April 5, 2016

Baby Doll (1956)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach

What it's about. Set in the Deep South. Karl Malden is a failed cotton gin businessman, who has bought the biggest house in the county to satisfy the demands of his teenaged wife Carroll Baker, who nonetheless refuses to have sex with him. But Malden is broke and desperate, and his furniture has been repossessed.

Living with them is Mildred Dunnock, Baker's kindly, pathetic, and possibly senile aunt. Also on the property are four or so middle-aged black men, who do little work and take considerable pleasure from the daily arguments of Malden and Baker.

Malden's rival is Eli Wallach (in his film debut), whose brand-new cotton gin has stolen everyone's business. Malden burns it to the ground, and appears to get away with the crime, although Wallach suspects him. His gin destroyed, Wallach decides to gin his cotton at Malden's facility to accumulate evidence against Malden. Wallach promptly encounters Malden's gold-digger wife, and begins a surreal courtship with her.

How others will see it. The controversial Baby Doll was beset by a campaign from the Legion of Decency, which largely kept the film out of theaters. Somehow, the movie garnered positive reviews, probably due to the reputations of Kazan and Williams. It also benefitted from a free speech backlash against the Production Code. The movie was nominated for multiple major awards at the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA, chiefly in acting categories, although Kazan took home the trophy for Best Director at the Golden Globes.

Today, the imdb.com user rating is higher than expected at 7.5 out of 10. The ratings are consistent, except for a slight gender gap (women in every age group grade it a bit higher). The 5K vote total suggests that most viewers are probably classic movie fans who often watch Turner Classic Movies, which shows the film a few times per year.

Those who enjoy the movie see it as a comedy. From their perspective, Karl Malden is a hoot, Carroll Baker is sexy, and Eli Wallach is an alpha male.

How I felt about it. Baby Doll was too scandalous for the Catholic Church, which flagellated the movie for its "indecency." Today, 60 years later, the film hardly raises eyebrows. A young women shopping for a wealthy man twice her age; a man burning down the business of his rival, and later attempting to shoot him; a man seducing a married woman half his age, and threatening to push her through the roof if she won't sign a document incriminating her husband. It all seems passé.

That Tennessee Williams. The more "shocking" the play, the more attention it (and its author) received. No wonder his plays are stocked with contemptible characters and their victims. Baby Doll is different, though, in that the three leads are so dislikable that we don't care whether they are victims or villains, or switch back and forth between the two, as happens here.

One of the things that I disliked about the characters is the inconsistency of their motivations. What does Malden value more, business for his cotton gin, or sex with his virgin wife? Whichever he is after, he is so incompetent at both that it's little wonder he becomes a lunatic by the end of the movie. Baker just wants a comfortable life, for both her and her useless aunt, but then she should either leave her husband, or stop belittling and aggravating him. As for Wallach, does he want to put Malden in jail, or seduce his wife? So far, he hasn't quite accomplished either, and he's lucky that the rifle-toting Malden didn't see him hiding in a tree twenty feet from the house.

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