1956 (February 16, 2021)
Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/program category: B+
- Video Note: A
- Audio quality: B
- Additional Rank: D
Doll is one of the most racy films produced by Hollywood in the 1950s. The Catholic Legion of Decency gave the film a C rating, causing many theaters to cancel reservations, and Time magazine said it was “probably the dirtiest American film that has ever been legally exposed”. Cardinal Spellman of New York said the film was “evil in concept…certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it”.
Tennessee Williams wrote the screenplay based on two of his one-act plays, 27 wagons full of cotton and The long-lasting short haircut. Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) is a pathetic, nearly bankrupt cotton gin owner who married Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), an uneducated and naive 18-year-old, after promising her dying father that she would would remain a virgin and continue to sleep alone in her crib until her 20th birthday, now only two days away. Constantly tormenting her frustrated husband about his appearance and bathing in front of him, Baby Doll escalates the tension by openly flirting with Archie’s Italian business rival, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach).
The three main ones are all excellent. Malden is particularly good at projecting frustration, constantly sweating, swallowing sips of whiskey, and raving at the open ridicule of his neighbors. Embodying jealousy and resentment, Malden operates on the same level throughout, dazzling, screaming at the top of his voice, wildly running up and down the stairs.
Baker plays Baby Doll as a girl on the cusp of womanhood, realizing that due to an old promise, she’ll soon have to give herself up to a man she can’t stand. She flirts openly, wears little at home, and dresses provocatively when she goes to town. She knows the power of her charms and uses them to drive men crazy, especially Archie. Baker captures Baby Doll’s animal attraction, naivety, vanity, contempt, and quivering passion.
Wallach, in his on-screen debut, plays the seductive threat to Archie’s relationship with Baby Doll. Physically, however, he doesn’t come across as a hot-blooded stallion (Marlon Brando would have been a better fit). In a long scene on an outdoor swing, Vacarro gets clues from Baby Doll as to who may have set his cotton gin on fire. Wallach oozes charm, slipping up against Baby Doll, who can’t resist her sensuality and exotic allure, qualities Archie sorely lacks.
Mildred Dunnock plays Aunt Rose Comfort, who lives with the ill-fated couple and makes a living cooking and keeping an eye on Baby Doll. She constantly incurs Archie’s wrath but seems to take his tantrums and outbursts in stride. As Dunnock wanders around the cavernous house, the poor relative dutifully trying not to be a burden, her Aunt Rose emerges as another victim of the dark atmosphere.
Director Elia Kazan (A tram called Désir, At the water’s edge) sets the film in a once-grand, now decaying plantation mansion in rural Mississippi. His approach is at its climax for the most part, with one major exception: the scene between Baby Doll and Vaccaro. In a dripping atmosphere of Southern Gothic, the film is an interesting companion to the Kazan film. tram, although with much less subtlety. Malden’s antics are often very funny, as he tries to maintain his dignity as “lord of the manor” despite feeling like the cuckold. Kazan frequently cuts to the idle workers at Archie’s cotton gin who watch the melodrama between Baby Doll and Archie, just as we the audience observe their bizarre relationship fueled by sexual frustration. Kazan used many people in Benoit, Mississippi who provide local color.
Featuring 1080p resolution, Warner Archive’s new HD master restores the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio from the 2006 DVD release. Boris Kaufman’s black and white photography captures well the decadence of the crumbling old plantation mansion with its dirty walls, cavernous bare rooms, elegant staircases and uncurtained windows. With creaking porch steps, cracked stone columns, a rusty old car and other debris strewn outside, the decor exudes desperation. When we first see Archie, he’s wearing crumpled pajamas and spying on Baby Doll who’s sleeping in a crib in the next room. She takes her time to look nice when the two go to town. The contrast reflects their disparate images of themselves. Monochromatic cinematography is perfect for this melodrama because color would have made everything too pretty and undermined the mood. Director Kazan prefers casual cutaways over minor characters who watch the action wordlessly. A huge fire at Vaccaro’s cotton gin is a major element that opens the story. A long convoy of cotton wagons is shown as Vaccaro brings his raw cotton to Archie’s gin.
The soundtrack is in English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional SDH English subtitles are available. The dialogue is clear and precise from start to finish. Baker and Wallach sound southern but Malden doesn’t try to sound regional. Other characters, played by locals, have stronger accents. Kenyon Hopkins’ jazzy score suits the story perfectly and is heard intermittently throughout. During the cotton-gin conflagration, the music is exciting and mingles with the sounds of the crackling flames and the collapsing structure. Archie’s dented and muddy old convertible is shot as it speeds along rural dirt roads. Malden’s outbursts are loud and insistent, emphasizing his impatience and frustration with Baby Doll and his growing jealousy of Vaccaro. Several shotgun blasts break the calm when Archie Lee, in one of his temper tantrums, begins firing the gun all over the house. In a sequence in which Baby Doll and Vaccaro play hide and seek, Vaccaro clinks a chandelier, adjusts a piano string, blows a trumpet, and makes other sounds to tease her.
Bonus materials on the R-rated Blu-ray release include the featurette Baby Doll: See No Evil and the movie trailer.
Baby Doll: See No Evil – “It was a movie that sizzled with raw sexuality.” Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach recall the creation and aftermath of Doll. Baker says she and the rest of the cast never felt the film they were making was objectionable and were terribly hurt by the widespread condemnation that “spurred a national boycott that forced him out of the film.” ‘screen”. Baker recalls receiving backlash from people who saw her on the street. By the end of World War II, audiences had become more sophisticated and were able to deal with adult themes. The sexual mores of the time were in transition. Tennessee Williams did not subscribe to the Puritan view of sex and saw it as a celebration of life. Director Elia Kazan decided to shoot the film on location in the Deep South. Residents of Benoit, Mississippi were initially suspicious of the film society, believing the film would be about segregation and cast them as rednecks. The swing scene was shot when it was very cold. Heaters surrounded the cast, and Baker and Wallach had to suck in ice cubes and spit them out just before filming to keep steam from coming out of their mouths. The ad campaign and posters featured Carroll Baker in the nativity scene. Due to the controversy surrounding the film, many bookings were canceled and Jack Warner pulled it from theaters after a few weeks, although it received a number of favorable reviews.
Theatrical trailer – This 3-minute trailer opens with references to Elia Kazan’s star-making films A tram called Désir (Marlon Brando) and East of Eden (James Dean). The narrator refers to Carroll Baker as having “the same special raw electricity you only found before in Marlon Brando and James Dean”. Several abbreviated scenes from the film are included.
Although there is no nudity or sex depicted on screen, Doll is definitely sexually charged. At one point, Archie notes, “There’s no torture on Earth to match the torture a cold woman inflicts on a man.” Despite the controversy, the film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Actress for Carroll Baker. Subversive for its time, Doll features intense performances and an effective blend of melodrama and dark humor.