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

by John Delach

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.