(director: Elia Kazan; screenwriter: story by Tennessee Williams/Tennessee Williams; cinematographer: Boris Kaufman; editor: Gene Milford; music: Kenyon Hopkins; c ast: Karl Malden (Archie Lee Meighan), Carroll Baker (Baby Doll Meighan), Eli Wallach (Silva Vacarro), Mildred Dunnock (Aunt Rose Comfort), Lonny Chapman (Rock), Eades Hogue (Town Marshal), Noah Williamson (Deputy); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Tennessee Williams/Elia Kazan; Warner Brothers; 1956)

“Wickedly funny salacious black comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Elia Kazan (“East of Eden”/”On the Waterfront”/”A Streetcar Named Desire”) directs this wickedly funny salacious black comedy from Tennessee Williams’ 1941 two one-act plays, “27 Wagonloads of Cotton” and “The Long Stay Cut Short,” that Williams retooled into a controversial screenplay that wascondemned at the time by the Catholic Legion of Decency. They stated that it “dwells upon carnal suggestiveness.” Though not as ambitious as most of Kazan’s better films, today this cruel look at a southern romantic triangle looms as one of his great films and seems much tamer than it was considered back in those more puritanical times of the repressive 1950s. It was shot on location in Benoit, Mississippi, giving it the proper local flavoring.

The film features four major characters in a small southern town, who are all noteworthy for their ugly souls. Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) is the emasculated, blowhard, boorish, bigoted and stupid owner of a broken-down country cotton gin and owner of the broken-down mansion where his family resides; his immature steamy 19-year-old girl-wife called Baby Doll (Carroll Baker, her first major role at the age of 25), who never lets her middle-aged balding hubby break her cherry (Archie promised her late dad not to touch her until she turned twenty, which is only two days away–she lives up to her nickname as we first see her lying in a crib-like bed and sucking her thumb); the pathetically amusing simpleton octogenarian maiden Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock), the dotty aunt of Baby Doll who resides in the crumbling mansion; and the “foreigner,” a cunning opportunistic Sicilian named Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach, his screen debut), who runs a cotton gin that’s more modern than his rival’s and ends up seducing Baby Doll one summer day as a means of revenge for Archie torching his cotton gin. Archie goes berserk with jealousy over the seduction; but we are never quite sure if Baby Doll has actually been seduced.

Kazan plays with moral conduct and physical decay, as he exposes southern pretensions and ventures into decadent territory with a rich sardonic humor. The sleaze works very well against this depressing Deep South background.

Baby Doll (1956)