Classic of the Week: Baby Doll (1956)

Baby Doll is a 1956 American black comedy film directed by Elia Kazan, starring Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach. It was adapted from the Tennessee Williams play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. The film centers on a feud between two rival cotton gin owners in rural Mississippi; after one of the men burns the other’s gin down. The owner fights back by trying to woo the arsonist’s nineteen-year-old virgin bride hoping to receive an acknowledgment of her husband’s guilt.

This film was highly controversial upon its release, largely due to its overly sexual themes. The Roman Catholic National League of Decency, tried to get the film banned, though the responses to the church’s disapproval of the film were varied with Catholic Church and other religious organizations. Despite moral opposition of the film, it was vastly well received by critics and many movie goers. Culturally, the film has been credited with the conceiving the name and making popular of the babydoll nightgown, which derives from the costume worn by Baker’s character.

Although this film was and still is very controversial, it still stands as one of the best “Lolita” type films, where a much older man falls for or becomes infatuated with a much younger girl, tricking by at first asking her to do kind things for him, then he starts to be kind, often fatherly or husbandly, them eventually becomes abusive to her.

Baby Doll ends up being forced to marry Archie Lee Meighan, but he makes an agreement with Baby’s father to wait until her 20th birthday to be consummated. But in the meantime, she sleeps in a crib, wearing short childish nightgowns and sucking her thumb, while Archie, an alcoholic spies on her through a hole in the wall of their dilapidated antebellum house, Tiger Tail. Baby Doll’s crazy Aunt Rose Comfort also lives in the house and is tortured by Archie Lee.

During the era and setting of this film, young girls getting married to wealthy older men was quite common. Some as girls as young as fifteen got married to men in thirties, forties, fifties, maybe even older than that. Young girls getting pregnant was also quite common. Men during this time in the early 20th century (1910’s-30’s), had higher power in most aspects of living, from marriage, to better jobs, higher pay, parenting, etc. Women (or girls in this case), were mostly either schoolteachers, seamstresses, secretaries, or housewives or stay at home mothers. This film shows how life was then in a real southern town.

Sadly, this kind of story really did happen quite a lot during that time in south, especially in small towns. Females, normally didn’t go college unless they were wealthy, lots didn’t even have a high school education. Baby Doll in this film was manipulated by her father and her husband. Her husband forces her to act like a nineteen year old baby and frequently ignores her. Her Aunt Rose is of no help to her because she is senile, so she is oblivious to what is going on with Baby and Archie. Baby and aunt Rose eventually escape from Tiger Tail and Archie is taken to jail, but their lives before that is a living nightmare.

This controversial story is much like a southern version of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” although much less humor in my opinion than Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the Nabokov book. Even though this movie is called a black comedy, it’s far too serious to be called that. The film deals with underage marriage, terrible living conditions, mental illness, alcoholism, vandalism, money issues and abuse, none of which is a laughing matter. Not once did I laugh out loud, so this is really a drama film one hundred percent.

The acting is superb from the main stars. Though this film is really slow and drawn out in some scenes, it is still very well done. Not an exciting film at all, in fact, the majority of it, is extremely depressing, like the way Baby Doll is treated throughout. The only real happy moment is when she and Aunt Rose escape Archie Lee and the police pick him up.

There is no nudity. There is lots of sexual moments though, like Silva making Baby horny and she wears childlike “lingerie” during the majority of the movie. There is some pretty violent scenes, lots of smoking and drinking, but not a whole lot foul language, just the “n-word” used a few times, but that fits the time period and location. Some things in this movie might make a more modest or conservative person overly uncomfortable. This isn’t a film that could be watched over and over because of the theme and adult segments. It is still a work of art despite it causing feather ruffling even today. 18 & up 4/5