Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Baby Doll (1956)

Baby Doll is yet another tale of tragic messes on the production end of the film in the filmography of Elia Kazan. The reason that it was banned was because of the Legion of Decency and the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. They tried to have it pulled from as many theatres as possible. Kazan fought back, but was defeated in the end. 77% percent of theatres did not carry Baby Doll as the film's open perspective on sexuality and marital relationships was condemned and considered to be 'evil'. Now, Baby Doll is considered by many to be a fun and dramatic overlooked masterpiece..

The film was credited as being written by Tennessee Williams. However, in Kazan's renowned autobiography he admitted that Tenesse Williams had very little to do with actually writing the screenplay. Kazan himself did most of the work. The film's cast includes Karl Malden who was a fairly successful name at the time, Carroll Barker had appeared in the big hit Giant with Liz Taylor and James Dean, but her role was minor. Eli Wallach (who I felt stole the show) had never appeared in a single film before Baby Doll. As well, Rip Torn of The Larry Sanders Show has a small role as a dentist in Baby Doll. Overall, Baby Doll is just one of those films where it is unbelievable how many big names there are.

In 1956 Marilyn Monroe had appeared in quite a number of bad romantic-dramas and romantic-comedies. Why am I talking about Marilyn Monroe? Well, she wanted out. No, when I say she wanted out I don't mean out of life, that came later. At this point Marilyn Monroe dreamed of moving on with her career. She the script for Baby Doll and thought it was perfect for transporting her from the beautiful sex symbol to the beloved dramatic actress. Anyway, Kazan had seen Carroll Barker act when he was in New York and he had his mind set on Barker. Marilyn Monroe was persistent, but in the end the role went to Barker. Personally, I am very glad Carroll Barker got the role. For one, I am not a fan of Marilyn Monroe. I do not believe she deserves to be on the high pedestal she has been placed on. Secondly  even in her better performance she acts with too much class. Everything about the character of Baby Doll is down to earth, she is not classy. Finally, Baby Doll proved Carroll Barker to be among the bravest actresses of the 1950s.

Baby Doll is more a film about style and characters than plot, but here is the basic idea. Our story takes place in a small county in Mississippi. Archie Lee is a middle-aged, funny-looking man. He is married to a nineteen-year-old named Baby Doll. Perhaps the main problem with their marriage is the fact that Archie has urges. As we learn latter on, Baby Doll's father was dying and she wanted to satisfy him by marrying a man. She did not like Archie Lee, but wanted her father to see her with a man she loved, so BANG, they're married. But there was no condition. They would not engage in sexual intercourse until she was twenty years of age. So here we are, days before Baby Doll's twentieth birthday. Archie Lee is eagerly anticipating her birthday and is finding it difficult to keep his hands off her. Their mansion is being renovated at the time, this leaves Baby Doll sleeping in a crib. And so, Archie Lee spends his time waiting.

All is going as planned for Archie until their neighbor, Varcarro,'s cotton gin plantation is burnt down by an arsonist  Varcarro is certain Archie was the arsonist and he is prepared to do everything in his power to pin the arson on Varcarro's plantation. The best way to get to Archie Lee is through Baby Dall. And so begins a climax of seduction, suppressed sexuality and finally outbursts of insanity.

When you have a demanding character drama such as Baby Doll it is essential to have the perfect actors doing exactly as they should. Each character does as they should and beyond to truly embody who they are playing. Perhaps Karl Malden delivered the weakest performance of the three leads, but it cannot be denied he did as much as there was for the character. At this point in the 50s there were few films about suppressed sexuality in popular cinema revenues. I found Carroll Barker did as much as she possibly could in changing who she was to make us both sympathize with her and laugh and her idiocy while watching her maintain a single character.  Now, as I said earlier, the real treasure of Baby Doll is the fabulous performance by Eli Wallach. I find the best way to describe the sheer quietness of his evil character. No, perhaps evil is not the correct word, even though that is his position in the story. Let me say this, Eli Wallach is capable to make his character a sinister villain while maintaining realism and he is able to go beyond the character at the same time and add sentiment.

Realism is a word I found I used several times in the previous paragraph... and for a reason. In an intense character drama it is essential to the logic of the story for the film to maintain a degree of realism throughout. As far as that goes, Baby Doll aces through! It deals with realistic topics when most films of the time were simple love stories. It told the truth about marriage. In a previous review I stated that every Kazan film was a commentary. Splendor in the Grass on loss of innocence, Panic in the Streets was a commentary on crime in New Orleans, Boomerang! was a film about justice and freedom, The Arrangement was a commentary on the material life, Pinky was a commentary on racial justice and Baby Doll is a commentary on the truth of marital relationships. There is no sugarcoating in Baby Doll. It is the raw truth. I am certain that Kazan must have intended for the film to be more raw, but he knew he wouldn't be able to get away with it. Kazan was a filmmaker born in the wrong time. His films are still appreciated today for a reason. Baby Doll is a great film that dared to leap out and tackle what usually wasn't tackled around that time. Elia Kazan hits a home run wit h this one. Be sure to check it out.

Baby Doll,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Karl Malden, Carroll Barker and Eli Wallach
9/10 (A)

1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. Boomerang!
5. Pinky
6. The Arrangement

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