Friday, February 23, 2018

Baby Doll (1956)

USA, 114 minutes
Director: Elia Kazan
Writer: Tennessee Williams
Photography: Boris Kaufman
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Editor: Gene Milford
Cast: Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Mildred Dunnock, Lonny Chapman

Director Elia Kazan made Baby Doll right after two of his most famous movies, On the Waterfront and East of Eden, and right before another interesting curiosity, A Face in the Crowd, which uses a monster Andy Griffith as a certain type of charismatic Southern authoritarian politician (think Donald Trump in good old boy drag). In some ways the success of those earlier movies appears to have opened a vein of experimentation for Kazan. Baby Doll is also the first of only a few original screenplays by Tennessee Williams, who mostly stuck to the theater, though by 1956 he had adapted a few of his own plays for the screen, including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Rose Tattoo. For the most part the air of alcoholism and hysterical tones of Williams's work—all that unsympathetic Southern gallantry and desperation—usually loses me quickly. I know they're still working out the trauma of losing a war to defend slavery down there, hence the Confederate flags, statuary, etc., but already it's almost a hundred years here (and now it's more like 150 and they're still not over it).

Even so, something about this nifty collaboration with Kazan has kept me coming back for more. Probably, yeah, the raw charge of sexuality is part of it, a shot across the bow of the coming sexual liberation, written by a gay man. It's a strange and compelling movie, with one of Eli Wallach's greatest performances, which is saying a lot, especially given that this is his feature debut in a long and illustrious career.

Karl Malden and Carroll Baker round out the main players and if the story is weird and hothouse unreal (a kind of early Grey Gardens and typical of Williams) those three performances are anything but. Baker was in her early 20s when she played Baby Doll Meighan as a 19-year-old adolescent sexpot (nonetheless a virgin). Her nubile beauty is more convincing than her Southern accent, and on top of that Williams and Kazan outfit her with the eye of a fetishist. The first we see her is through a peephole that her husband Archie Lee (Malden) uses to spy on her. She sleeps in a crib with the slats down, all legs in the world's first baby doll nightgown. Archie Lee and Baby Doll have not yet consummated the union because Baby Doll euphemistically claims she is "not ready for marriage." They have agreed to wait until her 20th birthday, which is only a day or two away at the time of this movie. Archie Lee is at least in his late 30s (Malden was in his early 40s when the movie was made) and naturally he is mad with desire.

This being the South, at first I thought six or seven years was a long time to wait but that point has been sanitized somewhat. Archie Lee and Baby Doll only married the year before, when she was 18. This movie came a few years before Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin and reminded us how it's done. Somebody evidently made a decision here to soft-pedal the point. On the other hand, it's the South and the '50s, so the n-word is heard more than once in the mouths of white men. Interesting what got cleaned up and what was left as is in the '50s.

In fact, African-Americans are mostly just unfortunate scenery decoration here. The main ethnic conflict is between Southern whites and Italian-Americans (identified volubly by various white men, of course, as "wops" and "dagos," and probably now that I think of the way this plays standing in for Jews). Eli Wallach is Silva Vacarro, a Sicilian ("an ancient race") who arrived in the small Mississippi Delta town a year or two earlier and promptly competed to take over all the cotton-ginning business there was to be had in the region. Among other things that has driven Archie Lee to the point of bankruptcy, who in his extreme anxiety burns Vacarro's gin to the ground. This is also a day or two before Baby Doll's 20th birthday. Lots of things coming together at once.

That's backdrop for the essential centerpiece of Baby Doll, which is the seduction of Baby Doll by Vacarro. Suspecting it was Archie Lee who torched his place, Vacarro turns his ginning business over to him, using Archie Lee's eagerness to please to send him out of town when the opportunity arises. What Vacarro wants is evidence of the arson, which Baby Doll gives him almost right away in her sheer simplicity: "Oh, I'm telling you. The fire broke out and lit the whole sky with crazy shadows.... I was mad at Archie Lee. He went off and left me without a Coke in the house." Without even hearing it herself, she is undermining Archie Lee's lie.

I'm never quite prepared for how hot these scenes are, how long and slow, how quiet and confidently played. An IMDb reviewer makes the point that Baker is the "#1 Reason" to see the movie. It's true enough—she is a beautiful woman, she is practically falling out of her clothes, and her character is as extraordinarily dumb as she is good-hearted—all this inherited from Marilyn Monroe most likely, but a worthy rendition, and also a certain model of Southern womanhood, I believe. For me the #1 Reason is the uncanny chemistry between Baker and Wallach, as Vacarro stalks his prey. We see Vacarro realize how pliable she is and almost can't quite not resist. "There isn't much of you, but what there is, is choice," he murmurs into her ear in his smoldering Sicilian way (dressed all in black with a pencil mustache). "Delectable, I might say. You are fine-fibered." Wallach is impressive, in practically every scene of this movie.

To release the tension of the seduction the movie often turns farcical and silly, with something almost like silent-comedy routines and a bawdy overstated jazz score, which at least stays out of the way much of the time. One nice detail of music is that the record on Baby Doll's record player is Smiley Lewis's "Shame, Shame, Shame," which plays as Vacarro chases her awhile around the empty gothic mansion. The whole thing is outrageous and the Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency was against it, which is usually Luis Bunuel territory. Back of the seduction is another interesting story, which is the conflict between Vacarro and Archie Lee, who after all obviously has his own base of power in the town. However successful Vacarro has been he is still an outsider there, which he knows well, playing his dangerous game, attempting to set right the arson of his property and going after Archie Lee's virginal child bride as well. Pretty explosive stuff all around and made convincing by three stellar performances and a solid screenplay.

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