Monday, February 9, 2009
Films I Love #18: Baby Doll (Elia Kazan, 1956)
Elia Kazan's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll is quite possibly the steamiest, dirtiest film that doesn't have a single moment of nudity or a directly sexual line of dialogue. The eponymous heroine (the sultry Carroll Baker) is a virginal, childlike 19 year-old who's married to failing cotton-gin owner Archie Lee (Karl Malden). The balding, perpetually frazzled Archie was able to marry Baby Doll on the condition that he not consummate their relationship until her twentieth birthday, a contract that he has held to despite his overwhelming desire for his bride. As the day approaches, tensions run high, as Archie's business is collapsing and the decrepit old mansion the couple lives in is barren of furniture and under half-hearted construction. Archie is a shambles, a joke to his wife and to the entire town, and when the much more successful, virile businessman Vacarro (Eli Wallach) moves in on both Baby Doll and the cotton business, things threaten to erupt. The film's deployment of sexual tension is masterful, pushing the boundaries of screen indecency at the time. At the center of the film is what can only be described as a sex scene, achieved entirely through a conversation between Vacarro and Baby Doll. Kazan's camera moves progressively closer as the dialogue shifts from flirtatious to downright naughty, and the urgent sexuality of the scene is expressed entirely in Baker's sensual face and Wallach's leering grins. The heat generated by these two is palpable, and the scene gradually works its way towards orgasm as a weak-kneed Baby Doll, panting and stuttering with her eyes tightly closed, staggers across the yard with Vacarro in pursuit. Baker's woozy, delirious performance, coupled with Wallach's wild-eyed come-ons, makes the scenes between them sizzle; there are few "real" sex scenes that are quite as jaw-dropping or sensual.