Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach
Warner Bros., 1956, 114 minutes
All of Elia Kazan’s previous eleven films contained some type of hard-hitting social message. With the farcical, dark comedy, “Baby Doll,” Kazan would break the mold.
Middle-aged, Archie Lee Meighan (Malden), is at the end of his rope. He had bought the dilapidated Mississippi Delta plantation mansion, Tiger Tail, with plans to renovate it for his child-bride, Baby Doll (Baker), but a modern, syndicate cotton gin plant has put the small independent ginners in the area, like Archie Lee, out of business. Compounding his financial humiliation is the publics’ knowledge of Archie Lee’s wedding pledge to Baby Doll’s father not to consummate the marriage until her twentieth-birthday, just a few days away. But Baby Doll is repulsed by the financially strapped and increasingly unhinged Archie Lee. The last straw comes when all of their furniture is repossessed. Even the Black folk of the area hold Archie Lee in derision.
Archie Lee gets revenge for his misery by burning down the syndicate gin. The owner, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), suspects Archie Lee is the culprit and the very next day arrives at Tiger Tail with a convoy of raw cotton. While Archie Lee is gleefully occupied processing the cotton at his broken-down gin, Vaccaro and Baby Doll remain at the mansion and he coaxes her into signing an affidavit admitting her husband was responsible for burning down the syndicate gin. That evening, Archie Lee returns to the mansion, and with the affidavit safely in his pocket, Vaccaro goads him to the breaking point. Archie Lee grabs his shotgun while Vaccaro scoots up a tree. When the local sheriff hauls Archie Lee off to prison, Vaccaro victoriously proclaims he’ll be back the next day with more cotton to gin. Baby Doll turns to her demented Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock) and says with a mixture of hope and despair, “Well, let’s go in now. We got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we’re remembered or forgotten.”
“Baby Doll” was quite controversial when it was released in 1956. The Catholic church gave it a C – “Condemned” – rating, meaning anyone who saw the movie committed a “mortal” sin. Francis Cardinal Spellman, archbishop of New York City, ordered parish priests to position themselves in theater lobbies to intimidate parishioners from seeing the movie, although we now know that Spellman was personally racking up a truckload of “mortal” sins “behind closed doors” at the time. Due to the controversy, “Baby Doll” was pulled from theaters after only a short run. My, things have certainly changed. “Baby Doll” would probably earn no higher than a PG-13 rating today.
Baker, Dunnock, Tennessee Williams (screenplay), and Boris Kaufman (cinematography) were all nominated for Oscars. Malden is excellent as the tragically comic foil. The movie was filmed in Benoit, Mississippi and the nearby abandoned Burrus Plantation Mansion, which has only recently been renovated (see here). As in many of his other films, Kazan used local citizens to augment the cast, including many African-Americans. There are several examples in the film of the segregation of the Deep South in 1956. It’s ironic that Archie Lee seeks swift justice for the perceived wrongs he has suffered while the segregated Blacks of the town must silently endure systematic abuse from Archie Lee and the rest of the White population.
Additional thoughts from a believer
Although it’s a simple farce without much of a plot or message, “Baby Doll” is ultimately about revenge and justice. Archie Lee seeks revenge and justice by burning down what he sees as the cause of all of his problems, the rival syndicate gin. Vaccaro seeks revenge and justice by seeing that Archie Lee is successfully charged with arson. Baby Doll wants to extricate herself from her hopeless situation and sees in the suave Vaccaro a possible escape.
Can a follower of Jesus Christ garner anything from this “tiger’s tail”? Elia Kazan may have been an atheist but his films often had excellent critical insights into the “human condition.” How much of our energy goes into striving to rise above others through our jobs/careers and number of possessions? How much of our self-worth is tied to money, the things we own, and social status? When we suffer loss or embarrassment, is our kneejerk reaction to seek revenge? How many of our undesirable circumstances are the “other guy’s” fault. How much do we live by, “Doeth unto them before they doeth unto you”? Why does it feel so good to hang onto a grudge?
We are all sinners full of self-serving hypocrisy and until you can admit to that, there is no hope for you. But God provided a way out from the eternal punishment we deserve through His Son, Jesus Christ. Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior by placing your faith in Him alone.
“I did not come to call the [self-proclaimed] righteous [who see no need to repent], but sinners to repentance [to change their old way of thinking, to turn from sin and to seek God and His righteousness].” Luke 5:32 AMP