Playwright Tennessee Williams knew quite a few things about the South, and in his 1956 movie Baby Doll he explores several of them: prejudice, desperation, and barely-repressed sexuality. The movie stirred up quite a controversy when released, and it's easy today to see why -- but it's still very effective, mainly due to a stellar cast and great director.

Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) was married to cotton gin owner Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) when she was 17 -- and with his promise to her father that he wouldn't sleep with her until she turned 20. At the start of the movie, Baby Doll is two days away from her 20th birthday, and it shows on both of them. He acts like a leering pervert, while she plays the nymphette. (The movie opens with her sleeping in a baby's crib and sucking her thumb, while he cuts a hole in the wall to spy on her.) Archie Lee promised to put her in the best house in the valley, but their home is a crumbling mansion surrounded by junk -- with almost all the furniture repossessed. She continually complains about what her late daddy would do if he could see her and talks about leaving Archie Lee to find work -- but she never finished school and can't do anything. Meanwhile, Archie Lee is laughed at by the townspeople in Mississippi, seeing a middle-aged man with such a young wife. And Baby Doll's senile Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock) wanders around aimlessly.

Then there's business. Italian immigrant Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach) owns the cotton plantation and cotton gin that have driven Archie Lee to ruin. During a town celebration for Silva, Archie Lee torches Silva's cotton gin, forcing him to turn to Archie Lee to process the harvested cotton. Silva knows that Archie Lee committed arson, but the townsfolk make it clear that they won't act against a white member of the community. So Silva heads over to Archie Lee's house -- and when Archie Lee heads off to fix his cotton gin, that leaves Silva and Baby Doll together in the house...

While it may seem easy to dismiss Baby Doll as lurid filmmaking (and the sensationalistic trailer below didn't help), this movie is really about the conflict of desperate people thrown together. Archie Lee is the once-proud man in the community who finds himself literally counting the days until his honeymoon, while desperately trying to cling to business (and driven to arson to that end). Silva is a man who is liked for his money but denied justice due to his race -- and who may be trying to seduce Baby Doll, or just get her to confess what her husband did. As for Baby Doll, she's the victim of an arranged marriage who doesn't want to hold up her end of the bargain but lacks any sort of talents to escape.

Director Elia Kazan gets the best out of his actors, capturing the characters' sstrengths and weaknesses. While there is clearly a sexual tug-of-war between Baby Doll and Silva ("Mrs. Meighan your husband sweats more than any man I know and now I can understand why"), Kazan is equally adept at the humorous scenes where Silva plays on Baby Doll's belief that the house is haunted; or the misadventure of Archie Lee as he travels far (and leaves the other two along together) to fix his cotton gin to get to work on his last change.

Karl Malden and Eli Wallach are terrific in their roles, but it's Carroll Baker who truly stands out here. She captured a kind of Marilyn Monroe-blend of innocence and sexuality, but taken to a creepy level by the ticking clock to Baby Doll's unwanted honeymoon. Baker does a terrific job balancing her character's naivite and sensuality, seeming to manipulate everyone without knowing what she's doing. Baby Doll remains as "shocking" today as when released -- and just as impressive.

(The dvd extras include theatrical trailers, plus a brief-but-excellent series of interviews with Baker, Malden, and Wallach.)

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

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