Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Tale of Lust

Baby Doll (Carroll Baker): I don't want to be in the same room with a man that would make me live in a house with no furniture! My daddy would turn over in his grave if he knew, he would just turn over in his grave.

Archie Lee (Karl Malden): If your daddy turned in his grave as often as you say he'd turn in his grave, that old man would plow up the graveyard.

Tennessee Williams really knew how to get to the heart of things, and there may have been no better example of that than "Baby Doll," which premiered on this day in 1956.

It was a steamy story, all right — and the fact that it was almost totally implausible seems to have had no influence on moviegoers of the day. It was erotic and titillating and all that good stuff — and there wasn't a second of nudity to be seen! That may be the most implausible part of the whole thing for modern audiences — but you have to remember that this movie was in theaters at a time when the Hays Code was still in charge of things.

Consequently, anything of that nature took place in the viewers' minds. (This is purely speculation, of course, but it seems all but certain that "Baby Doll" be a much different movie if a remake was attempted today.)

That seems to have been the state of things when the movie began, too. Too much was happening in the mind — and not elsewhere.

Archie Lee (Karl Malden) was a middle–aged bigot, alcoholic and failing cotton gin owner in Mississippi. Carroll Baker, in an Oscar–nominated performance, was Baby Doll, his 19–year–old wife. They had been married for two years, but they had never been intimate because of a promise Archie Lee had made to Baby Doll's dying father.

He had promised they would not be intimate until her 20th birthday, and he had been faithful to his promise, but now Baby Doll's 20th birthday was drawing nigh, and she was dreading it. Archie Lee, meanwhile, had been impatiently waiting for it like a child waiting for Christmas morning. Baby Doll slept in a crib and sucked her thumb, and Archie Lee watched her through a hole in the wall, lusting for her.

"Baby Doll" was about lust of all kinds.

Eli Wallach, in his big–screen debut, was Archie Lee's competitor. He ran a newer and better cotton gin that had been taking away Archie Lee's business — and Silvy wanted Archie Lee's business and his wife.

Archie Lee torched the competitor's business. Wallach's character suspected Archie Lee was behind it, and he came up with a plan to get even. He took truck loads of cotton to Archie Lee and asked him to process the cotton for him. While Archie Lee was busy with that, the competitor put the moves on Baby Doll.

It may well have been the dialogues between Baby Doll and Silva that best demonstrated Williams' flair.

"I wouldn't dream of eatin' a nut that a man had cracked in his mouth," Baby Doll said at one point.

"You've got many refinements," Silva replied.

But it wouldn't be a Williams script without one of the characters enduring great emotional pain because of the actions of another character, and Malden's character was tortured by his tantalizing tease of a wife. She and Silva flaunted their flirtations in front of him, and Archie Lee got angrier and angrier.

Then Silva confronted Archie Lee with an affidavit he had forced Baby Doll to sign that incriminated Archie Lee in the burning of Silva's cotton gin. The police were summoned, presented with the affidavit, arrested Archie Lee and took him away.

The adaptation of Williams' earlier work, a one–act play called "27 Wagons Full of Cotton," was nominated for an Oscar but lost — as did Mildred Dunnock, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Baby Doll's senile aunt who lived with the couple.

"Baby Doll" was condemned at the time of its release as amoral. Ironically, by modern standards, it is so tame it is shown frequently on cable movie channels like AMC and TCM.