Black Malden Moan: 'Baby Doll'

With the great titan of acting and frequent genius Karl Malden passing (at 97 years of age god bless him), I'm posting one of my favorite Malden movies and performances -- Baby Doll. Though there's many brilliant Malden performances to choose from, this one will leave you fuzzy and buzzy. And I think we all need some of that right now.

"There isn't much of you, but what there is is choice. Delectable, I might say... You're fine-fibered. Soft and smooth...You make me think of cotton. No! No fabric or cloth, not even satin or silk cloth, and no kind of fiber, not even cotton fiber has the absolute delicacy of your skin."

So says a predatory Eli Wallach to an aroused and "hysterical" Caroll Baker in one of the most notoriously erotic mainstream films ever produced at that time. The movie was Baby Doll, director Elia Kazan's tragic-comic follow up to his already steamy masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire, his controversial On the Waterfront and his poignantly powerful East of Eden. Used to a certain amount of censorship and hullabaloo (especially for Streetcar), Kazan was most likely, not prepared for the maelstrom of controversy when Baby Doll, a sultry Southern gothic he intended as a "sleeper" was released in 1956.

Denounced by the Legion of Decency and deemed "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited" by Time magazine, Baby Doll, though not as "dirty" through time (at least in the common, modern comedy manner -- our current accessibility to salacious cinema isn't dirty in the right way...) still remains as sexually charged, perversely interesting and psychologically complex as it did then. It's also incredibly funny, superbly acted and weirdly beautiful. Though somewhat, inexplicably forgotten through time (it finally got a DVD release a few years ago), Baby Doll is one of Kazan's greatest accomplishments -- a masterpiece that stands on equal footing with Streetcar and Waterfront.

Written by that genius of Southern turbulence, Tennessee Williams (Baby Dollwas his first original screenplay -- adapted from parts of two earlier one-act plays), the film gave Carroll Baker her first starring role with an entrance that, in terms of cult cinema, is about as sexually iconic as Marilyn Monroe's upswept dress in The Seven Year Itch. Gorgeous, blonde 19-year old child bride Baby Doll (Baker) lies in an infant's crib, sucking her thumb while her middle aged husband Archie Lee (a wonderfully frustrated Karl Malden|) leers at her through a peephole.

But why must he leer at his own wife? As we soon learn, Baby Doll is a virgin -- she married Archie for what she thought would be a cushy life of prosperity and Southern comfort. But at this point Archie's lost his cotton gin to a Syndicate Plantation and is so in debt that his furniture (or, as she drawls "fornichore" which is how what every woman should call a sofa) has been removed from the house. An exasperated, angry Baby Doll threatens to leave Archie while he desperately waits out the day -- the eve of her birthday -- for their especially provocative "agreement:" that when she turns 20, he can finally sleep with his wife.

But things take a turn when lumbering, impetuous Archie loses his temper and burns down the Syndicate Plantation and Cotton Gin, managed by the cocky Sicilian Silva Vacarro (Wallach). Seeking revenge, Vacarro finds the one thing that'll make Archie murderously angry -- Archie's wife. And not just his wife but, perhaps (not to be revealed here) his wife's maidenhood as well. That is, if you could call the sassy, sexually curious tease Baby Doll a "maiden." She's certainly not-as-infantile-as-she-looks -- and she will reveal herself to be smart--making her all the more sexy.

The cat and mouse games and tricks played by Baby Doll and Vacarro result in the picture's gleefully demented, yet supremely hot seduction sequence on a porch swing that some viewers thought was downright pornographic. What were his hands doing? (I know) Why is she swooning that much? (We all know) This hyper eroticism is heightened by the film's lovely counterpoint of a blonde, summer dress-wearing Baby Doll to the darkly dapper, swarthy Italian who picks floating cotton off her dress and holds a riding crop, no less. And to further amp things up, after some antics in the shell of a house, Wallach will be seen riding Baker's hobby horse to the rock tune of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" The beautifully seamy shot of his shadowy rocking suggests a whole helluva lot more is going on here. Yes, lots of s-e-x. Good, bad, dirty southern s-e-x.

But there's more to the film than just overheated sensuality. Starkly but stunningly shot in black and white, the picture showcases a sad, crumbling South which is perfectly encapsulated via Malden's distressed and ultimately crazed performance as a cotton farmer being taken over by big business. You feel for poor Malden, as dumb as he is, and the intelligent actor nails sleazy, desperate, sad, cruel and touching all at once. Malden could be a powerful passive aggressive (check A Streetcar Named Desire, in which his "nice" guy ends up being one of the most despicable characters in the picture), and a powerful, noble aggressive aggressive (like his tough priest in On the Waterfront). Here he's just a lost soul who strikes out, but like his relationship with Baby Doll, his fire will ultimately be extinguished. No (for lack of a better word) orgasmic pleasure will come from this. He can't keep anything. Not his gin, not his wife, and not the old Southern way. He can't even be a proper southern gentleman without becoming a leering pervert (after all, in a time when he could have taken her by force without much condemnation, he is honoring her wish to remain a virgin). So as loud-mouth and as stupid as he seems hollering "Baby Doll!" at the top of his lungs, you can see that Williams, Kazan and Malden understand this is a man who has lost all dignity -- and though frequently funny, this is just plain sad.

And really, everyone here, save for his stray plantation hands whom he sneaks shots of hooch with, are sad. And, in their own way, creeps. But they're all-too-human creeps and earn sympathy for each of their dire situations. Baby Doll as the unhappy, clever though unschooled wife, Archie as the out-moded Southerner and Vacarro as the despised outsider. No one is inherently good, but none of are purely evil either. They are corrupted, vindictive, mean and in the case of Baker -- achingly sexy on top.

I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Baker's Baby Doll is one of the sexiest film performances in screen history. With that alone shouldn't the film earn greater respect through time? It did somewhat in its DVD release (in conjunction with the Tennessee Williams' box set which also includes that other underrated depiction of frustrated sexuality and a sizzling Lolita Sue Lyon -- The Night of the Iguana) with an accompanying short documentary. Chronicling the film's scandal (happily all three spectacular leads are alive to discuss the movie -- god bless you Karl Malden for even making it thatfar) and appreciating the picture's placement within Kazan's esteemed canon of work, it's a nice addition. But I wanted more. I always want more with Baby Doll. More movie, more respect, more thumb-sucking and ice cold glasses of lemonade.

As Baby Doll express at the end of the film, "we got nothin' to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we're remembered or forgotten." Thankfully and respectfully (maybe ironically so) Baby Doll is indeed remembered. Really, how could it have ever been forgotten?

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.