John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: May, 2021

“Baby Doll,” Carl, Carol, Eli, the Legion of Decency and Me: Part Two

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.

BD: Uh-huh

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.

The Legion of Decency, “Baby Doll,” Carol, Carol, Eli and Me: Part One

Sometime in the mid-1950s when I was just short of puberty, but already intriguted by elements of the world, the flesh and the devil, The Tablet,  theofficial newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn began to arrive in our Ridgewood, Queens’s home for some unknown reason. Perhaps Mom had donated to some charity, or  joined a certain Catholic group where membership included a subscription to this publication?

Not once, did I ever try to read its contents except for the one feature that attracted the attention of every teen and pre-teen who saw the listing.

That feature was the National Legion of Decency’s ratings of Hollywood’s feature films. Each week, the Legion distributed a list of ratings for films so the members of their Roman Catholic flock would understand what movies were suitable for watching based on their moral content.

Films were rated according to the following code:

A: Morally unobjectionable.

B. Morally objectionable in part

C. Condemned

“Condemned.” The very word aroused a boy’s imagination and hormones. Week after week,  the Tablet displayed all the movies in those three categories. Since this was the mid-1950s, we lived under the illusion of a wholesomeness so there were only two that had earned the “C’ rating:  

And God Created Woman and Baby Doll

Oh, how exciting. All I knew about And God Created Woman, was it stared Bridgett Bardot. Photographs of that so called, “Sex Kitten,” filled Sunday magazine sections of the Daily News and the Daily Mirror so I easily understood what she looked like. No wonder why Adam never had a chance!

But what was Baby Doll all about? I understood that there was a style of women’s P.J.s named after this movie that were revealing, but so what? Strangely, all I ever encountered in that time of coming of age was that Baby Doll was a bad movie for Catholics and others of faith. I never saw its title, posted on a movie marquee nor met anyone who saw it.

Life went on and our world view of sex, morality and the Catholic sense of guilt turned into a roller coaster ride, or was it more akin to carnival ride called, the whip, where we were thrown around the cars with insane abandon? Either version; there was a whole lot of “shaking going on.”   

Cable freed TV from restrictive FCC rules. Pornography popped up in dingy midtown theatres. The internet followed blowing away the rules on almost all restrictions that prevented open  access to an electronic wonderland of pornography on demand where almost anything goes:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking

was looked on as something shocking.

Now heaven knows

anything goes.

Still, I remained clueless about Baby Doll until a fateful trip to Baltimore with Mike Scott to see an Orioles vs Red Sox game at Camden Yards about ten years ago. We took an afternoon off. I planned to nap, but serendipitously, when I turned on the TV, I found myself watching the opening credits for, Baby Doll! Mesmerized, I watched the entire movie.

I did try to tell Scott what I was doing, but he had turned off his room phone. Mike comes from that genre of older men who consider their cell phones, the modern manifestation of pay phones, only good for outgoing calls. Oh well, I tried.

I settled in to watch this black and white film set in Mississippi cotton country. That made sense, as, the author, Tennessee Williams came of age in Clarksville, a river town that was once the hub for the sale, storage and distribution of cotton. Clarksville also attracted the pickers of cotton, those Black Americans who lived under the yoke of Jim Crow. For this very reason, Clarksville also witnessed the birth of the blues.

Williams adapted the screenplay from his own one-act play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. It tells a story about rival cotton gin owners, one a son of the south and the other an Italian immigrant. It is a tale of revenge and seduction. Elia Kazan produced the 1955 film with Williams and cast three alumni from his Actors Studio in the lead roles, Karl Malden as Archie Lee Meighan, Carroll Baker as Baby Doll Meighan and Eli Wallach as Silva Vacarro.

Surprisingly, Kazan cast Malden as the villain and Wallach as the less offensive hero. Their difference in age was a factor, but Baby Doll presented a reversal of their traditional roles. Malden usually played a good guy, Father Barry in On the Waterfront and Omar Bradley in Patton. Wallach’s well-known roles include being different bad hombres like Calvera, the leader of the raiders who terrify villages, in The Magnificent Seven and, Tuco Ramirez in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Kazan originally wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Baby Doll, but after Williams saw Baker perform a scene from his script, he convinced the producer / director to give the part to her.

In Part Two, we will fearlessly, well, almost fearlessly, examine the film and why the shit hit the fan prior to its release .Heat up your popcorn and stay tuned.    

My Strangest Business Lunch

In 1972, when I was the oldest rookie at Marsh & McLennan’s Hull Department and the only one of four who was not only married, but with two kids,  I was assigned to the so called, “Small Account Unit.” I considered it to be a dead-end assignment because it isolated me from my firm’s major marine accounts where careers are made. I felt that I had been relegated to the role of being a garbage stomper, the low man on the totem pole who stomped down garbage into the can so more could be added. I knew I had fallen into disfavor.

Then one February morning, I found myself in an un-heated subway car stuck in a tunnel between stations. I could feel the cold penetrating the leather soles of my shoes as I looked out at my own image in a dirty window. Right then, I made a choice: “God-damn-it, since they made me a garbage stomper, I’m going to become the best garbage stomper in the firm!

In time, I grew to realize that this was the best thing that could have happened to my budding career. It gave me the opportunity to take on problems at my own discretion and solve them as I saw fit, either with my manager’s assistance, or on my own.

One of the little accounts I inherited was a policy for a company called Wilson Lines. It was an odd form of insurance that didn’t make much sense to me. The policy was called Barratry Insurance and covered the two brothers who owned Wilson Lines. If either of these owners took command of the SS Guano Queen, this policy would cover their unique liabilities. We had  placed it in the London Market and the current edition had a deposit premium of $2,500. Real premium would only be charged if either of them took command of the Guano Queen.

Fascinated and frustrated by the lack of information in the five-years of files we kept in our office, I contacted our archive group and requested the old insurance policies and files for as far back as they could locate them.

What I received produced a curious portrait. My firm had inherited this little account in the late 1950’s when Marsh & McLennan had bought a little broker, Briggs & Brennan, who had control of what was then the largest tanker fleet in the world, D.K. Ludwig’s National Bulk Carriers.

Wilson Lines was probably the smallest part of Briggs and Brennan’s book of business. I discovered that Wilson Lines was owned by two Danish brothers, John Wilson and Robert Wilson. I also learned that only Robert had once been a mariner and carried a captain’s license.

Everything I uncovered led me to believe that Captain Robert hadn’t taken command of the Guano Queen in the last twelve years for which we had records. I believed these brothers had been buying un-necessary coverage for, at least twelve years.

I laid out my findings to John Buzbee, my boss. John looked at me in amazement. “Damn, this is crazy! Why didn’t anyone catch this?”

He had me draft a letter to our client explaining, that with their permission, we would cancel the current policy and we would endeavor to refund the previous deposits as far back as possible.

Their return letter confirmed that the last time Robert had commanded the Guano Queen was in 1955! Obviously, they would be most pleased if we could re-coup past deposits.

We were able to recoup six-years of past premiums. I received a warm reply and notice that they wished to meet me on their next visit to New York, I informed Mr. Buzbee who advised, “Take them to an upscale restaurant.”

I chose The Forum of the Twelve Caesars located in Rockefeller Center less than a block from out office. I knew it was famous, but what I didn’t know was this former gem that opened in 1957 was well along the backside of the mountain and would close in less than three years.

I hadn’t given much thought to the Wilson brothers ages, so I was a bit shocked to realize that they were both in their late eighties or early nineties! Fortunately, they both spoke English with a Scandinavian accent. After some small talk in one of our conference rooms I suggested we continue our conversation over lunch.

It did concern me that we practically had the restaurant to ourselves, but my first sense of shock came when a waiter asked what we would like to drink. John Wilson asked for hot water with lemon while Robert declined. I settled for a Coke.

When the menus arrived, I realized that neither brother opened his menu. When I asked them what they were thinking about, John said, “Only another warm water with lemon,” while Robert explained, “I only have one meal a day and I already had breakfast so I’m alright.”

I settled for something light and that was lunch.

Our most interesting exchange came when I asked them what it was like tax wise to live in a socialist country like Denmark and own a private company?

John replied: “Oh, it is not an issue for us. You see we are both Panamanian citizens. Not only that, but we are also both charge d’ fairs so we have diplomatic immunity, and we don’t pay taxes.”

We said our goodbyes on the sidewalk. As I watched them walk slowly along Forty-Eighth Street in the direction of Fifth Avenue, I could only shake my head as I contemplated on how thoroughly they had beaten the system.

For the record, my time in small accounts worked out well. I was the first of the four to be promoted to Assistant Vice President and finished as a Managing Director. Not too shabby for a  garbage stomper.      

La Pointe du Hoc

The last stop on the bus we take from outside the American Cemetery to Grandcamp-Maisy turns out to be opposite, La Ferme du Colombier, the inn / B&B where we will stay for the next two nights. It is quite a complex. In season, it is something like a resort, offering economy rooms and extensive camping facilities. Their appealing restaurant is also a bargain. We enjoy a late lunch and dinner there that day. Don, a CPA, calculates that the total cost for our rooms, lunch and dinner including eight bottles of wine is $125 per couple. Viva la France, viva Normandy!

After lunch, we set out to see if it is feasible to reach La Pointe du Hoc from Grandcamp-Maisy on foot. We discover that this is another fishing village and a coastal destination during the summer season. Many stores and restaurants are already closed for the season and display signs in their widows reminding the public that they will re-open next May.

A rainsquall strikes just as we leave town. We jointly decide that continuing this quest is a fool’s errand. We agree that returning to the B&B is our best course. Undoubtedly, this course of action contributes to the consumption of those eight bottles of wine.

Tuesday, October 24, 2000: We are scheduled to leave Normandy by van at  eleven a.m. with all our worldly luggage. Our next destination is, Pontorson, the town nearby the Abbey at Mont St. Michelle, the famous abbey located on an island with the same name. Today, a highway built on an artificial berm keeps it connected to the mainland even during high tides.

Again, I wake up early, a blessing rather than a curse as it allows me to make solo explorations. I make my way into town to buy Francs from an ATM. Twilight reveals a fishing town fully awake and engaged in the business of unloading catches and processing the fish for sale in town and boxing them in ice for loading into vans and trucks for delivery to other destinations.

The tide is high, the gates to the locks are open, and fishing boats continue to enter the port. On a covered part of the quay, fishmongers are already hard at work arranging fixed metal tables with  beds of ice and depositing a variety of fresh caught species for individual and commercial customers.

It seems that the entire town and surrounding communities have turned out to participate in the beehive like activity of unloading catches and separating these fish for sale locally and shipment to other destinations. I take it all in as I realize how lucky I am to enjoy this wonderful though ordinary experience.

Back at in inn, I join Mary Ann and our mates for breakfast. Fascinated by my telling of what the port was before dawn, we return only to find the activity has shifted and fish mongers are now busy selling the catches on this, the village’s fisherman’s market day.

We reassemble in the Inn’s courtyard, just before our van is scheduled to arrive. Peggy has a quiet conversation with the driver who agrees with her request that we make a stop at La Pointe du Hoc. Peggy is our hero for pulling this off and this opportunity is an excellent experience.

The struggle at La Pointe du Hoc played an important role in the D-day landings. The Germans had installed massive cannons at the top of these 100-foot cliffs and on June 6, 1944, 200 US Army Rangers using ropes and ladders scaled those cliffs to destroy those guns. Almost half the unit was lost or wounded taking the German positions. The site of this struggle is the memorial we are seeking.

The field of battle is well groomed, but it remains in the same condition as it was when the battle ended. Debris has been removed, but the shell and bomb holes remain as do the reinforced concrete fortifications, some blown apart and others, still standing intact. The bunker where the big guns were supposed to be mounted stands empty and damaged, the same way the rangers found it on D-Day. The Germans had removed those cannons to escape the heavy bombing attacks prior to the invasion. The irony is that they were unable to re-install these guns once the invasion began. Eventually the rangers discovered them laying under camouflage in a farmer’s field where they destroyed  those guns.

Such are the quirks of the battlefield. Still, those surviving rangers removed the Nazis from a strategic height that dominates Omaha Beach.

As we drive away from the Normandy beaches, we pass through St. Lo, the town where General George Patton’s Third Army began its massive offensive that would clear the Nazi army out of central France and Paris. Our visit to the Normandy beaches is a home run for all of us and I am pleased to remove it from my bucket list.