Published at GONE CINEMA POACHING
Baby Doll Meighan is too sophisticated to eat nuts that have been in another man’s mouth. Tennessee William’s original screenplay is a recipe that is one part fiery revenge and three parts boiling sexuality…served as an entrée ripe with hilarious double entendres.
Karl Malden is the frustrated Archie Lee Meighan, Baby Doll’s husband; a man who after a year has yet to consummate the marriage. The agreement with his young wife who is 19 years old is that on her 20th birthday she would consent to sex, but he must be a successful businessman; but Archie Lee is an impotent middle-aged failure, his cotton gin decaying like his house and spirit. A foreigner named Silva Vacarro, wonderfully portrayed by Eli Wallach, has subsumed the locals with his cotton picking collective and has become the most successful businessman in town. Archie Lee is consumed with carnal desire and sweats his compulsion through his thick pores; while Baby Doll gently licks an ice cream cone on a hot day, seemingly oblivious to her own fleshy palatability.
Mortgaged to the bone, Archie loses the last vestiges of his manhood as her 20th birthday draws nearer when the furniture company reposes everything in the house…except the crib that his wife sleeps in. The image of Baby Doll sucking her thumb while sleeping in a child’s crib is both hilarious and arousing: Carol Baker plays her role with a vicious naiveté while still retaining her composure and sexual independence.
Director Elia Kazan films on location in Benoit, Mississippi and the racial slurs and segregation of the time become an intrinsic part of the narrative without casting aspersion or judgment upon the townsfolk. When a fire destroys Silva’s cotton gin, he suspects Archie of arson and sets about seducing his wife to form an agreement, tit-for-tat, that would allow Archie’s failing business to flourish while Baby Doll becomes his toy. As Silva and the young lady flirt, it seems that he only wants a signed confession to prove Archie’s involvement: he is just taking advantage of this naïve nymphet. But all is not as it seems and it soon becomes apparent that we can no longer distinguish who is seducing whom, or for what purpose.
Eli Wallach is able to display complex emotional ambiguities with subtle gestures, his eyes a mirror to his soul, while Carol Baker’s dumbed-down act becomes a manipulative tool of innocence and sensitivity. This aggressiveness finally descends into shotgun justice and Baby Doll and her geriatric aunt are left wondering what will happen to them: will they also become forgotten remnants of the Antebellum South?
Final Grade: (B)