I had the privilege of seeing this excellent film last week at the AFI Silver Theater, which recently ran a month-long tribute to the late, great director Elia Kazan. Kazan is notable for his collaborations with a young Marlon Brando, directing the rising star in three films during the early 50s: "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Viva Zapata!" and the masterpiece "On the Waterfront." Many film critics put "Baby Doll" right behind "On the Waterfront" when ranking Kazan's filmography. Having seen it, I would likely do the same (though I haven't seen all of Kazan's films yet).
Eli Wallach, who plays Silva Vaccaro in "Baby Doll," was on hand to introduce the film at the AFI Silver. He spoke for about 45 minutes and, though he's in his 80s, had the audience (about 40 or 50 of us) roaring with laughter. I was amazed at how many top actors and directors he's worked with. He spoke mainly about "Baby Doll," which he says is his favorite film.
Here are a few things I learned from Eli Wallach about "Baby Doll": His hands were NOT anywhere near Carroll Baker's private parts during the notoriously erotic swing scene, as reported in many a film review at the time. Rather, they were resting on a space heater; though "Baby Doll" takes place in the heat of summer, the film was shot during winter. In fact, the actors had to suck on ice cubes before each take so their breath wouldn't show. Wallach spent more time in the iconic baby crib than Baby Doll herself. This was Wallach's first film.
"Baby Doll" is based on two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams: "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" and "The Unsatisfactory Supper." Anyone familiar with Tennessee Williams knows that his writing is very southern and very steamy. "Baby Doll" may be the steamiest, most erotic thing he ever wrote.
The owner of a private cotton gin, Archie Lee, has his hands full with "child bride" Baby Doll, who sleeps in a crib and won't let her husband touch her until she turns 20. With her birthday in a few days, Baby Doll, played by the impossibly-cute Carroll Baker, is threatening to "withhold" unless her aging, doltish husband starts raking in the dough. After their furniture is hauled off, Lee, played by Karl Malden, sets fire to the new cotton gin that's been taking away his business. Silva Vaccaro, a firey Sicilian businessman played by Eli Wallach, vows to exact revenge on the person who burned down his gin. Suspicions lead him directly to Lee's doorstep where, over the course of an afternoon, he proceeds to destroy the man's life.
The heart of the movie is Vaccaro's seduction of Baby Doll. No flesh is ever shown, nothing explicit is ever uttered and I believe there's only one kiss in the entire film. Regardless, this is some of the hottest, most erotic footage in American film. The dialogue, the acting, the way it's directed: the overall effect is like watching passionate sex, yet it's simply two people talking - and they're not even talking about sex! To me, this type of filmmaking is magical, when the director conjures something out of thin air that isn't even there.
"Baby Doll" was highly, highly controversial upon its release in 1956. It was condemned by The Legion of Decency, an organization of the Roman Catholic Church, who claimed that it was immoral. Because of the hype, it was withdrawn from over 70 percent of U.S. theaters before its premiere. Several film critics at the time called it the most pornographic film ever released by a film studio. Today however, very few would likely get in a fuss over it.
"Baby Doll" is a great film that now ranks among my favorites of all time. It's not only sexy, but very funny, well-acted, well-written and expertly directed. It may seem a little dated to most modern viewers, but I personally think it holds up quite well (but then, I do watch a lot of old films.) If and when "Baby Doll" is produced for DVD, I hope the studio considers Eli Wallach for the audio commentary.