Elia Kazan’s 1956 production of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll outraged the censors upon its release and was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Carroll Baker plays the title role of Baby Doll, a nubile cross between nimphet Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) and party girl Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Baby is married to Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), a man more than old enough to be her father. Their marriage has not yet been consummated because of a promise the two made to wait until Baby’s twentieth birthday, when she would be “ready.” Despite Archie’s sexual starvation and obvious lust for his bride, the dynamic of their relationship approaches a vaguely incestuous parent/child interaction. His jealousy is constantly aroused by Baby’s flirtatious nature, and are is all the more suspicious because they have yet to have relations. Archie vocally reiterates his ownership of Baby, but this seems to be more of a means of reassuring himself that they are, indeed, man and wife.
Archie’s cotton gin business has recently closed in the face of competition from newcomer Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach in his fantastic film debut), leaving him with mounting debts. He can’t even pay for the furniture on lease that clutters the once-great manor house he bought as a spousal gesture for the demanding Baby Doll. At a total loss, Archie steals away one night and sets fire to Vacarro’s gin works in a desperate attempt to reestablish himself in the local business community, and by extension in the estimation of Baby Doll, whose admiration (or his imagination of such) has been battered by his bankruptcy. In a painfully obvious about-face, Archie swoops in to assist Vacarro, bringing him out to his dillapidated home and offering him a job. Archie leaves Vacarro to the entertaining vices of Baby, absurdly confident in her sterile skills as a hostess and believing that she is mannered enough to resist any flirtation on the part of Vacarro.
Archie’s bumbling sets the stage for perhaps the most sensational scene in the film. Vacarro latches on to Baby, cooly perceptive of her flirtatious weakness and acutely aware of the boredom that has taken hold of her life since her marriage to Archie. He follows her around the rambling grounds of the house, barely letting her get more than a few feet away from his explosive virility. He pets and teases her, providing even more physical tantilization than a mere kissing scene could ever offer. Kazan’s handling of this scene is all at once coy, acutely aware of the limitations of the censors yet superbly confident in the perception and intelligence of his audience, and at all times understanding that the portrayal of physicality has more power in what is not shown. The languid drawl of Baby’s speech clings to Vacarro’s exciting masculinity with a saccarine tenacity, aching for him to kiss or embrace her and in a constant state of anxiety over whether or not he will.
The object of Vacarro’s pursuit is a signed testimony from Baby implicating Archie’s guilt in the gin fire. Triumphant after a tortuous and borderline masochistic struggle to wring from Baby her signature (and by extension her betrayal of Archie), a satisfied Vacarro is about to turn his back and leave when Baby convinces him to stay for a nap and later for supper with her and Archie. Vacarro’s decision to remain at the house sets into motion the beginning of the end for Archie. It does not take him very long to realize that he’s been duped, a cuckolded husband who comes home after a day at work to find his wife in her slip and his business rival refreshed after a rest in her bed. Malden tears Archie apart in this scene, skillfully transitioning from the realization of his wife’s idea of “entertaining” guests to a mounting fury that promises to destroy everyone in the house. The lighting and framing of this scene recalled some of the exaggerated elements of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), lending an almost surreal element to Archie’s crackup:
Kazan could have easily turned Baby Doll into a sleazy story of lust and failure in William Faulkner’s South, but achieves instead a brilliant portrait of a man well past his prime, struggling to hang on to a child bride who is repulsed by the thought of him and ultimately betrayed by her, the one who should have been most faithful to him. Carroll Baker brings much to the role of Baby Doll, allowing the audience to understand, if not sympathize, on some level her motivations in light of the circumstances she must live with. She is no more than a child and probably not an ounce more mature during the course of the film than she was on her wedding day to Archie. She acts totally from whim and impulse, desireous of pleasing only herself and exacting whatever advantages she can from those around her, particularly Archie. The interplay between Baker’s Baby, Wallach’s Vacarro, and Malden’s Archie coalesce from merely a combination of commendable performances into a pulsating, ravenous film that transcends the boundaries of Faulkner’s written story into something living, dynamic, and ageless.