Elia Kazan, “without question, the best director we have in America, [and] capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses.” Quite a compliment from someone I consider to be the best American film director we’ve ever had. I’m not unfamiliar with Kazan and have seen a number of his films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, among others. After gaining acclaim with pictures like East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, Kazan was able to produce some films independently with Baby Doll being one of those.
Middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) is approaching the first anniversary of his marriage to 19-year-old Baby Doll (Caroll Baker). The union was made by Baby Doll’s dying father with the promise that she is provided for, and the marriage not consummated until she turns 20, which is only a couple of days. Archie has failed on his side of the deal, moving his bride out to a dilapidated as his cotton gin business has collapsed. Baby Doll sleeps in a crib, which is the only piece of furniture with room for her other than Archie’s bed and spends her days lambasting him for his failure.
As their furniture is repossessed, Baby Doll declares she is leaving for a hotel. Archie drives off brooding and comes across a party being held by his competitor, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach). Archie burns down Silva’s operation while he parties. In the morning, the damage is discovered, and Silva immediately suspects Archie. He rushes over to his property, where the destitute man offers his own gin to help out, while Silva keeps his knowledge close to the vest. Once Silva meets Baby Doll, he realizes he has someone he can get the truth out of and manipulate to harm Archie even further.
While Tennessee Williams’s name may appear on the script for this picture, Kazan explained that the author had little interest in the film that Kazan himself did most of the writing. Baby Doll is based on a Williams one-act play titled “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” As Kazan did so often with his pictures, he relied heavily on the New York-based Actors School to cast the film. Baker, Malden, and Wallach were all graduates of the program and worked in the same Stanisklavski based methods. The result is an emotionally simmering and explosive set of performances, focusing on tension and building off interactions.
The characters in this story are grimy, trashy, vicious people. It’s the kind of milieu Kazan specialized in, being sexually provocative and leaving audiences breathless. Baker exceeds expectations, not allowing Baby Doll to be a simple-minded sexpot, but an angry yet privileged young woman disgusted by her husband and fully aware of their relationship’s impersonal nature. Silva is a perfect counterpoint to Archie’s sweaty mania. The Sicilian-American cotton magnate is relaxed & clam, stalking around the Meighan’s Antebellum mansion, waiting for the right moment to strike.
It’s hard to pin down the tone of Baby Doll, though, as it veers wildly into farce during the second. I think it’s intended to be a comedy, but in the third act, it seems to imply a sort of solemn contemplation of a crumbling region of America, undone by ignorance and malice. There are elements of classic Canterbury Tale-like ribald storytelling but also a slick jazz score underlying the narrative. I can’t say this is one of my favorite Kazan pictures as it is very messily edited with glaring moments of poorly done ADR. These technical flaws really drew me out of what could have been a powerfully evocative piece of Americana. Instead, it is lost in the sea of better movies this director produced.