Friday 2 November 2012

Movie Review: Baby Doll (1956)

A bizarre yet delectable descent into a world of twisted and simmering sexual tension, Baby Doll became one of the most controversial films of its day, and still packs a wallop. The story of the young virgin wife, lustfully frustrated older husband, and the dark stranger who explodes into their life starts out strange and swirls in ever tighter loops of dangerous depravity.

Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) is a down-on-his-luck cotton gin owner, living in a large but unkempt mansion deep in the south. He has been married for four year to the much younger Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), but the marriage will only be consummated tomorrow, when Baby Doll turns 20. Archie Lee's sexual frustration has reduced him to peeping on his young wife through holes in the wall, as she sucks her thumb while sleeping in a crib, wearing short nightgowns.

With his furniture repossessed and facing financial ruin, Archie Lee attempts to destroy the competition by burning the cotton gin belonging to Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), a suave Sicilian business man. Silva is quickly onto Archie, and takes his time pretending to befriend him while in reality seeking to seduce Baby Doll on the way to destroying everything that Archie cares for.

Based on Tennessee Williams' play 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton, and adapted for the screen by Williams apparently with help from director Elia Kazan, Baby Doll is a momentous slow burn under the searing southern sky. Banned from theatres upon release but nevertheless celebrated for its artistic achievement, the film marked the start of mainstream Hollywood's irreversible march towards liberation from strict moral codes.

The three main characters compete for levels of smouldering sexual deviancy rarely seen on the screen. Archie is too old for Baby Doll, probably does not deserve her, and has succumbed to deviant behaviour targeting his own wife. Resorting to arson is unlikely to endear him to anyone, and instead of solving his problems the crime simply hastens his final humiliation. Karl Malden plays Archie full of worry, sweat and pent-up frustration, a man almost tasting the coming satisfaction of a night with Baby Doll, but unaware how far he really is from domestic happiness.

Carroll Baker, in her second major role after Giant, drapes the screen with an irresistible allure. Baby Doll is uneducated but far from dumb, a girl transitioning to adulthood and waking up to her world, but not liking what she sees. Instinctively repulsed by Archie she is immediately attracted to Silva, and the long scene between them generates intense eroticism packaged into eerily twisted behaviour. Baker emits a ferociously destabilizing combination of childlike innocence and sultry sexuality, a woman unleashing her powers before she even begins to understand them.

Eli Wallach makes his film debut and immediately establishes the persona of a shady man oily enough to manipulate others while working towards his own agenda. Silva easily outmanoeuvres Archie and seduces Baby Doll before finding and demonstrating some genuine warmth towards her and reconsidering his end game. The cosmopolitan to Archie's red-neck, and thoughtful while Archie is boorish, when Archie allows the red mist to rush him into the heat of a clumsy act of arson, Silva serves his revenge cold.

Throughout Baby Doll Kazan frequently keeps his principals in close-up, filling the screen with three people heading in different directions, colliding for a few hours as destinies intertwine before they are spun out into unexpected orbits, with nothing necessarily resolved but everything certainly changed.

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