****/**** Image: B, Sound: A, Extras: B+
starring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Mildred Dunnock
screenplay by Tennessee Williams
directed by Elia Kazan
by Walter Chaw It makes perfect sense to me that the 1950s, our most openly culturally-restrictive decade, was also the decade that saw so many Tennessee Williams plays ushered to the silver screen for the outrage and closet titillation of Ozzie and Harriet. Repression always leads to explosion, and a film like Elia Kazan's Baby Doll--based on Williams's first screenplay, itself drawn from two of his early one-act plays ("Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton" and "The Long Stay Cut Short")--is a prime example of ground zero in the morality war, five years on from Kazan's first shot across the primrose bow with his Williams adaptation A Streetcar Named Desire. The resistance pushed back harder with Baby Doll, some Catholic leaders going so far as to promise excommunication for wayward eyeballs, while a giant billboard in Manhattan became a turgid lightning rod not unlike the one erected in the Valley for Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny some forty years later. In fact, the opening shot of the titular Lolita, Baby Doll (a simply fantastic Carrol Baker), is from her husband Archie's (Karl Malden) point-of-view through a keyhole: she in a crib, sucking her thumb. Shocking then, shocking now; that the powers-that-be chose this image for the poster says a little about naïveté and a lot about balls.
Although he's married to her, Archie has promised Baby Doll's father not to pluck her flower until she turns twenty--and with that date rapidly approaching as Baby Doll begins, Archie's ardour comes to full flame. Malden's performance is a masterpiece of pathetic, frustrated, undirected impotence: he's a man prodded to distraction by his untended cock and his need to find surrogate victories to soothe his constant, consistent castrations. It's something to wonder about, Why this character in this time (which also finds Arthur Miller's Willy Loman and Camus's Meursault in the contemporary zeitgeist), the existential fop giving ground to the undertow. When Baby Doll strikes up a quick flirtation with a toothy dentist (an uncredited and nigh-unrecognizable Rip Torn), the look on Archie's face is timeless. Malden's performance here distinguishes him as one of the greats, separated especially from Brando's side in Streetcar and On the Waterfront--but nothing compares to the indignity of the picture's final reel with Archie, coon rifle in hand, treeing Eli Wallach's unctuous Silva Vacarro and Baby Doll, his very own bride-to-be.
Archie torches Silva's cotton gin, see, in a convoluted attempt to buy the appropriate furniture with which to bed poor, wily Baby Doll, leading to a sudden surge in business at Archie's own ginning facility that forces him to leave his virgin bride to the attentions of the enraged Sicilian over one hot, lazy, Tennessee Williams summer day. (Though location shooting outside of Benoit, MI was frigid, Wallach warming his hands on an off-screen heater led to one of the most lascivious mis-readings in the piece by critics of the film. "Hand-check," indeed.) Of course Silva can run the pump for a drink of cool water that Archie can't, and of course there's a pretty strong suggestion that the change Archie sees in his immortal beloved has a lot to do with a certain sweet-talking, revenge-minded business man. The picture is hilariously charged along primitivist throughlines that shoot through the race and gender issues in the text like electrified rails. There's a lot happening on the surface of the piece (the era's segregation is an ugly stain always on display in the Kazan style), but the subtext is so bulbous and protruded that Baby Doll is most accurately described as a bald, sublimely ridiculous, astonishingly observant sex comedy. Like the infuriating, teasing, sexual minx Baby Doll represents, that camera doesn't go around the corner to see what Archie's trying to do to her in the bathtub, yet the movie hasn't aged a day in fifty years.
Early print defects aside, Baby Doll's 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer to DVD is a welcome upgrade to previous home video issues, albeit not the sterling, sparkling presentation reserved for Warner's Tiffany line of Williams titles. (Too, Baby Doll being a post-'scope release, this is likely an open matte transfer that inaccurately represents the original aspect ratio.) The images just don't pop like they do in A Streetcar Named Desire's makeover, for instance, with dirt and lines, if not in abundance, then at least prevalent enough to merit a mention. A/B inconsistencies clear up in time for the final showdown between Silva and Baby Doll's virtue, which the disc renders with glorious quality. The mono track is reproduced herein in distinct Dolby 1.0.
A 12-minute "Making of" featurette recalls the Catholic League's vein-bulging, Bible-thumping protestations at the time of the film's release as well as invaluable interviews with the still-kickin' Wallach, Baker, and Malden. Long declamations that Wallach was fondling a heater and not Baker's undercarriage are sort of interesting in an ancillary way, but I remain unconvinced by the many affirmations that no one had any idea they were creating any sort of sensation. Sure they didn't. Rounding out the platter is a trailer for the film plus a short clip (3 mins.) highlighting the raising of abovementioned billboard, complete with a live model subbing for Baker's legs as billboard artists and a throng of the curious gather ("You'd think they'd never seen a BABY DOLL!" the narrator narrates)--all of which belies the bodice-clenching cries of misunderstanding. Don't sell yourself short, folks, it's a far better thing to know exactly what you're doing and doing it anyway than to Ron Howard-ize it into pabulum. Originally published: May 30, 2006.