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Saturday, 2 May 2009

Baby Doll (1956)

Considering that this film is now over fifty years old, it is amazing that the three very able lead actors are still with us (or "available" to quote from "Swimming with Sharks): Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach. Director Elia Kazan did this movie version of the Tennessee Williams Broadway play and it created shockwaves on its release. The Catholic Legion of Decency banned it and it was generally thought to be the "dirtiest" mainstream movie to date, although there is no explicit sex or nudity. While it may seem very mild to our modern sensibilities, there is no escaping the heat generated by the action.



Baker is married in name only to redneck yob Malden, having agreed to marry him aged 18 just before her dear Daddy died, and having made clear that she would not be ready for "marriage" before her 20th birthday which is imminent. To subjugate his sexual desires, Malden plays Peeping Tom as she sleeps in the decrepit mansion's old nursery on a child's cot, with the sides let down, in her shorty pajamas (thereafter commonly known as 'baby dolls'). She is indeed uneducated and childish and threatens to break their agreement after their hire-purchase suites of furniture are carted away for non-payment. It seems that Malden's cotton gin business has gone into reverse, after the syndicate opened their own, run by crafty Sicilian Wallach. The obvious answer to Malden's not-too-bright mind is to burn it down, a stupid short-term solution which leads to the following day's events.



Wallach brings his trucks of raw cotton to Malden's run-down gin for processing, but with revenge in mind uses the languid afternoon to seduce Baker and to get her to sign an affadavit agreeing her husband's arson. We never really know just how far his seduction goes, since we only see him coming on to her through suggestion and childish gameplay, including his taking a nap in her crib. Meanwhile Malden returns after having been sent on a wild goose chase for a new saw, to find Wallach in his crumbling mansion and suspects the worse. The fourth character in this domestic tragedy is Baker's somewhat gaga aunt, played by that wonderful character actress Mildred Dunnock, who is meant to be the couple's housekeeper, but whose greatest pleasure in life is visiting patients at the local hospital to munch as many chocolates as possible. At a hopeless supper that evening, Malden in a fit of pique demands that she leave, and Wallach offers to take her on as a cook. However by the end scene when the police arrive after Malden has gone on a rampage with his shotgun and Wallach has gone home alone, not only Baker and Dunnock but we the viewer can only guess what tomorrow will bring.



While one can not really warm to any of these flawed characters, the standard of acting throughout is something marvelous to behold; both Baker and Dunnock received Oscar nominations (and Malden and definitely Wallach should have) as did the brilliant black and white cinematography, shot on location in a small Southern community where local non-professionals (both black and white -- no pun intended) add to the feeling of a real time-warp community.
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