Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cradle of Lust: Baby Doll (1956)

Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (1956)

Last week, in my roundup of movies set in Mississippi, I left out one of my all-time favorites, the Elia Kazan-Tennessee Williams collaboration Baby Doll (1956). The oversight fell all the more stinging when, the day before my piece appeared, Eli Wallach died. Wallach, who was 98, appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows, in addition to his legendary stage career; a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, he was probably best remembered by general moviegoers for having played Mexican bandits in The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But he made his screen debut in Baby Doll, as a Sicilian whose fiery temper and sense of justice are tempered by his suavity and sure knowledge that, in rural Mississippi, he is surrounded by people who will do business with him so long as it suits their purposes but who regard him as The Other. It may have been the biggest star performance Wallach ever gave in a movie; it was almost certainly the sexiest.

Baby Doll stars Carroll Baker as the luscious, thumb-sucking title character and Karl Malden as her husband, Archie Lee Meighan, the owner of a failing cotton gin who is losing his business to Silva Vacarro (Wallach), the new man in town with the shiny, modernized ginning factory. Archie Lee thinks of himself as a big man, and the infantile Baby Doll is his idea of a trophy wife; uninterested in cooking or housekeeping, part of her appeal is that she’s only theoretically good for one thing. As part of the deal that got the two of them to the altar two years earlier, he’s set her up in the only antebellum house in the depressed area they live in, and stocked it with furniture—which is just sitting haphazardly around the rotting big house, waiting to be repossessed. Archie Lee is all ambition and appetite, and with his business going under and his nymphet incapable of concealing her disgust with him, he’s totally frustrated. The only light at the end of the tunnel is the prospect of his wife’s twentieth birthday; he’s agreed not to consummate the marriage until that happy day arrives. Baby Doll explains this arrangement to her husband’s rival, Silva mutters, “Mrs. Meighan, your husband sweats more than any man I know, and now I can understand why.”

Baby Doll was denounced by the Catholic Legion of Decency, Cardinal Spell, and other distinguished blowhards, and unlike other movies that were subject to the wrath of religious gatekeepers in the 1950s, it’s easy to look at it now and understand their objections. It’s not just that sexual desire and seduction are built into the story; it’s that the whole damn thing is so grungy that theaters must have needed to send people in Hazmat suits in to hose down the screen between shows. Kazan and Williams had enjoyed a tremendous success together with the lived-in, artful sordidness of A Streetcar Named Desire, but seeing Marlon Brando hollering in his undershirt and sitting around with his poker buddies is no preparation for this stuff.

Eli Wallach and Karl Malden in Baby Doll
The central cast includes Mildred Dunnock as Baby Doll’s aunt, who always dresses as if she’d just gotten up in the middle of the night to go see what the dog is barking at, and who, when not watching over her virginal charge, fills her days by padding over to the hospital to visit her sick relatives and eat all their candy. (There’s also the 25-year-old Rip Torn in his film debut, as a dentist. It’s just a bit part, but he was already capable of packing a lot of Rip Torn into very little screen time. Lest there be any confusion, I mean that as a compliment.) Most of the other parts were filled with locals, and whatever flair they lack when it comes to delivering their lines is more than made up for with their slowed-down, humidity-dampened realness. The movie is often funny in a way that feels weirdly intimate; it’s funny in the way of people at a family reunion trading mean wisecracks about their kinfolk. All the people in the town snicker at the very sight of Archie Lee, as if his priapic misery were an inside joke that everyone in his world is in on. Somehow, the movie makes audiences feel that they, too, are partaking of an inside joke about fictitious people they only recently met but have known about their whole lives.

Williams’ ear for the poetry in heightened everyday speech and the comedy of people trying to bring dignity to trivial subjects and squalid situations was never more finely tuned. Left alone with Mrs. Meighan while her husband is trying to take on a big order (after burning down Silva’s gin), the Sicilian gradually draws closer and closer to Baby Doll, implicating her in a series of tiny intimacies. At one point, he cracks a nut with his teeth and offers her some. Flustered, she politely says, “I’m sorry, but I could never eat something that a man had in his mouth.” Looking suitably impressed, he replies, “You’re a lady of some refinement.” Kazan would later claim that Williams was never fully committed to the project, and that Kazan himself ended up writing most of it. On the basis of no evidence besides what’s on the screen, I interpret that as Gadge trying to get back at Tennessee for leaving him high and dry when it came to the ending. The script is based on Williams’ one-act play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton; the title refers to the price that Silva means to extract from Archie Lee in retaliation for the burning of his cotton gin, which Silva takes in trade during the succession of long afternoons he will be “entertained” by Mrs. Meighan while her hapless husband is busily ginning away.

Nothing of that sort was going to happen or even be suggested in a Hollywood movie of 1956, so the movie wraps in a squall of noise and flapping loose ends, with Silva obtaining legal proof of his enemy’s arson and pledging to, I don’t know, maybe return for Baby Doll… tomorrow, maybe? (Ominously, though, he’s already told her, when she expresses real interest in him, “You’re a child, Mrs. Meighan.” He says it tenderly, wonderingly, as if astonished that she doesn’t know it herself, or that she doesn’t know that men more sophisticated than her husband are not looking to get into long-term romantic relationships with overage children.) But even with the inconclusive shrug of a finish, Baby Doll remains one of the freshest and funniest takes on Southern depravity in the history of the genre. Just be prepared to take a shower after seeing it—not to cool down, but to get the grunge out of your system.

 Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. Club, HitFlix, Nerve, HiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.


  1. Vaccaro's first name is SILVA, not "Silvio" as reviewer Phil Dyess-Nugent kept erroneously referring to him as. Makes me wonder just how closely Mr. Dyess-Nugent listened to the dialogue in the movie.

    By the way, I felt no need to take a shower to "get the grunge out of my system" after watching Baby Doll, but I did take one to cool down after watching Eli Wallach's purring performance on the swing with Carroll Baker. Whew!!

    1. Thank you for pointing that out! Correction has been made.