Elia Kazan, who was instrumental in adapting Stanislavsky’s acting method for the American stage and screen, is among the greatest directors of actors the cinema has ever known. And, after obvious titans like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront (the best-acted movie ever), case in point is 1956’s Baby Doll. The film, which screens tonight and tomorrow afternoon as part of Film Forum’s Kazan series, has a lot going for it: Boris Kaufman’s dreary gray-tone photography; the crumbling-plaster Southern Gothic setting; the face-weathered non-professionals—”some people of Benoit, Mississippi,” according to the credits—who fill in the margins and enhance the sense of degraded place; and Tennessee Williams’ caustic script, based on a one-act of his written a decade earlier. But above all this is an actor’s piece, a supreme example of The Power of the Method.
The late, great, all-nose-faced Karl Malden co-stars as Archie Lee, a down-on-his-luck cotton ginner with a child bride, Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), to whom he has agreed not to make love until her 20th birthday—which, when the film opens, is only days away. (One imagines Williams meant for his heroine, who sleeps in a crib, to be much younger; she acts like 13 at most: scared by sex, energized by children’s games, otherwise bored. If we really take her to be 19, she seems mildly retarded.) Their relationship is complicated when Archie’s business rival, an eye-talian named Silva (Eli Wallach), comes to call the morning after the greasy WOP’s cotton gin—the only other gin in the county—burned down under mysterious circumstances.
Baby Doll plays out like a screwball comedy of seduction, as Archie Lee pursues his wife and Silva goes after her, too, using the threat of sex as a pretense for his own ulterior purposes. Except, instead of humorous barbs, wrapped in sardonicism to mask the characters’ true affections for each other, traded in good fun, here the bitter banter feels raw: It’s pure meanness gussied up in the trappings of comic verbal sparring. Yet the film is otherwise rife with subtext, every actor’s gesture not only perfectly sensible, in that naturalistic Actor’s Studio way, but also bursting with symbolic meaning. When Wallach breaks a nut in his teeth, it’s not the only shell he’s cracking! When Baker tells Malden, “what you done is bit off more than you can chew,” she’s saying infinitely more with her subsequent lick of a vanilla ice cream cone.
Most of the subtext is sexual: this is one racy flick, set during a sweltering deep South summer (though it was shot in winter, the palpable on-screen sultriness a testament, then, to the talent of the cast-and crew), even though there’s no actual intercourse, suggested or otherwise, on screen or off. Still, Baby Doll provoked the ire of the Catholic Legion of Decency, then America’s most prominent homegrown quasi-Fascist censorship movement. That a sexless movie could rile the Moral Policemen is yet another tribute to the masterful and suggestive performances, especially Malden’s; he’s so conspicuously pent up that he spends the whole movie roving and raving, hair a-muss, top-button buttoned like a serial killer.
As promiscuously as the on-screen antics play out, sex isn’t Williams’ true subject here. Baby Doll is really about a South in transformation, both economically and culturally. Jejune Baby Doll serves as a metaphor for the new South, being pulled in two different directions—one way by the antebellum, down-home localism of Archie Lee and another by the modernism (of Syndicates and furriners) that Silva represents. The conflict, however, isn’t whether she’ll be drawn one way or the other, but whether she’ll be taken at all, whether Baby Doll will be left behind, with no one wanting or able to tend to her—whether the region will fade away, used, abused, forgotten and left to wither.