Few things are left to give one a sense of constancy in this world, so it’s nice to know the Catholic Church’s willingness to make an ass of itself is one of them. These days, it’s Monsignor Angelo Amato, former No. 2 at the Vatican’s doctrinal office, suggesting that Catholics should take a page from Muslims and raise some papist jihad over The Da Vinci Code. In 1956, it was New York Cardinal Francis Spellman condemning Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s.
“ Baby Doll was the worst,” wrote John Waters in his autobiography, Shock Value. “If you saw Baby Doll, it was worse than killing the pope.” Warner Bros. head honcho Jack Warner pulled the film from theaters a few weeks into its release, buckling under the one-two punch of Spellman and the Catholic Legion of Decency, which had condemned the film.
As with all controversial works that become legendary, Baby Doll is, through nothing other than our own myopia, in danger of being declared no big deal or—a worse slight—“dated.” But that’s to confuse shocking with explicit. There’s still something startlingly perverse about the sight of Carroll Baker as the virgin child-bride Baby Doll, sucking her thumb as she sleeps in a crib. Kazan and his great cinematographer Boris Kaufman give it an added kick by framing the shot as if we are looking through a peephole.
But it’s the film’s frankly carnal attitude that’s the shock. Baby Doll is, in its way, as dirty as “The Miller’s Tale.” It’s a barnyard view of human nature as a parade of plush hens and preening cocks, some a bit more presentable than others. If ever a movie character suffered from lust, it’s Karl Malden’s Archie Lee Meighan. With the few wisps of hair left on his head in constant sweaty disarray, the actor’s trademark bulbous nose, and his eyes popping out as if in reaction to the collars and jackets that seem about two sizes too small for him, Mr. Malden looks like a debauched Frank Rich.
To borrow a line from James Coburn in Charade, Archie Lee and good luck always were strangers. He had convinced Baby Doll’s late, beloved daddy that his cotton-ginning business was going to be a big success, and that he was going to move his little girl into the biggest house in town. He kept that promise—except that the place is a rundown wreck of a mansion, and an empty one. The five sets of furniture Archie Lee has purchased for it are, at the movie’s start, repossessed. The one promise he’s kept is not to touch Baby Doll until her 20th birthday, and now, on the cusp of that landmark, Archie Lee looks like a sozzled Fourth of July rocket anticipating a sputtering launch, more relief than pleasure. But even the promise of Baby Doll’s charms can’t distract him from the way his business has gone bust thanks to the Sicilian newcomer Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach) who’s cornered this Mississippi town’s cotton business. Then Archie Lee burns down his mill, leaving Vaccaro to execute his revenge, which, of course, means setting his sights on the one precious possession Archie Lee has left: his unsullied child bride.
Mr. Malden is desperately funny here, as sick with lust as, later on, he is with the fear of being cuckolded. It’s a performance entirely without vanity. An actor willing to appear so foolish has to be able to trust his director and his screenwriter, and Mr. Malden is rewarded not just with some of the juiciest, funniest lines Williams ever wrote but what has to be Kazan’s finest piece of film direction.
Baby Doll doesn’t go as deep as A Streetcar Named Desire or even On the Waterfront. But it’s the most seamless melding of Kazan’s abilities as an actor’s director and a filmmaker. The long duet between Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach is one of those rare astonishments you get when two actors are in perfect synch. Ms. Baker does a subtle cartoon of young Southern womanhood, emphasizing Baby Doll’s coyness and easily outraged propriety, but also her willingness to be seduced. And what a seducer she has: Mr. Wallach, dressed all in black and so chiseled it appears as if he has a cinched waist, gives one of the slyest, sexiest performances ever put on film. Vaccaro’s vendetta emanates equally from the head and the groin. He play-acts at being a Southern gentleman more convincingly than Archie Lee ever could, and you can’t blame Baby Doll for being drawn into his trap. When he feeds her a hunk of bread sopping with pot liquor, laughing with pleasure as the two of them stuff their faces, it’s just about the most salacious act you can imagine.
There are other faces in Baby Doll: an impossibly young Rip Torn as the town dentist, Mildred Dunnock as Baby Doll’s fluttering, nervous maiden aunt (the essence of Williams’ Southern flowers too delicate for this world). And there are the faces of the inhabitants of Benoit, Miss., where the film was shot. We watch black sharecroppers and their white bosses laughing with pleasure as Vaccaro’s mill burns down; an older black woman who, at a boss’s request, drops her waitressing duties to sing “I Shall Not Be Moved”; men ogling Baby Doll as she walks down the street. Kazan and Kaufman don’t prettify anyone—or judge them. They give them the space to present themselves to the camera. It took courage, in 1956, to put this slice of the rural South onscreen without apology or a condemnation.
For Williams, who adapted the screenplay from two of his one-act plays, Baby Doll is a kind of summit too, the work where his occasional penchant for grotesquerie and his innate lyricism hold each other in check. It’s hard to say what Baby Doll adds up to, but Carroll Baker’s delivery of the last line—“We got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow, and see if we are remembered or forgotten”—has a cruel tenderness, a suggestion that the bloom is already off this Southern rose, and she is in line to become one of her creator’s great neurotic muses. That Williams and Kazan are not willing to let her remain a joke acknowledges her humanity, and reveals theirs.