Filmsite Movie Review
Baby Doll (1956)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Background

Baby Doll (1956) has been called notorious, salacious, revolting, dirty, steamy, lewd, suggestive, morally repellent and provocative. Time Magazine was noted as stating: "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited..." New York's Cardinal Spellman declared the film "evil in concept... certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it." The stark, controversial, black and white Southern drama was so viciously denounced by the Legion of Decency upon its release with a "C" (or condemned) rating that many theaters were forced to cancel their showings, but it still did moderately well at the box office despite the uproar. Baby Doll's impact was heightened by its themes: moral decay, lust, sexual repression, seduction, infantile eroticism and the corruption of the human soul.

The dark comedy's advertisements and posters featured a sultry young "Baby Doll" curled up in a crib in a suggestive pose, sucking her thumb. The young actress portraying precocious, 19 year-old Baby Doll, Carroll Baker (25 years old and in her second film) received a well-deserved Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her role. The film received a total of four Academy Award nominations, with no wins: Best Actress for Baker, Best Adapted Screenplay for Tennessee Williams, Best Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), and Best Supporting Actress (Mildred Dunnock). To make the film appear more genuine and authentic, most of it was filmed on location in rural Benoit, Mississippi.

The landmark, tragi-comedy film, one of the most erotic cinematic works ever produced, was based on Tennessee Williams' first original film screenplay, interweaving and adapting two of his earlier one-act plays: "Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton" and "The Long Stay Cut Short" (aka "The Unsatisfactory Supper"). The highly-acclaimed Williams had many of his plays adapted for the screen in the 1950s: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly Last Summer (1959)). As before, Williams' work on this film was directed by Elia Kazan, a favorite director of several of his plays on Broadway as well. The film actually brought together director Elia Kazan, scriptwriter Tennessee Williams, and actor Karl Malden from his previous film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

The Story

Following the credits, the film opens with a seductive, memorable "peeping tom" image of "Baby Doll" (Carroll Baker), a luscious blonde, voluptuous girl (almost 20 years old) lying on a crib-like bed she has long grown out of. Wearing baby doll pajamas, she is curled up and taking a nap with her thumb in her mouth. Sexually-appealing, one of her legs is draped provocatively off the end of the crib. She is peered at lecherously through a small, cracked hole in the wall from the adjoining room on the second floor of a once-grand, now ramshackle, decaying plantation mansion in rural Mississippi. The voyeur is a balding, perpetually-sweating, middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), with his dog by his side (to make the point more obvious). Frustrated by not seeing enough of her, he begins to bore open a larger hole in the wall, awakening her with the scraping sounds. She moves stealthily to the adjacent room, catches him watching her, and confronts Archie Lee - her husband!:

Baby Doll: Archie Lee! You're a mess. Do you know what they call such people? Peepin' Toms!
Archie: Hey, there's no need for a woman that sleeps in a baby's crib to stay away from her husband...
Baby Doll: Now, I'm gonna plug up the hole in that wall with chewin' gum.

Enraged at him, it is learned that the pathetic venal man is a struggling, near bankrupt cotton-gin owner who had married her as an uneducated, naive child bride two years previously, making her Mrs. Archie Lee Meighan. He promised her white-trash father (since deceased) that she would remain a virgin, and continue to sleep alone in her crib until her 20th birthday (only two days away as the film opens). She won't even let him touch her - in their unconsummated marriage:

Archie: Today is the fifth day of November. Tomorrow is the sixth day of November, and the day after that is November seventh. And you know what day that is, don't you? November seventh is your 20th birthday.
Baby Doll: Ain't that sweet of you to remember. Where's my birthday present?
Archie (leeringly): Oh, you'll get your birthday present, providin' you haven't forgotten the agreement between us, which comes due on that day.
Baby Doll: Oh the agreement?
Archie: Yeah, the agreement, that you swore on a Bible to keep your side of...Have I ever laid hands on you since we've been married?
Baby Doll: Yeah, as often as possible.

In the bathroom after stealing a nip from a hidden bottle (and gargling when Baby Doll enters) - he's a secret tippler, he dolefully looks at his appearance in the mirror. Baby Doll mocks his balding head: "Just look at yourself. You're not exactly a young girl's dream come true, Archie Lee Meighan." When the downstairs phone rings continuously without being answered by Baby Doll's Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock), Archie lumbers down the staircase. After getting her to finally answer the phone, he grabs it away from her when he learns that the caller is the Ideal Pay As You Go Plan Furniture Company - threatening to repossess the furniture.

Precariously deep in financial debt, Archie has lost cotton gin trade to the Syndicate Plantation because they have built their own cotton gin. When the furniture company demands immediate payment for their furniture, he screams: "Then TAKE IT OUT! TAKE IT OUT! OUT! OUT! You're never gettin' my business again. No never," and then hangs up on them. He intimidates the timid, deaf Aunt Rose into keeping quiet to his wife about his financial failings. When he heads back into his bedroom, Baby Doll is in the bathtub, taunting and teasing Archie by bathing in front of him. Archie suddenly enters the bathroom, and the sounds of a wet struggle are heard, above which Baby Doll cries:

Get your hands off me...I'm movin' to the Kotton King Hotel the very next time you try to break our agreement. The very next time!

If their furniture is repossessed, Archie forfeits his rights to have her as a wife. She slams the door to her bedroom, leaving her browbeaten husband with a soaked face next to the tub.

In the next scene, Archie is seated in his 1937 Chevy Sedan, a mud-splashed, dented old car, ready to drive into town for a doctor's appointment. As he honks the horn repeatedly with impatience, he cries out:

Archie: Baby Doll! Baby Doll! Now you come on down here, if you're goin' into town with me. I got to be at the doctor's ten minutes ago. (No answer) Baby Doll!
Baby Doll (from the second floor window inside the house): If you're so impatient, just go ahead without me. Just go ahead. I got plenty of ways of gettin' downtown without you...
Archie: You come on!

Suddenly, Baby Doll appears on the porch, dressed sexily in a skintight, light-colored blouse and skirt, a pearl choker, and a white handbag. Archie orders: "Will you get your cotton-pickin' tail down here." She sashays down the porch steps in the outfit, and then waits on the passenger side of the car (she calls it a "skatterbolt") for him to open it "like a gentleman." When he refuses, she climbs into the back seat and they drive to town, passing by Archie's new competitor, the Syndicate Cotton Gin. The company is celebrating while Archie and Baby Doll continue to bicker:

Archie: Why shouldn't the Syndicate celebrate!!?? It's got every last bit of business in the county, includin' every last bit of what I used to get...
Baby Doll: They've got an up-to-date gin, not like that old pile of junk you got! (Archie glares at her)

On the way into the doctor's office, Archie hotly argues with Baby Doll about the fate of dotty ol' Aunt Rose, complaining that the old woman is an unnecessary burden because she can't cook:

All right, but I am servin' you notice. If that ol' woman breaks down and dies on my place, I ain't gonna get stuck with the funeral expenses. I'll have her burned up, cremated is what they call it. I'll pack her ashes in an ol' Coca-Cola bottle and I'll pitch that bottle into TIGER TAIL BAYOU!!!

Across the hall from the office, Baby Doll notices a sign advertising: "Receptionist Wanted." After straightening her hat, she innocently approaches the young dentist who is hiring and flirtatiously begins chatting with him. Obviously, she is totally unqualified, but teasingly boasts: "I don't do no typin', but, um, I print a real good hand."

In the doctor's inner office, Archie pathetically requests medication for his nerves and tension, and is given advice by the doctor, as sounds of low laughter from his wife are heard in the hallway:

Doctor: You know, Archie Lee, you're not an old man, but you're not a young man either no more.
Archie: That's the truth. That's the truth John, that's no lie.
Doctor: How long you been married now?
Archie: Just about a year now. (More laughter) She's pretty though.
Doctor: Yeah, I guess so. Youth huh? (Archie is increasingly annoyed by the laughter and goes to the door to open it slightly) You been under some kind of a strain, though, ain't ya?
Archie: No, no strain at all.
Doctor: You look mighty nervous to me. (Archie brings Baby Doll back into the doctor's office, angered by her behavior)
Doctor's Receptionist: Mr. Meighan, come back in here. The doctor's gonna give you a prescription.
Doctor: Archie Lee, what I think you need is some kind of a little harmless sedative...
Receptionist: ...It's not gonna help what's wrong with you one bit.

At wit's end, Archie is the town's laughing-stock - everyone knows that he is unsatisfied and ruled by his stuck-up, spoiled, child bride. While she sits in the back seat of his open car in town, he brings her a single-dip ice cream cone which she childishly licks [this is not a symbol of her desire for fellatio, only a characteristic of her baby childishness]. He expresses his growing impatience with her:

Archie: You know, people know the situation between us. Yesterday on Front Street, a man called out to me and said, 'Hey Archie Lee, has your wife outgrowed the crib yet?' And three or four others haw-hawed at me! Public! Humiliation!
Baby Doll: Private hu-mil-a-tion [sic] is just as painful.
Archie: There's no torture on earth to equal the torture which a cold woman inflicts on a man. There's no torture to compare with it. What I've done is staked out a lot in Hell. A lot with a rotten house on it and five complete sets of furniture not paid for...
Baby Doll: What you've done is bit off more than you can chew.

Suddenly, a truck horn sounds, and an IDEAL PAY AS YOU GO PLAN FURNITURE COMPANY truck passes them on their way home. She realizes that their rooms of furniture are being repossessed, and she runs down the road after the truck:

Baby Doll: Archie Lee, is that our furniture?
Archie Lee: No, no it isn't...
Baby Doll: Archie Lee, they're takin' away all our stuff! What are you just standin' there for?...Let's get on home before they get the rest of it.

When they arrive home, another truck is backed up to the house, and more furniture is being removed - Aunt Rose is oblivious to the turmoil and workers in the house. Baby Doll pummels the movers with her purse, but they continue to take away furnishings. She threatens to move to the Kotton King Hotel in town and get a job, since Archie Lee can no longer provide for her. Inside the empty hallway of the mansion, she hears Archie open the creaking screen door and enter:

Baby Doll: I don't want to be in the same room with a man that would make me live in a house with no furniture...My daddy would turn over in his grave if he knew, he would just turn over in his grave.
Archie: If your daddy turned in his grave as often as you say he'd turn in his grave, that old man would plow up the graveyard....
Baby Doll: I'm movin' to the Kotton King Hotel. I am moving to the Kotton King Hotel. I'm gonna get me a good-payin' job. The manager of the Kotton King Hotel helped carry my daddy's coffin. He'll give me work.
Archie: What sort of work do you think you could do?
Baby Doll: I could curl hair in a beauty parlor...Uh, I reckon that I could, uh, be a hostess - smile at people comin' in a place.
Archie: What place?
Baby Doll: Any place! I could be a, uh, cashier.
Archie: (laughing) Aw honey, you can't count change.
Baby Doll: I could pass out menus or programs or somethin' and say hello to people...

As Baby Doll calls the Kotton King Hotel to reserve a room for the next morning, Archie wanders into the yard, upset and tense and requiring a swig from his bottle. He is more irritated when he passes a disoriented and senile Aunt Rose, who calls a bunch of cut roses in her hand "poems of nature." He drives his car out of the yard toward the Syndicate Cotton Gin, where a celebration is occurring.

Archie's new competitor, a wily, sleek, beady-eyed, cocky Sicilian business rival named Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), is being congratulated. Some of the guests in the audience are hostile and view him as an interloper who is taking away Archie's business:

Senator: Young man? Mr. Vacarro. This is a mighty fine party you're throwing here tonight in honor of your first anniversary as the manager of the Syndicate Plantation and Gin...
Vacarro: ...They'll be a fish fry Saturday night. Catfish, Hush Puppies, Dancin', bring your ladies!...
Senator: I just want you to know that us good neighbors appreciate your achievement, in bringin' in the biggest cotton crop that ever was picked on this blessed soil of Tiger Tale County...Naturally, a thing that is profitable to some is unprofitable to others...We all know that some folks here have suffered financially due in some measure to this man's success with the Syndicate Plantation. But as a whole, the community stands to reap a nice fat profit.

Meanwhile, Archie's resentment builds and he slips out to his car's trunk for a kerosene can and then disappears. (Off-screen, he sets his rival's business on fire.) Voices cry alarm: "Silva." The Sicilian races toward the fire engulfing the gin building with a water hose. Loaded wagons are driven out, but the fire is too far gone and the roof begins to collapse. Black field hands take an odd pleasure in watching the flames rather than fighting the fire. Vacarro comes out of the smoking, burning inferno, salvaging and clutching a small, kerosene can in his arms. He collapses with the evidence of arson, and is dragged to safety.

Later, Vacarro strides into the Brite Spot Cafe, followed by strong-arm Rock (Lonny Chapman) carrying the kerosene can. Surrounded by an unfriendly and unreceptive group of townspeople, they speak to the town's Marshal (Eades Hogue) at one of the booths:

Vacarro: Come on, Marshal, whatcha gonna do about findin' the man that burned down my gin?
Marshal: Well, what makes you so sure your gin was set fire to?
Vacarro: Look around. Did you ever see so many happy faces, It looks like a rich man's funeral with all his relations attending.
Marshal: I'd hate to have to prove that.
Vacarro: I'd hate to have to depend on you to prove it.

The Marshal believes every man that Vacarro put out of business was standing right there next to the gin when the fire broke out, but Rock knows one that wasn't as he holds up the can: "It looks like whoever did it forgot to take this with them." Vacarro refuses to relinquish the can to the Marshal as evidence: "I run through fire to get this can and I mean to keep it. (To Rock) Lock it up in the pickup truck." Outside, the can is taken from Rock and he is knocked to the ground. One of the crusty old-timers offers Vacarro some advice, making it clear that no one will side with a foreigner against a local boy. But Vacarro insists on his own moral code and decides to investigate the arson by himself:

Old Timer: ...My advice is for you not to make any more reckless charges. Because you're bein' a foreigner, you already got strike one and strike two against you.
Vacarro: I want no advice, no law, no court in this county. I come from a very old country where it's tradition for each man to make his own justice, like bootleg liquor. Private, in secret, because there was corruption there too. And if justice was executed, it was executed by each man himself - alone. I mean Biblical justice. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Rock suspects that the hot-tempered Archie Lee committed the crime: "They were all there in the shed - all except one. The one that wasn't there. I figure he did it." Vacarro decides he will take twenty-seven wagon loads of his cotton for ginning to Archie Lee's gin, until his own gin can be rebuilt:

He's the one that's gonna gin out my cotton...

Archie expectantly sees the wagons of cotton approaching, commenting to Aunt Rose: "The furniture is coming back today..." In the front yard of Archie's home, Silva and Rock sit in the pickup truck and are told by Archie: "...I want you to know that you're a very lucky fellow...I mean that I am in a position to hold back the other orders and give you a priority." Silva slyly asks: "I guess when you saw my gin burnin' down last night, you must've figured you might get a good deal of business thrown your way in the morning," but Archie responds: "I never did see that fire of yours last night!...We hit the sack right after supper and I didn't know until breakfast time this morning that your cotton gin had burned down."

As Archie introduces Baby Doll to Vacarro, he has him spell his first name. Silva obliges: "Capital S-I-L-V-A."

Archie: Sure enough, like a silver lining? Well, every cloud has got a silver lining.
Baby Doll: Oh, what's that from? The Bible?
Silva: No, the Mother Goose book.
Baby Doll: That name sounds foreign.
Silva: It is, Mrs. Meighan. I'm known as the wop that runs the Syndicate Plantation.

Archie Lee is elated with his newfound prospect for business, and wishes to extend every bit of hospitality to Vacarro, including entertainment by his willful child bride virgin while he works ginning the cotton. Additional business (after the burning of Vacarro's gin) would enable him to obtain enough money to purchase the furniture - and thereby guarantee the consummation of his marriage to Baby Doll! This also plays into Vacarro's plan to spend a languorous day at Archie's place to pursue the truth and ultimately bring forth a confession from Baby Doll about Archie's guilt:

Archie: I believe in the good neighbor policy. You do me a good turn and I'll do you a good turn, Mr. Vacarro. Tit for tat and tat for tit is the policy we live on...Honey, honey, honey...Now I want you to entertain this gentleman. Oh, look. Look, look, look at her blush...Oh, this is my baby. Oh, this is my little girl, every precious ounce of her is mine....(Baby Doll yawns)
Baby Doll: Excuse my yawn. We was up awful late last night. (Rock notices a discrepancy)

When Archie suddenly finds himself frenzied and with more work than he can handle on the hot afternoon, Vacarro concentrates his attention on Baby Doll - the major nucleus of the film. As she hugs one of the columns on the front porch, she offers some coffee. Instead, he asks for a "cool drink of water." Because the house water runs warm, she suggests, if he has the energy (unlike Archie who can't draw water), to use the old-fashioned pump in the yard at the side of the house to get a nice cool drink. He strides toward the cistern, telling her: "I got energy to burn." As he crosses the yard, he contemptuously criticizes: "Dump their garbage in the yard. Ignorance and Indulgence and Stink!" The virile Sicilian vigorously pumps the well - a sexual symbol and contrast to Archie's thwarted and elderly masculinity. Baby Doll wanders out to where the two young males drink at the well, drawn almost unconsciously by their magnetism and flattered by their attention.

After Rock goes to supervise the cotton ginning, Vacarro learns from Baby Doll that their furniture has been repossessed: "Five complete sets of furniture hauled away by the Ideal Pay As You Go Plan Furniture Company." Her stipulation with Archie Lee was that he had to provide a furnished home for her - or otherwise his rights to her as a wife would be forfeited. Silva tells her they have both had a coincidence of misfortunes: "Both of us had misfortunes on the same day...You lost your furniture. My cotton gin burned down." Because dim-witted and dazed Baby Doll can't follow his thinking, as she sips on a glass Coke bottle (her breakfast), he must repeat himself:

I said people come into this world without instructions of where to go, what to do, so they wander a little and then go away. Drift for a while and then...vanish. And so make room for newcomers. Old goers, new comers. Goin' and comin', back and forth. Rush, rush! Permanent? Nothing!


Next Page