Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach snuggle suggestively in "Baby Doll"

The utterance of the words ‘virgin’, ‘mistress’, and ‘seduce’ were enough to get Otto Preminger’s film The Moon is Blue banned in Boston in 1953. Three years later, however, things went from bad to worse for the Legion of Decency upon the release of director Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, which — while avoiding its predecessor’s intemperate language — went far beyond The Moon is Blue by actually depicting the seduction of a virgin.

That was more than enough for Cardinal Spellman to condemn Baby Doll as “sinful”, and the film was ultimately banned both inside and outside the United States, including (oddly) in ostensibly liberal Sweden.

Screening at Pacific Film Archive at 9:00 pm on Saturday, December 3rd as part of the Archive’s current series, “Southern (Dis)comfort: The American South in Cinema”, Baby Doll may no longer have the power to shock, but is still likely to provide some surprises for first-time viewers. We generally don’t expect frank discussions about sex and race in films of this vintage; though Baby Doll’s story is somewhat undercut by its Tennessee Williams’-inspired histrionics, it delivers on both counts.

Shot on location in Beloit, Mississippi, the film stars Karl Malden as Archie Lee Meighan, a cotton farmer fallen on hard times. Archie’s been outmaneuvered by slick gin syndicate head honcho Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach in his screen debut), a self-described wop who’s anything but a good ol’ boy, and his home — a tumbledown Gothic mansion known as the Tiger Tail (actually the J.C. Burrus House, built in 1848 and the only genuine antebellum mansion in Beloit) — is in a serious state of disrepair.

And then there’s the little matter of Archie’s wife, a child bride named Baby Doll (Carroll Baker). Baby Doll sleeps in a crib, sucks her thumb, wears revealing nightgowns, and (due to a pre-nuptial agreement) has yet to consummate her marriage with hubby. It’s enough to drive any red-blooded American male to distraction.

Frustrated by his lack of success in both bedroom and boardroom, Archie impulsively burns down Vacarro’s gin as his nemesis celebrates the one-year anniversary of its opening. Local law enforcement displays a distinct lack of interest in the case, but Vacarro knows whodunnit, and, more importantly, knows how he’ll get his revenge — by bedding Archie’s wife before Archie does.

Based on a one-act play by the aforementioned Williams (but mostly written by Kazan — at least according to Kazan!), Baby Doll provided the juiciest of roles for its three stars. Baker earned a well-deserved Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her sexy and playful performance — no one can drink a Coca-Cola like this woman can — but Wallach is just as good as the canny Vacarro. That leaves Malden with the short straw: his character is a one-dimensional blowhard perpetually at boiling point. That said, he’s still tremendous fun to watch.

Shot in Oscar-nominated black and white by frequent Kazan collaborator Boris Kaufman, Baby Doll depicts a sharply dichotomous South where the old is in a state of irreversible decay and the new is, as always, an unwelcome intruder. There may be Chinese immigrants in this small Mississippi town, but they’re no more welcome there than are Sicilians like Vacarro. And as for African-Americans, they’re the film’s Greek chorus, bemusedly observing whitey make a fool of himself from a safe distance.

Not surprisingly, Baby Doll was a commercial flop. Time Magazine described it as the “dirtiest American-made motion picture that had ever been legally exhibited”, while the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther considered it merely “startlingly suggestive”. You’ll probably find it all a little less exciting, but judge for yourself — and bring a Swedish friend. You never know what they might think.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...