Baby Doll Reviews
Based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, Baby Doll is, at heart, about a rivalry between two men--dumb, bigoted Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) and Sicilian Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach, both skeevy and surprisingly sexy in this role). Both me own cotton gins, but Archie Lee is the less successful of the two men. Archie Lee burns down Vacarro's gin, forcing Vacarro to take his crop of cotton to Archie Lee's gin to be de-seeded (or whatever the word is to describe what a cotton gin does).
Unfortunately for Archie Lee, Vacarro knows what's going on and proceeds to spend the afternoon at Archie Lee's crumbling mansion being "entertained" by Archie Lee's young, virginal wife. His plan is to seduce Baby Doll Meighan and then get her to sign an affidavit stating that her husband burned down Vacarro's cotton gin.
So there are two games of cat-and-mouse afoot: Vacarro by turns terrifying and gently teasing Baby Doll, who is both attracted to and intimidated by Vacarro; and Vacarro humiliating and one-upping Archie Lee at every turn. There is a particularly great scene where Vacarro slyly tells Archie Lee that he may not even attempt to rebuild his cotton gin. Instead, he might take all his business to Archie Lee...and spend many afternoons being "entertained" by Archie Lee's comely wife. Boy, Eli Wallach sure is a devious bastard--but I couldn't help but root for him. In comparison to racist, oafish Archie Lee (who, by the way, brought this on himself by burning Vacarro's gin to the ground) Vacarro is a perfect gentleman...even if he does lie and scheme to get Baby Doll to do his bidding.
Some scenes in Baby Doll are incredibly intense. When Baby Doll and Vacarro sit on the swing together and Vacarro strokes her neck, the heat is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And when Archie Lee is on the verge of turning out Baby Doll's old Aunt Rose, who cooks and cleans for the family, the look on the old woman's face is enough to make this stoic movie-goer choke up.
In Baby Doll, Elia Kazan doesn't just tell a sleazy, juicy story--he taps into the primal emotions and desires that fill all of us and sometimes make us do desperate, crazy, or hateful things.
It had been a long time since I saw this. At that, there was no real reason for us to have seen it in the first place other than the professors wanted us to see it. Or possibly wanted to watch it themselves. I was, yes, in a program in college about the American South, but the film isn't really about anything which couldn't be moved anywhere else with only a few minor changes. Where it would have been appropriate was the class I'd taken about film the year before. This movie is possibly the last gasp of the Legion of Decency as a force in film. It certainly demonstrates the eventual collapse of the Code; everyone agrees that the film could not have been made at all only a few years earlier. It was banned in various countries, and it's generally considered that the Legion boycott is what prevented it from ever making a profit. However, it got made in the first place.
Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) owns what was a reasonably successful cotton gin in some small Mississippi town. This enabled him to marry Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), who expected to live a life of luxury, because that's what Archie Lee promised her father before he died. What he promised Baby Doll was that he wouldn't attempt to have sex with her until her twentieth birthday, at which point she wouldn't resist. His plans aren't helped by the fact that a different cotton gin, as personified by Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), has taken all his business, leaving him with a plantation he bought and intended to restore but which is now a white elephant. One night, the syndicate cotton gin mysteriously burns down, and Vacarro has a small suspicion as to why. He goes out to the plantation to get his proof, which includes trying to worm the information out of Baby Doll. And then, his treatment of her begins to seem like revenge, not that Baby Doll is experienced enough to realize it.
Let's start with the obvious, which is the sex. The movie takes place just days shy of her momentous birthday, and she is teasing her husband with the idea that she won't hold to their bargain. Whether she's exuding that sexuality on purpose depends on just how na´ve you think she is. What's clear, though, is that Vacarro isn't na´ve at all, any more than Archie Lee is. They both know what Baby Doll doesn't, which includes the power of her own urges. She may be childish, childlike (there's an important difference, and she is both), but her body still has the same hormones and drives as any other almost-twenty-year-old woman. Part of her problem is that Archie Lee is not a desirable figure. He's unattractive, and that's only the start of his problems. The two men were only a few years apart in age (Wallach is still alive and still acting), but there's a rawness to Vacarro. It isn't that he's exactly a model himself, but he doesn't put out the creepy vibe Archie Lee does. Though of course he's unpleasant for other reasons.
Gore Vidal has in the past expressed the opinion that psychoanalysis was one of the worst things to happen to Tennessee Williams. Not in those words, but he has spoken more than once in disdain of plays which seem to be working out Williams's issues. It is certainly true, whether you believe Gore Vidal or not, that Williams made a career selling sex, and often sex with something sordid behind it. I mean, I watched [i]Suddenly Last Summer[/i] once, or at least part of it, and it's simply ludicrous. I admit that there's a lot of Williams I haven't seen, but let's look at the famous stuff, anyway. Stanley Kowalski of [i]Streetcar Named Desire[/i], and of course his sister-in-law Blanche, both have some pretty skewed ideas. He sees sex as his legal right, and she . . . well. In [i]The Glass Menagerie[/i], Amanda Wakefield invites a Gentleman Caller over to see her daughter, and then she almost seems to be trying to seduce him herself. [i]Cat on a Hot Tin Roof[/i] actually has a title referring to sex, albeit obliquely.
And then, there is Elia Kazan. His defense of his actions regarding HUAC was that neither possible response was desirable, and naming names was somewhat less so. It is, on the other hand, worth noting that [i]Friendly Persuasion[/i] was removed for Oscar contention in the Adapted Screenplay category that year because Michael Wilson had had his name removed from the credits by the studio. He hadn't been cleared of possibly being a Communist, and a complicated Academy by-law was written so that people the SWG deemed ineligible for credits because of this issue were not then eligible for Oscars. (I'm over-simplifying.) His nomination has since been reinstated, though of course it's really a gesture, since [i]Around the World in 80 Days[/i] managed to win. But knowing this sort of thing does give you a greater understanding of the situation Kazan was in. He was a great director who had been placed in an untenable position, and his legacy I think depends on how understanding you are of that.