If you think Baby Doll is just a pale imitation of Lolita, think again. Tennessee Williams' high-spirited, sassy dark comedy about a spoiled teen bride who keeps her much older husband at bay while shamelessly flirting with his vengeful business rival brims with Southern atmosphere and provocative themes, and features powerful performances from Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach. A new HD master that restores the film's original widescreen aspect ratio distinguishes Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation that mightily improves upon the 2006 DVD. If you're a fan of literate drama, biting comedy, and fine acting, you'll definitely want to add this saucy, surprisingly substantive film to your collection. Recommended.
Tennessee Williams possessed an uncanny knack for cutting through all the bullshit of human interaction and exposing the unvarnished truth. His searing, provocative dramas produced some of the most memorable characters in American theater and cinema history - from Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski to Brick Pollitt, Big Daddy, and Maggie the Cat - while exploring an array of explosive and groundbreaking themes like mental illness, sexual violence, homosexuality, cannibalism, and religious hypocrisy. Hollywood loved Williams' plays, but the taboo topics he so incisively tackled almost always had to be watered down, altered, or veiled by vague innuendoes to satisfy the censors.
Somehow, though, Williams finessed the Production Code's (over)zealous enforcers with one of his most risqué scripts. Baby Doll - even the title pushes the envelope - may have squeaked by because of the comic overtones that seemingly temper the plot's sizzling aspects...but don't be fooled. Set against the backdrop of faded Southern finery and with undercurrents of greed, lust, revenge, manipulation, obsession, abuse, and loneliness pulsing through its story, Baby Doll is typical - and vintage - Williams. It may not stand as one of his best known works, but like almost all of his dramas it endures, thanks to a literate, lyrical screenplay, expert direction by Elia Kazan, and the indelible performances of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach.
Baby Doll may have dodged the censors' eagle eyes, but it failed to fly under the radar of the Catholic Legion of Decency, which condemned Kazan's film shortly after Cardinal Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, denounced it from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral. The resulting furor, which included Time magazine labeling the movie "just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited," forced Warner Bros to yank Baby Doll from many theaters and dissuaded the studio from widely releasing it thereafter. While A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, Night of the Iguana, and Suddenly, Last Summer frequently turned up on television throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, Baby Doll remained elusive, as if it were the black sheep of the Tennessee Williams family.
Today, it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about. Sure, Baby Doll is titillating and steamy (how could a film whose ad campaign depicts a grown woman lying in a crib suggestively sucking her thumb not be?), but the obvious parallels to Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov's notorious tale of a sassy, coquettish nymphet who stokes the passions of a lascivious professor more than three times her age - are unfounded. Baby Doll is less about sex and more about power, manipulation, and revenge in a corrupt, racist, xenophobic culture that devalues women, discriminates against minorities, and shuns outsiders.
We're talking, of course, about the once mighty South, a region Williams knew well. Almost all of his dramas are set there, and he relishes depicting the tattered trappings, hot tempers, rigid class structure, and stubborn, outdated ideals that defined it in the mid-20th century. In Baby Doll, the crumbling South is reflected quite literally in the crumbling, ramshackle mansion where middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Malden) lives with his teen bride Baby Doll (Baker) and her eccentric spinster aunt, Rose (Mildred Dunnock). A couple of years prior, Archie Lee promised Baby Doll's dying father, who didn't think his 18-year-old daughter was "ready for marriage," that he'd buy her the grandest home in the county and, more importantly, wouldn't lay a hand on her until she turned 20.
Well, it's the eve of Baby Doll's 20th birthday and Archie Lee is at the end of his rope. The haughty Baby Doll still shrinks from his touch (and threatens to leave him altogether if he continues ogling her), their home is a bottomless money pit, and Archie Lee is strapped for cash, thanks to a corporate cotton-ginning syndicate moving into town and gobbling up all of his business. Adding insult to injury, almost every stick of their furniture is about to be repossessed due to lack of payment. That bit of news renders Baby Doll apoplectic and incites the hot-headed, sexually frustrated Archie Lee to commit a rash action.
At a celebration dinner for the Syndicate, Archie Lee slinks away and impulsively burns down the company cotton gin. Arson may be a crime, but the local police, who along with the townspeople bitterly resent the Syndicate for overrunning their community, turn the other cheek, citing a lack of evidence. Such indifference from law enforcement riles the Syndicate's macho manager, Silva Vaccaro (Wallach), who believes Archie Lee is the culprit. Silva, who hails from Sicily, seeks an Old World, biblical type of justice, and vows to get the goods on Archie Lee by shamelessly flirting with his nubile and naive young wife. Baby Doll, though, is much smarter and more cunning than she lets on, but is she mature enough to outfox two determined men willing to pay any price to get what they want?
Lust fuels many a Williams drama, but greed often plays an equally potent role. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley covets the remaining crumbs from the ruined family estate of Blanche and Stella, while in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gooper and Mae vie with Maggie to win Big Daddy's favor...and the lion's share of money in his will. Cotton is the prize in Baby Doll, and in the remote, depressed area of Arkansas where the characters live, it's worth its weight in gold. Sure, Archie Lee wants to consummate his marriage and Silva wouldn't mind a roll in the proverbial hay with Baby Doll, but cotton consumes both men's lives, and without it, they'll be as dirt poor as any lowly Southern sharecropper.
Williams - with an able assist from Kazan - masterfully builds the underlying sexual and violent tension, but a captivating playfulness pervades the material, lightens its tone, and makes Baby Doll a unique comedic entry in Williams' canon. The subtle humor can be difficult to catch, but the more you see the film, the more it rises to the surface. The bickering between Archie Lee and Baby Doll is especially clever, but there's plenty of zip and zing in the more sedate sparring between Baby Doll and Silva. Watching Archie Lee repeatedly scream "Baby Doll!!!" at the top of his lungs (albeit with abject exasperation) instantly evokes images of Marlon Brando wailing "Hey, Stellaaaaaaa!!!" in Streetcar, and makes one wonder whether both Williams and Kazan (who also directed Streetcar) intentionally sought to spoof that iconic moment.
Of course, Baby Doll wouldn't be a Williams play without some pathos, and in another, more heartbreaking Streetcar parallel, Archie Lee banishes the sweet, vulnerable Aunt Rose from his house in much the same cruel manner as Stanley kicks out the debilitated Blanche by presenting her with a bus ticket on her birthday. Dunnock's expression of hurt, indignation, and wounded pride over such shabby treatment belies the ditzier elements of her largely comedic character and no doubt earned her a well-deserved Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress.
Baker, in only her third movie, lights up the screen with a saucy, guileless portrayal that nabbed her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She would lose to Ingrid Bergman for Anastasia.) Though five years older than her character, Baker nicely balances child-like innocence with the bratty attitude of a recalcitrant teen and creates strong chemistry with both Malden, who is quite colorful as the desperate, beleaguered Archie Lee, and Wallach, who makes an electrifying film debut as the virile, vengeful Vaccaro. Much of Baby Doll is a game of cat-and-mouse between the three principals as they try to outsmart and out-maneuver each other to get what they want, and Williams' Oscar-nominated script gives each actor ample time to shine.
Sometimes too much time. A few scenes drag on too long and the pacing often feels as languorous as a lazy Southern afternoon. Williams adapted Baby Doll from his 1946 one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and sprinkled in a few elements from The Long Stay Cut Short, another one-act drama from the same year, but still needed to flesh out the narrative to make it cinematic. A bit too much padding slows Baby Doll down, especially on a first viewing, yet once you know the story and can fully concentrate on the nuances of the screenplay and performances, the movie becomes a much more enriching, entertaining, and impactful experience.
A few racial and ethnic slurs still provoke squirms, but like many of Williams' works, Baby Doll paints a searing, often damning, and strikingly realistic portrait of the South and its people during a turbulent and transitional time in its history. Its humor lightens the tone, but also helps hammer home the potent, timeless themes on display. Like Baby Doll herself, it's hard to take the film seriously at first, but just as she matures, so does the story, and like innocence lost, this raw, raucous, and atmospheric motion picture ultimately leaves us with a hint of melancholy and tinge of regret.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Baby Doll arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
If you're a Baby Doll fan who owns the 2006 DVD, Warner Archive provides a couple of strong incentives to upgrade. A brand new HD master that perks up the picture and erases all the nicks, blotches, and scratches that dotted the DVD is one notable improvement, but presenting the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is perhaps even more noteworthy. The DVD cropped the image to 1.37:1, so to be able to finally enjoy the movie in the immersive manner in which it was originally intended to be seen is quite thrilling.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer honors the stark, Oscar-nominated cinematography of Boris Kaufman, who also worked with Kazan on - and won a well deserved Academy Award for - On the Waterfront. A fair amount of grain maintains the film-like feel and lends the picture a highly appropriate rustic look. Excellent contrast and clarity highlight fine details and supply a palpable sense of depth, while very good shadow delineation during the attic scene and nocturnal sequences keeps us immersed in the action. Rich blacks, bright yet stable whites, and nicely varied grays bring the Mississippi locations to life, and an array of tight close-ups (rare for a widescreen movie) showcase Baker's alabaster skin, Malden's sweaty, stubbly face, and a faint vertical scar on Wallace's temple. Some scenes sport a bit of a softness and thicker layer of grain, but overall this is a consistent, pleasing presentation of a gritty film.
Location shooting often presents an array of audio problems, and Baby Doll isn't immune to their ramifications. Though the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track beautifully renders the naturalistic sound, from the hollow echoes of the manor's empty halls to such subtle atmospherics as rustling leaves and whistling winds, the dialogue often gets obscured. The combination of lazy drawls, Southern idioms, overlapping lines, rapid delivery, and a fair amount of mumbling make many exchanges difficult to fully decipher. (The same issue plagues the 2006 DVD, but to a lesser extent. Perhaps the enhanced clarity of lossless audio amplifies this particular imperfection.) I can't recall ever before turning on the subtitles for an English-language movie, but I felt compelled to here because I wanted to catch and absorb every word and cadence of Williams' lyrical dialogue. Don't misunderstand; the track certainly renders the dialogue well enough without subtitles, but if you want to fully comprehend everything - and enjoy this movie to the fullest - you should consider switching them on.
On the plus side, sonic accents like honky horns, crowing roosters, barking dogs, rattling pots and pans, creaky floorboards, gunshots, footsteps, and shrieks are all wonderfully distinct, and though the music score by Kenyon Hopkins (12 Angry Men) is sparingly employed, excellent fidelity and tonal depth help it fill the room with ease. A wide dynamic scale handles all of the track's highs and lows without any distortion, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. Though this is largely a successful track, the dialogue issue somewhat diminishes its effectiveness.
Both extras from the 2006 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Featurette: "See No Evil: Baby Doll" (SD, 13 minutes) - Interviews with Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach highlight this absorbing 2006 featurette that examines Tennessee Williams' contribution to post-World War II cinema, the tense atmosphere during the location shooting in Mississippi, the story's overt sensuality, and the religious backlash after the film's premiere. Film historian Drew Casper also weighs in on the enduring relevance of Baby Doll, which Wallach cites as his favorite film.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview compares the discovery of Carroll Baker to Marlon Brando and James Dean while hyping the story's titillating aspects, "raw edged reality," and "violent emotion."
Provocative, atmospheric, surprisingly funny, and packed with memorable characters, Baby Doll shows off a refreshingly different side of Tennessee Williams while sticking to the playwright's core themes. The story of a coquettish teen bride who keeps her much older - and very frustrated - husband at bay while shamelessly flirting with his bitter business rival is as languorous as a lazy Southern evening, but Elia Kazan's superior direction and excellent performances from Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, and Mildred Dunnock keep it humming. A brand new HD master in the original widescreen aspect ratio distinguishes Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation that's a nice step up from the 2006 DVD. Recommended.