I rarely recommend digital, as a Blu-ray will always be better. However, this film is not available on Blu-ray as of 2016 (which is a crime against film itself) so, for once, I highly recommend the digital HD version of a film. Baby Doll is one of the funniest and most complex films of the era, owing largely to Kazan and Wallach for their unparalleled talents, but also to Malden and Baker for their spectacularly creative and oddly eccentric performances as two of the most remarkably unique and compelling characters from the mind of the great Tennessee Williams. Where I generally would say get the DVD, the DVD is quite inferior in this case, as Kazan put so much into photographing the subtle and nuanced facial alterations of these actors, particularly Wallach, and, having only ever seen a low-definition version of this, I was shocked to discover that I had missed the meaning of several interchanges between Wallach's and Baker's characters which hint at the original ending to the film (an ending Kazan refused to film, on moral grounds). If you have never seen this, the HD is the only way to go. If you have, you should re-watch it in HD. And, if we are all very lucky, TCM will put out a Blu-ray in partnership with whoever owns the rights.
In the process of reading John Lahr's new biography, "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh", I frequently wanted to put down the book to visit the many works of Williams that the book discusses so well. Among these works was the 1956 film, "Baby Doll" written by Williams and directed by Elia Kazan, who had directed the Broadway productions of Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire", "Camino Real" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I had never seen "Baby Doll" and was glad to watch it on Instant Video based upon Lahr's discussion of the film.
Based upon an important scene, the working title for the film was "Hide and Seek" before it was changed to the more appropriately smoldering "Baby Doll." The script was based upon an early Williams play, "Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton" with the playwright working on and off again on the film for several years. The film is a dark, erotic comedy set and filmed in the small Mississippi Delta town of Benoit on a dilapidated home that still stands on a pre-Bellum cotton plantation.
The black and white film stars a sultry Carol Baker together with Karl Malden as her husband Archie Lee Meighan and Eli Wallach as the neighbor Silva Vacarro. Meighan married Baby Doll by promising her dying father that he would not touch his wife until she turned 20. Baby Doll sleeps alone in a crib in a short nightie and sucks her thumb. The film opens two days before her 20th birthday. She despises her husband and is clear that she doesn't want to carry out her end of the deal. Meighan is a failing owner of a cotton gin. His rival, Vacarro has captured all of the county's business. Angry at his poverty and at Baby Doll's coldness, Meighan burns down Vacarro's cotton gin. Strongly suspecting, Meighan's involvement, Vacarro comes to his home under a pretext and works towards seducing his wife. The film never says whether he succeeds, but Baby Doll, under the auspices of the seducer changes from a naïve, manipulative girl to a sensual woman.
When the film was released in late 1956, it was cleared by Hollywood's censors but condemned by the Catholic Church for its sexual themes -- even though no flesh ever is shown. The reaction was not solely that of the Church. The New Republic called "Baby Doll" "The Crass Menagerie" while Time said it was "Just Possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." Most theaters refused to show the film. which still managed to receive four Academy Award nominations. Kazin received the Golden Globe award for Best Director. Kazin publicized the film with what has become a famous billboard of Carol Baker in her crib spread out over an entire city block in the heart of Times Square, There is a photo of the billboard in Lahr's book.
Williams worked on the script intermittently but Kazan probably did a portion of the writing. Lahr describes how Kazan wanted to end the film with a violent scene involving a shoot-out and a murder. Williams opposed this ending, stating that "A killing is not so much a moral discrepancy as it is an outrage of the film-play's natural limits." Williams won this particular disagreement, with the ending of the film having a darkly comic touch.
Lahr does not rate this film highly. He says that "Williams' half-heartedness is all too apparent in the strained, lackluster dark comedy." I enjoyed seeing this film collaboration of Williams and Kazan which was notorious in its day. Tame by today's standards, the film has an erotic rural feel which shows lust, repression, and bigotry, among other less-than-desirable traits. Admirers of Tennessee Williams or of Elia Kazan will want to see "Baby Doll".
Took about 20 good minutes for me to warm up to it, but after that happened I was hooked. Everything just came together - the sometimes forceful, sometimes subtle acting, the unusual and interesting screen-play, the filming in gorgeous black and white and the swift pace of the film, fueled by an ambiguous romance or revenge and spot on dialogue full of nuance, subtlety and oh yeah - sexuality. It was entrancing and commanded your attention. I was kind of expecting one of those plays that tries to be a movie, but as I said, once this movie takes off, it becomes a living thing that is simultaneously awful and awesome to witness. You sense you are in the presence of something special - poetry or swanky blues, but what brings the blues to one awakens fire in another. You'll probably sympathize with all the characters at one time or another or maybe all at the same time. Now I want to see another Tennessee Williams movie adaptation.
The special features are great on this DVD as well and substantial with modern interviews with the three key actors which is something of a documentary on the movie and all the controversy it raised when if first came out in '56. With the movie itself delving into themes of middle-age and youth, it was interesting to see Baby Doll herself 'all growed up' and for real! There are trailers and may be another short feature from the time of the film as well, plus subtitles in English, French and Spanish. I enjoyed following the dialogue with English subtitles, which made it easier to understand names and locations in the story.