Elia Kazan's Baby Doll is a little gem from the 1950s, a lascivious tale of fractured masculinity and budding sexuality. Not surprisingly, it caused a huge stir when it came out, and was even banned by the Catholic League of Decency, among other things. Having been released around Christmas time, it was too unwholesome for many viewers who were over-steeped in family values of the kind this film casually shatters. Today, it is still surprisingly titillating, despite its lack of the modern quota of flesh (and probably because of that). I have read that Kazan was a fantastic director of actors, jump-starting the careers of some of the greatest talents like Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Eva Marie Saint. Not that the following hypothesis necessarily holds with that statement, but I have a theory that Kazan used Karl Malden for this role simply because he has the most phallic-looking nose that has been or ever will be. Perhaps, Malden method-acted from the tip of his nose outward, thereby creating the frigid, frustrated persona that is so memorable in this film.
In Tennesee Williams' screenplay, we find Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) and Archie Lee (Karl Malden) living together in a looming, dilapidated house in the country. In stages, we come to find that Baby Doll was married to Archie Lee just before her father's death, under the agreement that he would provide her the finest house in town. Essentially he would serve as a provider, performing the traditional role as alpha male. In exchange, she will provide him with sex. However, she is not required to consummate their marriage until her 20th birthday. Incidentally, this is the day we enter upon their Southern tableau, and the day that its already crumbling facade is completely torn asunder.
Archie Lee's house is grand, but his failing cotton farm has rendered him unable to provide for his wife as she sees fit. Though the house is, at least, the largest in town, it has fallen into disrepair, and little by little, the furniture has been reclaimed. The looming, empty house is just one of many symbols of Archie Lee's faltering masculinity. Without a bed, Baby Doll is forced to sleep in the crib that is, presumably, for the child they will someday conceive together. The crib also provides an excuse for her memorable introductory shot, which paints her as sort of a nymphet. Enter Eli Wallach's Silva, a rival and considerably more successful cotton farmer. Archie, fueled by sexual frustration and the further emasculation with which Silva's success imbues him, sets fire to Silva's plantation. Silva quickly pins him as the culprit, and approaches his farm seeking evidence and revenge. In Baby Doll he sees the perfect vessel for both.
The largest passage in the film is devoted to Silva's slow seduction of Baby Doll, as she becomes prepared to give him what she has, thus far, refused her husband. As she becomes steadily more aroused, there is no paucity of pillars and other phallic verticals for her to hang on. Part of what makes the movie so sexy is the long, drawn-out scene in which Kazan somehow manages to emulate arousal through his framing; as the tension builds, the framing grows steadily tighter. In the featurette, "See No Evil," which accompanies the 2006 DVD release of the film, the actors speak of the excoriation these scenes endured by the conservative public. As the camera closes in on Baby Doll's and Silva's faces, their hands became invisible, encouraging rumination that Silva is actually fondling her. The real reason for the camera's distance is that it was incredibly cold when the scenes were shot, making it necessary to surround the actors with space heaters to keep them from freezing. They even had to chew ice cubes before the action so that their breath wouldn't show in the air.
The dynamics of this lengthy seduction go from sensual to sadomasochistic to a very strange father/daughter flirtation. First, Silva berates Baby Doll for covering her husband's crime, then he chases her playfully all over the house. The more frightened and bewildered Baby Doll becomes, the more her attraction deepens. Silva intimidates her, and apparently, she finds it arousing to be out-witted.
When Archie Lee returns he senses a new dynamic, although he has no proof of wrongdoing. Actually, the ambiguity of the scene makes it so the audience has no proof of this either. But the shot above, where Silva towers smugly above him, certainly reveals Archie's feelings in the matter. Right before they exchange the only true kiss in the movie, Silva tells Baby Doll that she has grown up over night. Even if they haven't actually done the deed, the experience of arousal, something new to Baby Doll, enacts a change in her.
In the end, Silva has us all fooled into believing that he has actually fallen for Baby Doll; we are expecting the all-healing redemption of Hollywood romance, but he does not deliver. His entire seduction is staged solely to acquire a confession, and then to further humiliate Archie Lee. Having accomplished this, he exits the scene, leaving Baby Doll hot and bothered, and Archie broken. As both of the men drive off, one of his own volition, and one in a paddy wagon, Baby Doll is left alone with her elderly aunt. With a face newly illuminated by hard-won wisdom, she says, "we got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we're remembered or forgotten." Finally, we feel a deep sympathy for the petulant young girl who, aside from being a conquest, has never truly meant anything to anyone.
This movie is deeply entertaining and absolutely riveting to watch. It is about despicable people that we somehow come to care about, probably because these people are not unlike us in our various stages of upset. In addition to a paradigm of humanity at its most heinous, we are confronted with two models of masculinity, and even more significantly, two models of femininity. Baby Doll's capital lies entirely in her appearance, while her old, demented aunt**, having out-lived her beauty, is quickly out-living her usefulness. Actually, when she fails at cooking the evening meal, she officially wears out her only remaining use, and is quickly dismissed. The two opposing ends of the female spectrum are abandoned on the porch. The battle of masculinity is the one that matters; once it has been decided, the movie is over, leaving the women to question their relevance in the game.
**who I neglected to talk about until now... but her irrelevance up until the finale is part of the point I'm making, I suppose.