Baby Doll has been described as: “An American dramatic black comedy.” If you read the script without any knowledge of how the dialogue sounded and the visual impression it presented, you might agree with that analysis.
Trust me though, as I watched the story unfold on the television in my Baltimore hotel room, I can attest that the dialogue was steamy, sensuous and seductive. It didn’t hurt that Carroll Baker wore the same short slip in every scene, a slip that revealed everything without revealing anything. Without any hints of nudity or any manifestations of simulated sex, Ms. Baker’s very presence exuded sensuality that turned ordinary lines that could have been comedic into sexual provocations. Witness:
Baby Doll (BD): (Silva caresses her neck) Don’t touch me. Please, don’t touch me. I don’t like to be touched.
Silva: Well, why do you giggle?
BD: Cause, you make me feel kind of hysterical, Mr. Vacarro.
Silva: ( knowing smile) I do?
BD: (starts to get up) Mr. V. I think I’ll go and make us some lemonade. (he holds her back.)
BD: What did you do that for?
Silva: I don’t want to be deprived of the pleasure of your company. Not yet.
BD: Mister V, you certainly are getting familiar.
Silva: Don’t you have any fun-loving spirit about you?
BD: Well, this is not fun. (laughs breathlessly and smiles.)
Silva: Why do you giggle then? Hmm?
BD: Because I’m ticklish.
A word about the plot. Miss Baby Doll’s father forced her to marry Archie Lee Meighan (Carl Malden) as part of a semi-extortion plot to save the remaining assets of his cotton plantation. Baby Doll’s father forced Archie to agree to a wedding contract that the marriage would not be consummated for two years, not until Baby Doll turned twenty.
Silva Vacarro, (Eli Wallach) immigrates to town and establishes a cotton gin operation that ruins Archie’s gin. Archie, burns Silva’s gin to the ground. Silva goes to Archie’s home to set a trap to prove Archie destroyed his gin. He charms Archie who goes about his business allowing Silva to use Baby Doll to incriminate Archie. The script is saved from becoming a British romantic comedy, again, by Ms. Baker’s sensuous performance.
BD: I told my daddy that I wasn’t ready for marriage and my daddy told Archie Lee that I wasn’t ready for it and Archie Lee promised my daddy that he would wait until I was twenty.
Silva: Then, the marriage was postponed?
BD: Oh no, not the weddin’. We had the weddin’. My daddy gave me away.
Silva: But you said Archie waited?
BD: Yeah! After the weddin’, he waited.
Silva: For what?
BD: For me to be ready for marriage.
Silva: Well, how long did he have to wait?
BD: Oh, he’s still waiting.
BD: We had an agreement that-I mean, I told him that on my twentieth birthday I’d be ready.
Silva: That’s tomorrow.
Silva: And are you-will you be ready?
BD: Well, that all depends.
Silva: On what?
BD: Whether not the furniture comes back, I guess.
Silva: Your husband sweats more than any man I know and now I can understand why.
Silva and Baby Doll engage in this dialogue while they lay together in the enlarged crib that Baby Doll uses as her bed. Tennessee Williams didn’t shy away from the generous use of the most base of racial and ethnic language in his script. These slurs were repeated so often that they had to be deliberate.
I believe Williams and Kazan chose to test the limits of what was acceptable in 1956 Main Street America. If content was not enough, their publicity department commissioned a promotional billboard in Times Square featuring Ms. Baker, lying in her crib, wearing her short slip sucking on her thumb prior to the film’s release.
Two days before the movie’s premier, Cardinal Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, condemned Baby Doll from the pulpit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Sunday’s high mass. He demanded that both Catholics and non-Catholics forgo seeing this film. He deemed it to be morally dangerous. One critic reported: “Spellman’s unusually harsh and unusually public sermon was unprecedented.”
Cardinal Spellman was one of the top ten power brokers not only in New York, but, also, on the national stage. His nickname was the American Pope and his condemnation marginalized Baby Doll to art houses, off beat theaters and eventually, a hotel in Baltimore over fifty- years later.
The film didn’t make a profit, but it did set off a storm of controversy between freedom of expression and censorship with prominent people and organizations taking both sides of the divide. It was banned in several countries including Sweden, curiously, where Swedish movie makers produced the erotic: I Am Curious (Yellow) in 1967.
Time Magazine called Baby Doll, ”…just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.”
As for me, I’m glad I got lucky in Baltimore to understand what that storm was all about. My verdict: Using 1956 standards, I find Baby Doll, guilty as charged.