Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Baby Doll (1956, Elia Kazan)

Baby DollThe American 1950s were an interesting moral brier-patch.  Historically the most repressed decade of the 20th century, the motion picture industry was hampered by the vice grip of the Production Code and then double-checked by the Catholic National Legion of Decency.  White bread America must have slept in separate beds like Lucy and Ricky (thank goodness, as the Production Code only began to loosen, allowing Elia Kazan's earlier Pinky to address the topic of the frowned-upon miscegenation, in 1949).  It's a wonder the Baby Boom ever happened.

Meanwhile, degenerates like Tennessee Williams and Vladimir Nabokov dared address topics of desire in a mature, even humorous way.  Nabokov's Lolita was published in 1955 and, there must have been something in the water, for this is a subject Williams would touch on multiple times.  John Huston's 1964 adaptation of his The Night of the Iguana would feature a figurative and literal Lolita (Sue Lyon) while Kazan (a frequent Williams collaborator, directing A Streetcar Named Desire on stage and screen) adapted Williams's one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton into the controversial Baby Doll.

That's "baby doll" as in the nightgown, named so because of this film, worn by the virginal Carroll Baker on the seductive production poster.  There's no denying the racy nature of the film, loaded with double-entendre and being upfront about man's sexual desire (discussion over the "water pump" comes to mind), though always suggestive rather than explicit.  The Production Code let it fly, but it was the Legion of Decency, in its first ever instance, that got its panties in a bunch, condemning the film despite Code approval (Kazan and Williams were used to such treatment from the studios-- Streetcar was demanded changes to mask any reference to rape or homosexuality, but here, the film remains in tact).  That's right: it was declared a sin to see this film in 1956.  Such Catholic fanaticism was countered by Episcopal bishop James A. Pike who claimed there was more "sensuality" in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.  As big a fan I am of hyperbole, I still have to disagree with the comparison despite standing in the same corner.  De Mille never employed the same slinky saxophone and a fatale's coke-bottle sucking naïveté.

Baby Doll has the same Ten Commandments on her charm bracelet; the same bracelet from which her would-be seducer Silva (Eli Wallach) counts the charms.  One for each year, Baby Doll informs him, giggling as he approaches 19-- just days away from 20, her self-prescribed age of consent.  Archie Lee (Karl Malden) is the self-imposed impotent who married Baby Doll a year earlier with an "agreement" that all would be consummated upon this age.  Archie is a sweaty, comedic lecher from the first frame.  He plays voyeur on his own wife in a scene that makes Norman Bates seem collected.  He visits the doctor for weakness, lacks the energy to prime the pump and, even in the film's climax, is out of ammo.  Silva is a younger Sicilian with vitality in droves.  Not only defeated in pleasure, Archie is even defeated in business and resorts to burning Silva's rival cotton gin to provide Baby Doll with enough material possessions to win her favor on the upcoming birthday.

But Baby Doll is no seductress.  Silva corners her to simply get a signature to convict Archie of the arson.  Baby Doll fails to understand the true power of her allure and is used as a means to an end like each of the other legs of the triangle.  None of the three are void of a particular weakness and in the end, they have all lost a great deal.  Sex drives Archie's pathetic lack, but to accuse the film of being any saucier than a typical noir film is unfair.  Perhaps Kazan remains one of his own tragic characters: if the Legion of Decency wasn't after him, the House Un-American Activities Committee would soon be in 1950s America's fallout of moral fervor.  And the blacklist after that.

Kazan often said a screenplay is "not a piece of writing as much as it is a construction.  We learn to feel for the skeleton under the skin of words."  His adaptation of Tennessee Williams is no different.  Whereas films adapted from stage are often slaves to dialogue, Kazan's intuition for filmic composition is as effective as ever.  Together with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Kazan not only constructs thematic images of shadow and light, desire of flame and reflection, he goes one step farther; capturing the great ghost of malevolence, washing out the Southern White on white.  Just as Williams was progressive in subverting assumptions of racial inferiority, Kazan's history of empathy toward Black plight features local African Americans in bit roles, not only presenting them through a uniquely human lens for the era, but turning the ear on "White" from chastity to decrepitude.  This same decrepitude was felt by Williams, whose time at the filming in Benoit was shortened.  Williams departed after a only a few weeks because "he didn't like the way people looked at him on the streets."

Baby Doll is a gutsy film by two important American voices.  Where melodramas often fail for being emotionally over the top, Williams always had a knack for unparalleled depth of character.  Kazan could translate it in ways few could.  And of course nothing is hurt by the look in Carroll Baker's eye. -- ****/four stars

This was written in commemoration of the Tennessee Williams centennial.  Read more about the Tennessee 100 at The Film Experience.

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