Baby Doll, (1956), a Warner Brothers motion picture
Directed by Elia Kazan
Screenplay by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan
Making a movie about sexual arousal is a tricky business. It requires a tremendous amount of balance to avoid parody on one hand and pornography on the other. The actors must exercise a form of reverse sexual sublimation- their technique must become invisible to allow the physiological responses to appear natural.
The titular character- "Baby Doll"- is a 19-year-old girl/woman (Carroll Baker), childish, dim-witted, innately sensual but repressed in a no-sex marriage with "Archie" (Karl Malden), an alcoholic middle-aged owner of a failing cotton mill. Archie burns down a cotton gin managed by a "Sicilian" newcomer "Silva"(Eli Wallach.) Silva figures out that Archie is responsible, but brings his cotton to Archie's mill to exact his revenge through Archie's unconsummated bride, Baby Doll. The twenty-five minute seduction scene is absolutely hypnotizing, Carroll Baker's performance is poetry:
Seeing it today, I was struck by how well it holds up and how it would be just as controversial today, although not for its sexual innuendos but rather for its realistic dialog of the people of small-town Mississippi. It is full of racist slurs and also shows some incidental but accurate depictions of enforced segregation. This is a movie that was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which was at the time powerful enough to cause Warner Brothers to pull the film out of theaters. Despite this, the film and the principal cast members were nominated for numerous awards. Tennessee Williams was the master of lurid psycho-sexual Southern Gothic, but in this film he was blessed with the direction of Elia Kazan (at his peak) along with some of the best method actors of the day. All these elements combine to make it one of the truly great yet seldom seen movies of the 1950's.