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.

3 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

"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 film's deployment of sexual tension is masterful, pushing the boundaries of screen indecency at the time."

Indeed Ed, on both counts, and more in this tautly-written capsule of a film that remains memorable, even if I don't have quite a smuch love for it as you do. Still, I appreciate and greatly respect your position here.

Stunning layout of screencaps here, as always.

filmdr said...

An enjoyable post, Ed. I wonder if Williams lightly mocks his penchant for the southern grotesue in Baby Doll, but the film holds up reasonably well, even given a weak ending. I still find it funny that the Catholic League of Decency had such fits over the movie. Also, your screencaps emphasize the great cinematography.

Christian said...

@filmdr: the film holds up reasonably well? weak ending?

JESUS! It's still great, even (more?) when considering today's standards. The acting, the brilliant dialogue, the perfect script and wonderful cinematography. "Baby Doll" is on my favourite films list. Together with "A Streetcar Named Desire".

The reason for this comment: It's Carroll Baker, with double "r", probably a typo, I know.

A last word: What an excellent blog! Thanks for all the work.