Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Baby Doll


Dir: Elia Kazan (East of Eden; A Face in the Crowd; A Streetcar Named Desire; On the Waterfront)

Denounced by the Legion of Decency, pulled by Warner Bros. two weeks after its release, Baby Doll was a scandal in the 50's. As you can imagine, it is pretty tame by contemporary standards. But any film that a Cardinal says it is a sin to watch is OK in my book, so I gave it a view.

Tennessee Williams wrote his first screenplay, and Kazan brings in Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and Carroll Baker to act. Baker is Baby Doll (more TW names), a 19 year old virgin wife who is so infantalized that she sleeps in a crib. Her long suffering and drunken husband Archie is broke after Wallach's cotton gin showed up in town and took all of the business away. The Italian entrepeneur has been wronged by Archie, and intends to get his revenge through his nymphette yet untouched wife.

It was that seduction that raised the ire (and I wager other things) of the Legion, as the banter is quite charged and the quarters close. Baker is absolutley gorgeous and sexual, and Wallach's lothario stylings forceful. The famous swing scene featuers closeups of the pair's faces, and one can't help but wonder what their hands are doing below frame. Williams' famous sexuality is on full display here. Yet the consummation of this courtship is left ambiguous.

The rest of the story is somewhat surreal, comedic in its oddness and yet never played up for laughs. I did not find it as much funny as absurd, but I can see where some would find Wallach uproarious.

This is all well and good, but the star of the show is Malden, a performance that is somewhat lost amongst the sexual fireworks. His frustration has transformed into brutality, and it is hard not to simultaneously sympathize with and loathe the man. A very complex character, and Malden is brilliant in being both dejected and violent. His predicament is half circumstance, half his own fault, and I kept going back and forth on my feelings about him. I am sure subsequent viewings would illuminate more aspects of his character.

Kazan has also pulled off a master stroke in his use of extras. Filmed on location in rural Mississippi, Kazan uses amatuer locals to play the townspeople. The signs of segregation are real, and the rednecks and black folk have an authenticity that infuses the whole production. Not a story about the racist South, the film nonetheless uses that tension (Emmit Till had been lynched in the area just a month befre filming) to enhance the marital tensions played out in the script.

Well worth tracking down, if only as a document of what was once so deplorable. Baby Doll is a really fine example of acting, writing and direction, an intriguing film that was very entertaining.