The controversy surrounding Baby Doll’s 1956 release was likely compounded by the oncoming Christmas season. Tennessee Williams, a famed playwright, was no stranger to controversy, and over the course of his cinematic career, adaptations of his plays would be embattled publically (and behind the scenes) as studios still bowed down to the continued power of the production code. Discussing Williams’ cinematic impact seems to inevitably lead towards the discussion of changing mores and censorship battles. While far from one of his most popular works, his 1956 screenplay adapted by Elia Kazan, Baby Doll, was likely his most controversial project.
Released in New York on December 18th, 1956, Baby Doll tells the story of two feuding cotton gin owners. Jealous of the thriving success of his Sicilian rival, (Eli Wallach as Silva Vacarro), Archie Lee (Karl Malden) commits arson to extend his company’s floundering success. As retaliation, Silva sets forth to seduce Archie Lee’s 19-year-old bride known as Baby Doll (Carroll Baker).
While the film received approval from the production code, it earned the scorn of the Catholic League of Decency. Fueling the controversy leading up to the film’s release, a billboard of Baker in a crib (sucking her thumb) was posted above New York City. Perhaps recognizing the success of films like The Moon Is Blue, which several years earlier was released without code approval and found massive financial success, it seems likely that Warner Brothers hoped to capitalize on public decency debates in order to drive audiences to Baby Doll. Their efforts earned them a condemnation from the Catholic Church but did little to command a large box office stake.
While Baby Doll’s initial financial success was underwhelming, the film has developed a reputation over the decades as darkly comic indictment on the destructive insularity of small-town American South. One of the great pleasures of Tennessee Williams’ writing was a kind of adoration of the dying bourgeoisie and celebration of white-trash vulgarity. In the case of Baby Doll, you have a coveted white feminine object infantilized in the dust bowl of the South’s former slavery-built legacy and the outsider who threatens to take it all away.
Archie Lee never demonstrates a modicum of true ambition, intelligence or wit. His environment is crumbling, his gin is unsuccessful and his manhood is under scrutiny. The only thing he “owns” (that has any real value) is his young and beautiful wife, of whom he’s forbidden from sleeping with until her 19th birthday — just days away at the onset of the film. When Archie Lee burns down Silva’s cotton gin, he feels a sense of earned satisfaction and revels in his transparent cleverness that re-establishes what he believes to be the natural order. By destroying Silva’s wealth and business, he “wins back” America for “real” Americans.
But, Silva does not back down. He appeals to Archie Lee’s ego by tricking him into letting him hang around his rotting Victorian mansion, alone, with Baby Doll. Twisting the knife on the long-standing fear of the dark and handsome outsider stealing women, Williams’ writing celebrates the possibility that women might find their liberation in good sex. Wallach’s whispered sensuality draws Baby Doll out of her stagnancy and awakens her to the possibility of pleasure and excitement beyond her life with Archie Lee. It awakens new possibilities for her and initiates her escape from this fate. Wallach’s performance, one of the best in the history of studio filmmaking, aches with carnality and intelligence. His much-delayed transition from stage to screen was worth the wait (he was considered for both screen adaptations of From Here to Eternity and The Rose Tattoo), though it did often seem that Hollywood did not quite know where to place him.
Kazan shoots the seduction, which overtakes the majority of the running time, with incredible intimacy. As simple as the film is — rarely departing from the single mansion location — Baby Doll comes alive in its composition. The leering, distant gaze of Archie comes up against the aggressive and intimate power of Silva, who controls perception and desire. Rather than pursuing Baby Doll, he draws upon his intelligence to bring her closer. Through suggestion, he aligns her world view with his, so that they both share the same short-term goals in the ultimate service of sabotaging Archie Lee’s cruel and flawed enterprise.
Consistently flirting with the taboo of virginity — exaggerated to the point of having Baby Doll prefer sleeping in a literal child’s crib — the film unsurprisingly drew ire. Confronting the treatment of female sexuality so plainly, it exposes the perversion of this covetous treatment of feminine desire, which is not only ruinous but socially damaging. Framing the seduction as a cultural war similarly reveals the myopic and self-destructive impulse of the “good ol’ boy” mentality, in which one prefers to watch the country burn under someone else’s ambition than thrive.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.