Southern Movie 30: “Baby Doll” (1956)

After Streetcar Named Desire, but before Cat on a Hot Tin RoofNight of the Iguana, and Suddenly, Last Summer, there was Baby Doll, Elie Kazan’s 1956 adaptation of Tennessee WIlliams’ one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. With its mixture of wild tantrums and slow-paced seduction, the black-and-white Baby Doll was a sultry foray into tenuous connections between Mississippi’s poor whites and the outside investors who came to the region— sultry enough that, in its days, it earned complete condemnation from the National Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization that rated films for content objections.

As Baby Doll opens, we see a dilapidated Greek Revival mansion on a sparse parcel of land, surrounded by scrub brush and dead trees. A black man is on the roof making repairs, as the white man on the ground, who is wearing his pajamas, is instructing him to find and fix the biggest hole first. Other old black men laze around in the yard, and one asks another, “Should we help him?” to which the other replies, “Nah, I’m retired.”

After glaring at their refusal to assist, the messy white man stumbles into the large ramshackle house and begins checking rooms, soon finding what he seems to want: a locked door. He then stalks into the adjacent room and quietly puts his head into a hole in the wall, which he uses to spy on a sleeping young woman. She looks like a teenager, blonde and pretty, and lays on a chaise lounge, sleeping and sucking her thumb. The man then begins to widen the peephole with a screwdriver, yet the noise from that and the whining dog in the room with him wake the girl. She’s not pleased about what she sees.

Now, we get to understand the situation. As the two begin to argue, we learn that they are Archie Lee (Karl Malden) and his young wife Baby Doll (Carroll Baker). Archie Lee is middle-aged and scruffy, unshaven with thinning hair, not a man one might expect to have a pretty young wife. As Baby Doll does her best to get away from him, moving from room to room, Archie Lee berates her for refusing her own husband any kind of physical affection. He also reminds her that her twentieth birthday is two days away, and that their “agreement” was that he would have her on that day. Baby Doll, in turn, reminds him that he promised her now-deceased father that they would live in the biggest in the house in the county— to which Archie responds that they do: the Tiger Tail estate is the largest house in the county.

Their tension is disrupted when the telephone rings downstairs, as the elderly and squeamish Aunt Rose Comfort moves around it, meekly refusing to answer. Archie chides her and answers it himself, and through this conversation, we learn that Archie is mortgaged to the hilt. The frustrated man is at the end of his wits and the end of his finances, because a new cotton gin in town has taken all of his business. Now, he is facing foreclosure and a yet-untouched bride who is threatening to leave him and move into the Cotton King Hotel!

After an off-camera scene where Archie Lee attempts unsuccessfully to take Baby Doll by force while she bathes, the couple are getting into the car to go into town for an appointment that Archie Lee has with the doctor. While Archie is in the car, honking and shouting for her to come on, the black men in the yard laugh at him, as he tries to play it off. Soon, Baby Doll does emerge, demanding that Archie open the car door for her but he refuses, and they’re off.

In town, while Archie is in his appointment, Baby Doll uses the opportunity to talk with the young dentist across the hall about getting a job as a receptionist. She flirts with grinning young man, but has to admit that she doesn’t have any skills at all. In the doctor’s office, Archie Lee gets a prescription for some illness that he never quite admits to, mainly because the doctor’s unfriendly nurse stands right beside him glaring, then finds his wife flirting in the hallway. The couple leaves and must get Archie Lee’s prescription filled, and while they wait in their convertible amid the people passing by, Baby Doll spots a furniture truck going to their house to repossess the furniture! (Archie Lee already knew this was coming from the earlier phone call and was using the prescription as a ruse not to be home when they came.)

However, Baby Doll surmises the situation and takes off. They arrive home as their house is being emptied, and a resolved Archie Lee tries to console his wife, who is having none of it. Their last vestige of pride is walking out the door. They are not only living in the huge rotting hull of a mansion, they are now living mostly without furniture.

Later that evening, Archie goes into town alone to a get-together that celebrates the anniversary of the Syndicate Gin, the large, corporate cotton gin that has ruined business for himself and the other small gin owners. Here, we see a smiling group of local leaders congratulating Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), the Sicilian owner of the gin, and wishing him continued success, while a disconsolate group of working-class men squats outside the party. We understand that these are the men who he put out of business. Archie Lee arrives, takes one look at the gathering, and goes outside to fetch his kerosene can— then uses it across the street to burn down the large gin! As it burns, we watch a laughing, toothless black man revel in the joy of the spectacle, and Silva charges into the fire to recover the main piece of evidence: the kerosene can.

The stage is set for a new conflict. Archie Lee Meighan has enough trouble trying to please his pretty, young, blue-blood wife – he has “bit off more than he can chew” as she puts it – and in seeking a solution has brought on a new problem: Silva Vacarro will not take this tragedy lying down.

Understanding that Archie Lee’s gin is still operational, an angry and now vengeful Silva and his main man Rock carry loads of cotton to Archie Lee to gin, so the Syndicate Gin can meet its contracts. Archie is at once panicked and elated at the news, believing his desperate act will pay dividends, facing the man he has just victimized, and knowing that his worn-out gin is not up to the task. Out of that panic, Archie Lee claims that he knows nothing about the fire since he and his wife went bed right after supper, then makes a comment about the “good neighbor policy, which sounds something a Southern mi casa es su casa. Tense pleasantries aside, the two men make their deal, and Archie Lee and Rock go to fire up the gin, while Silva is left at the house with Baby Doll.

At first, Silva and Baby Doll stroll casually around the yard, and Aunt Rose Comfort brings Baby Doll a Coke, about which Silva asks, “Is that your breakfast?” It is. Then their interaction takes on a different kind of gravity when Silva suggests that they sit together in the carcass of an old car to play chauffeur, However, instead of getting front, he gets in the back seat with her, sitting close, speaking softly, and asking probing questions. After they get out, the next scene in the yard swing is even more sexually charged, as Silva sits down with Baby Doll, comments on the softness of her skin, then begins to run her chest and neck until she gets woozy from her heavy breathing. Baby Doll escapes the situation, panting and mumbling, then explains that she is a little tired from sitting up for hours waiting on Archie Lee to come home. She watched the fire from far off, she tells him, but could smell the smoke from miles away, and Archie did not come home until nearly midnight— a direct contradiction to Archie’s statement that they had gone to bed early. Silva now knows who burned his gin and rattles Baby Doll with a growling monologue about evil spirits that move from person to person like fire moves from tree to tree.

Upset by the situation with Silva, Baby Doll runs over to her husband’s gin, which has broken down. Right behind her, Silva uses the opportunity to check on progress and pulls up in his truck. Inside, a pleading Baby Doll is exhorted by Archie Lee for coming to the gin. He slaps her and sends her out, just as Silva comes in. Seeing that Archie Lee will not be able to do the job, Silva angrily tells the owner of the shoddy operation to go wherever he must go to find a new part. After Archie leaves, Silva instructs Rock to send Archie’s men home, go to their burnt gin and get the part, and resume work with their own men.

Back at Tiger Tail, Silva finds Baby Doll crying in the yard with a dirty hand-slap mark on her face. Sitting by a pig sty, the two see Aunt Rose leaving, and they laugh for a moment about how she visits sick friends so she can eat the chocolates that their other visitors bring. After the tension from earlier and from Archie’s abuse, they are on good terms again.

Back at the house, Baby Doll offers to serve Silva some lemonade, and when he attempts to go inside with her, she stops him at the door. Baby Doll has sensed this man cannot be handled as she has handles Archie Lee, whose bullish ill-temper and wild desperation she can swat down. As she attempts to keep Silva outside and make lemonade in the dirty, primitive kitchen, he plays with her mind, sneaking inside to move objects and sway light fixtures before retreating again to the porch. The game then takes on greater urgency, when Baby Doll runs upstairs. Silva makes a pitcher of whiskey-spiked lemonade and follows her. The two play an adult version of hide-and-seek that ends with Baby Doll flat on her back on the floor and Silva tickling her with his foot. In one last attempt at coyness, Baby Doll runs up the stairs to the attic, where Silva finally corners her and uses her fear of the collapsing beams to force her to sign a note proving that Archie Lee did burn down his gin.

Shifting our attention back to Archie, the film again shows him in his ineptitude: trying to buy a new part that he is unable to pay for, riding home across a river on ramshackle ferry, and finally pulling up in the rain for find Rock and Silva’s men working. He is confused about why he was sent for a part that the Syndicate Gin already had . . . until the men start laughing at him. We sense that they know that Silva is at his house, with his wife, and that he was sent on the long errand for reasons he did not earlier perceive.

Back at Archie’s house, Silva was invited to take a nap upstairs in the couple’s only bed, accompanied by Baby Doll, who is wearing only a slip. The scene cuts away after Baby Doll covers Silva with blanket, we are left to assume what might have happened— just as Archie will be. Arriving home in the rain, Archie is met first by Baby Doll, who comes downstairs in only her slip, then by Silva, who explains with a smile where he has passed the afternoon. If that weren’t enough, Baby Doll then suggests that Silva will pass all of the Syndicate Gin’s business to Archie, while she entertains him during the day. Archie’s wide-eyed dismay tells us that he is slow putting it all together, partly out of an inability to process that another man might have had sex with the woman who has held him at bay for two years. As perhaps her own more slap in the face to Archie, Baby Doll invites her new love to have dinner with them and goes upstairs to put on some clothes, leaving Archie Lee to ponder whether this is a blessing or a curse. We know what he has decided when he steps into the next room to make a phone call to his friends to come and help him deal with Silva.

At the dinner table, Archie Lee’s boorish behavior goes on full display. Set off by the flirtations of the Silva and Baby Doll, he first yells at Aunt Rose about bringing food, then refuses to eat it. Archie then brings Aunt Rose into the room to discuss removing her from the house, right in front of their guest, but Aunt Rose reminds him that she has not been a burden to her family but has led a life of service to whoever needed her. As one more affront to Archie Lee, Silva pipes up and invites Aunt Rose to stay with him, as his cook. That’s when Archie loses it— completely. He and Silva have an angry back and forth, each man vying for position on the other, with Archie Lee outing the sexual nature of his interest in Baby Doll and Silva outing Archie Lee as an arsonist.

Out of leverage, Archie resorts to the only things that he understands: cruelty and violence. He goes into the next room and loads his double-barrel shotgun. But Baby Doll warns Silva, who runs outdoors, and, like a sly fox, climbs a tree, then brings Baby Doll up with him. As Archie runs around his yard, shooting into the darkness and screaming, his black workers frantically work to stop him. Though he does not succeed in finding his nemesis or his wife, Archie breaks down under the very tree where Silva and Baby Doll in the branches. Then, seeing a car’s headlights, he assumes that his friends have come to his aid. However, they’ve come to arrest him.

Baby Doll ends with little closure for the pathetic crew at Tiger Tail. Silva shows the posse of men that he has scrawled note signed by Archie Lee’s wife that he was not home on the night of the fire, yet that might not be enough for a just verdict. The men apprise Archie that he may have to go through a trial, for appearances. Silva leaves Tiger Tail with Rock, who has been waiting in the car this whole time, and tells them all that he may back tomorrow with more cotton to gin. Last we see, Baby Doll and Aunt Rose go into the house, as Baby Doll says that all they can do is “wait for tomorrow, to see if we’ve been forgotten.”

At the time of its release, The New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther had this to say about Baby Doll:

It looks as though the ghost of Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire” has got bogged down in the mud of Erskine Caldwell’s famous “Tobacco Road” in the screen play Mr. Williams has written for Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll.” [ . . . ] Mr. Williams again is writing tartly about decadence in the South in this film, which has drawn the condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church. His theme is the degeneration and inadequacy of old Southern stock, as opposed to the vital aggressiveness of intruding “foreigners.” But where he was dealing with a woman of certain culture in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he is down to the level of pure “white trash” in this sardonic “Baby Doll.”

Tobacco Road is, of course, the archetype of a Southern white-trash story, and in some ways, the bumbling Archie Lee Meighan lives up to the comparison. And Silva lives up to the stock character of the carpetbagger, whose ability to provide some investment capital elevates him among the chamber-of-commerce types and marks him as undesirable among the men his wealth subjugates. However, the acting her, in this film, is better than all that, and makes these characters – including the Lolita-ish Baby Doll – more than two-dimensional and cardboard.

As for Baby Doll‘s role as a document about the culture the South, Tennessee Williams’ eloquence triumphs in this play-turned-film, as it does in all of them. Williams, with Kazan at the wheel, manages to use personal stories from the South’s most degraded legacies to showcase the larger issues without ever discussing them outright. We have Baby Doll, the debutante-princess of a broke aristocrat whose father has effectively handed her over to an inadequate churl; we have the foolish errancy of white trash, struggling against poverty and ignorance and within racism while trying to achieve something better than the norm; and we have the suave outsider, taking advantage of that poverty and ignorance to run the table for no other reason than he can out-bet every man at the table. Baby Doll shows us pride amid squalor and efficacy despite injustice. We see the tenuous nature of race relations in the black extras and the fragile nature of family in Aunt Rose Comfort.  In short, yes, the film’s salacious plot was probably a bit much for mid-1950s conservatism, but it did reveal a side of small-town/rural Southern culture that all of America was already suspicious existed.

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