tongue-tied lightning

Baby Doll (Kazan, 1956)
December 13, 2008, 11:12 AM
Filed under: film


This film oozes sex. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Its bizarre mix of over the top comedy and sexuality (rarely exclusive to one another) reminds me of Russ Meyer or John Waters. Certainly not what I was expecting from a Elia Kazan/Tennessee Williams collaboration. Williams first original screenplay, it was condemned by the Catholic Church’s League of Decency, and in some circles derided as pornography. It seems silly today, but the film is undoubtedly sexual in nature and must have been a shock to audiences of the day.

The plot considers a 19-year-old girl, Baby Doll, in an unconsummated marriage to a much older man played by Karl Malden. They had an agreement to consummate the marriage on her 20th birthday, which is fast approaching. However, Baby Doll is fed up with him. He promised to take care of her, yet she is constantly fighting off his sexual advances in a house that is falling apart. This is due to the fact that his cotton gin has lost it’s business to another run by Eli Wallach’s character. After their furniture is repossessed Malden decides to burn down Wallach’s gin. As the film progresses he becomes Malden’s competitor not only in the cotton gin business but for Baby Doll’s love as well.

It almost has the feeling of an old Warner Brothers cartoon. Karl Malden seems to be channeling Yosemite Sam at times. There are moments I was expecting steam to come pouring out of his ears. If he is Yosemite Sam, Eli Wallach, in his best performance this side of Tuco, is certainly Bugs Bunny. Confounding him at every turn and then narrowly escaping to leave Malden even angrier. To give creedence to this ridiculous analogy I’m making, it naturally ends with Malden chasing Wallach around with a shotgun. Maybe that’s Elmer Fudd. Oh well.

Carroll Baker, in the title role, is easy to view as the personification of the puerile lust these ridiculous men possess. In the first shot of her, she is viewed through a hole in the wall by her husband. She is sleeping in a crib, sucking her thumb, and wearing a very revealing nightgown. She seems made-to-order as a fulfillment of his fantasies, but she is always just out of reach, doing nothing to help Malden’s ever-escalating stress levels.

The whole thing plays out as a sort of madcap farce. It has Tennessee Williams undeniable southern stamp on it, but there are certainly elements of screwball comedy, as Wallach and Malden go to absurd lengths to one-up each other. For Wallach, perhaps wooing Malden’s wife away from him is revenge for having his gin burnt down. It is left unclear whether he intends to have an affair with Baby Doll. It seems that proving to himself and Malden that it is within his power may be satisfaction enough for him.

Baby Doll’s last line is a great one, evocative of the melancholy spirit of Williams’ plays. It leaves the audience with something to think about, which in itself separates it from many comedies. I think one of the things I love most about old comedies is the innocently suggestive yet intelligent and adult way sex was dealt with. The witty repartee between men and women. The satirical aspect of men embarrassing themselves for a woman’s love. It is a refreshing change from the mindlessly vulgar sex comedies that are a dime a dozen today. Baby Doll may not be the best example of what I’m talking about, but I don’t think a discussion of sex comedies should be had without it.


8 Comments so far
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If it weren’t for the new ‘Badlands’ print, seeing this on the big screen would be my cinematic highlight of the year. It’s amazing. Nice write-up.

Comment by spengo

i’m jealous.

Comment by justin

Probably William’s funniest work, it certainly is a sex comedy, but it’s still much darker than one would usually expect from the genre. Eli Wallach’s character is conniving, a morally ambiguous Bugs Bunny. It’s clear he had been wronged, but his own actions are at times so despectable and jaded one wonders if the punishment fits the crime. Did you watch the features that accompany it? There are a lot of interesting debates/thoughts on the WHAT did they do, what didn’t they. The scene you took the cap from is particularly controversial, as those who wanted the film banned said that it was implied in this scene that Wallach’s character was actually fingering Baby Doll, as the shot remains above their shoulders and her expression/actions. Both Baker and Wallach disagree, telling a funny anecdocte about the scene.

Wallach also said he had it in his mind that they never do have sex, that he is only teasing her, as she teases men… just to get what he wants. It’s an interesting play on control and dominance within sexual stereotypes, and roles.

It’s really just a fun and sexy film, but yes, there certainly is a lurking darkness. Mmm… I lvoe it!

Comment by mrsemmapeel

wow, you didn’t have to write so much! haha. i did watch the featurette on the dvd. i chose that cap for that reason. i didn’t pick up on that the first time i watched it. it’s definitely one of the scenes where the sexual tension is thickest. and carroll baker’s faces don’t do much to dispell the myth.

Comment by justin

I didn’t write so much because I felt guilty but because a great film has me talking… :p

It’s an incredibly tense and sexy scene, watching it, I have to ask why in fucking hell didn’t Wallach get more leading roles? Perhaps it’s that he preferred theatre? I don’t know… whatever, him and Baker have the most incredible chemistry onscreen. She is breathing really heavily throughout the whole scene, she looks really, really into what isn’t happening!

Comment by mrsemmapeel

haha, it is a great film. i want to watch it again now but i don’t have it anymore! i need to see more tennessee williams films.

i agree with you on wallach. this was the first time i saw him in a film that wasn’t a western and he’s fucking amazing. he’s really REALLY funny.

Comment by justin

I watched it, LITERALLY twice in a row. I watched it, finished… then watched it again. I honestly think it’s the only time I’ve ever done that with a movie. I might have to ask for it for Christmas :p

This is his film debut, but he was actually cast in From Here to Eternity in Sinatra’s role. Instead he opted for a Broadway play (I actually think it might have been Tennessee William’s The Rose Tattoo, which is his SECOND funniest work. They made a movie with Burt Lancaster that I’veyet to see, my video store has it though, so I might pick it up.

He is a really funny man though, brilliant actor.

Comment by mrsemmapeel

i did ask for it for christmas. haha. i know i’ve watched a film twice before but i can’t remember which film it was. i watched this one twice, but in two days. mmm, so good!

Comment by justin

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