[box cover]

Baby Doll

The Tennessee Williams Collection

For a modest production by legendary director Elia Kazan, with a screenplay by respected playwright Tennessee Williams that lacks any nudity or violence, it's shocking to think Baby Doll (1956) is still rated R. But that's due to the fallout from its release half a century ago — few films have provoked as much ire. Baby Doll deals with what cinematically has been isolated to a southern practice of child brides, a subject matter that raised red flags for the church. And though compromises were made about the age of the main character (the married naïf is 19), the Legion of Decency made the film a target, to which the Catholic Church followed suit by condemning it. This led to Baby Doll being frozen out of theaters, but such also gained the film an immediate cult following for its supposed dangerousness (John Waters is a big fan). Even Stanley Kubrick's similarly pedophilia-centric Lolita (1964) was not subjected to this rating, and (to this writer's knowledge) only it and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho share the honor of being re-rated R after the MPAA ratings system was initiated in 1968. Caroll Baker's Baby Doll is married to Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), and they've been married a year, but he promised to wait until she was 20 to consummate their relationship. They own a cotton gin, and things have been going poorly since Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach) moved into town and took all the business. After his furniture gets repossessed, Archie gets his revenge by burning down Silva's factory, to which the police seem apathetic due to Silva being an outsider who's wrecked things for the good-old-boys in town. Archie thinks he will prosper with Silva's gin out of operation, but when Silva comes to Archie's house to use his services, Silva realizes who burned his mill and goes about getting a confession out of Baby Doll by playing on her wandering eye. There's no denying that the material in Baby Doll is lascivious and provocative: Baker is introduced sleeping in a crib while sucking on her thumb as her husband drills a hole in the wall to peep on her. And yet for all its seemingly lurid qualities, the film is all tease and no consummation (actors Wallach and Baker disagree about whether their affair was consummated). Such is probably why the filmmakers thought their bases were covered, but this attempt at smuggling has aged the film poorly because it then never gets to realize its true wickedness. Perhaps it's because Tennessee Williams' screenplay was based on two one-act plays ("Twenty Seven Wagons Full of Cotton," and "The Unsatisfactory Supper"), which gives the film a loose narrative, with much of the story spent following Wallach as he pursues a mostly willing Baker around Malden's dilapidated home. But as an actor's piece it's excellent — which could be said for most of Kazan's body of work — and the duet between Wallach and Baker is stunning. Warner presents Baby Doll in a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with DD 1.0 audio. Extras include the featurette "See No Evil: Baby Doll" (13 min.), in which Wallach, Baker, and Malden comment on the film, and three trailers. Keep-case.
—DSH



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