william steig drawing

May 20, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Baby Doll

Oh Elia. Elia, Elia, Elia.

This is Elia Kazan’s 1956 film Baby Doll written by Tennessee Williams (based on his short plays 27 Wagons Fulls of Cotton and The Long Stay Cut Short). The film stars* Carroll Baker as Baby Doll, a 19 year old girl married to the middle aged Archie Leigh Meighan, a cotton gin owner played by Karl Malden. In order to marry her, Archie Leigh promised Baby Doll’s now deceased father that she would remain a virgin until her 20th birthday (now two days away!). Baby Doll is utterly unexcited about the prospect of having to consummate her marriage with such a soggy excuse for a man and treats her husband with the utmost contempt. Crazed, sex starved, and broke, Archie Leigh sets fire to the gin of his main competitor in the cotton trade, Silva Vaccaro, a sicillian played by Eli Wallach. Vaccaro sets out for revenge and the delicious seduction of Baby Doll begins.

If you watch this movie late at night in the middle of summer, you will walk directly into a dream.
A hot, thick, wet, dream.
Your legs will become very heavy, you will throw off the sheets and open the window.
You will lean against the windowsill and look into the night. Look at the streetlight on the leaves on the oak tree. You will return to bed (your bare feet will be damp with sweat and they will stick to the wood floor).
You will lie on your back.
You will look at the ceiling.
You will be very, very, very horny.

Clearly a movie like this would have to be banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.

I first saw this film several years ago in the midst of a very deep, long, and debilitating depression. It was the middle of winter. The wastelands. The wastelands is the time between New Years Day and the end of the spring rains.
(I call it the wastelands because there is nothing but cold, wetness and gray. Nothing to look forward to)
I watched Baby Doll in the early hours of the morning. Or so I assume. I did most of my movie watching between 2am -5am, but time lost all meaning then so it could have been in the middle of the afternoon. Who knows.
I watched it in bed. This was the only sanctuary you see. A little island of comfort. Flannel sheets, lovely blankets, lovely sedatives and a movie.
Now it could very well have very well been some anxiety induced disassociative episode, but I experienced Baby Doll in a way I have with only one other film, Tarkovksy’s The Mirror. Strange indeed. These movies are worlds and worlds apart, yet the sensation was similar (to a slightly lesser degree with Baby Doll). You see, I did not watch a film at all. I had a conversation with myself. I crawled into my body and watched memories I forgot I had but needed to remember. They were projected on the inside of my body. Probably in my stomach somewhere.

There was something else with Baby Doll however.

An added dimension.

It was lust.

Lust of the greatest intensity. The kind you feel as a child and you are not yet able to identify the energy. The kind that creeps up on you. Like a slow moving poison. Inching its way up your body. Starting at your toes (you must splay them to release the energy). Spreading a smooth warmth that finds its way to the back of your throat and sits there quietly pulsating. It takes you a little while to recognize the force that’s gotten a hold of your body. And you swallow. You never thought it could happen, but it did. You have been turned on by Eli Wallach.

There is a scene in Baby Doll. A scene that beats the most explicit of sex scenes. It is Vaccaro’s attempted seduction of Baby Doll. They are on a swing together. If you have ever, as a child, spent time earnestly watching scrambled porn with a hawk’s eye for any unscrambled bits, you will recognize the power of the motion of the swing. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

“Motion relaxes people… It’s like a cradle. A cradle relaxes a baby.”

It’s also like something else…

I declare.

I have never seen a woman dripping with more languid sensuality than Carroll Baker in this movie. Everything about her suggests that she has just been ravaged for hours and hours. She of course has not, and this makes her, and her charm bracelets and coke all the more tantalizing.
And then there is her hair.
Her baby’s hair. White, fine, flyaway. Straight and unset. Tied back with a single satin ribbon.
And her voice.
Her speech impediment combined with her accent. The way her voice cracks. A cherry of yearning a top a vulnerability sundae.

As for Karl Malden, it has never occurred to me in any other film, but in Baby Doll, his nose is very similar to a certain part of the male anatomy. Archie Leigh is led by his penis. How could he not be, it is on the front of his face. If Archie Leigh’s nose is his manhood, Vaccaro’s is his ever present riding crop. How perfect. Vaccaro is in control of his desires. Poor Archie is at the mercy of his.

…Moving on

I have never been particularly attracted to Eli Wallach, but in this movie, he arouses my flaming boiling passion like no other. Not even Alain Delon. His appeal lies firmly in his disinterest in Baby Doll’s tail. Or his great self control.
He can do without sex.
Revenge is of much more importance.
He is playing with Baby Doll. Without the lure of sex she has no power. Without sex she is just a little girl fingering a satin ribbon and enjoying the clink of her charm bracelet. Vaccaro is the one person who dominates Baby Doll in the way she wants to be dominated. He is relentless. He is a force that never stops (until you have signed the confession of your husband’s crime). His straight body, his eyes, his knowing smirk.
He can have it, but he doesn’t want it. He is above it, and this makes him furiously sexy.
I want (and so do you) more than anything, to belong to all clubs that will not have me as a member. Beginning with Eli Wallach in Baby Doll.

I made a (bad) short film in college called Baby (stills from it above). I had not seen Baby Doll yet then, and after watching it I was struck by the similarities between it and my film. Suddenly, something a professor said to me took on new meaning:
“It reminds me very much of Tennessee Williams”
I had taken that rather as a compliment at the time, but after watching Baby Doll I was horrified. He had thought I was copying the film! And I can’t blame him, the similarites are eerie. I guess Williams and I just have some scandalous ideas about sexuality.

* Also Mildred Dunnock as a delightful ghostly bird of an Aunt Rose

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  1. Already in my Netflix queue. I love Karl Malden and the scenes you showed here are…um…well. Still pretty scandalous some 50-odd years later.

    Eli Wallach. Who knew he could inspire such lusty thoughts?

  2. marshall

    The best drippy dewey doe eyed seduction for me will always be Sue Lyon in ‘Lolita’. In the breakfast in the study scene ( where she’s munching his bacon ) she had that ingenue bit down pact like no one else. I also agree that the most intense eroticism in film does not always involve the explicitness of pornography. Sometimes scenes of a simple act ( a woman twirling her hair or smoking a cigarette or fixing a man’s collar ) can be buoyed by an intense subtext that is itself erotic and intriguing.

  3. marshall

    For me, the trouble with TW plays that were made into movies is much of the soul of the subject matter had to be cut away. Lewdness, homosexuality, nymphomania and insanity were not acceptable themes in the staid moral culture of the 40’s and 50’s.
    TW was definitely one of the great playwrites of the last century. However, watching his films I always felt something was missing. Of course, once I read the actual plays I could fill in the necessary blanks as far as what he was really trying to convey.
    Again for me, the best drop down drag out all time all time TW play/movie is ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ Liz Taylor won a much deserved Oscar for her role in that film. If you havn’t seen it check it out. Love to know what you think.

  4. I have always been attracted to men like Eli Wallach (but perhaps men who are a little more brash). Though, when you wrote, “You never thought it could happen, but it did. You have been turned on by Eli Wallach,” I laughed for a good long minute– because for a long time, my only exposure to him had been “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” And believe me, for that period of 6 years, I never considered Tuco to be particularly attractive. Funnily enough, a slight attraction to him started after watching “The Holiday” in 2006– but that’s because I recognized that he aged the way someone in my life was/is going to age. What sent me over the edge, though, was seeing him in “How To Steal A Million” with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole.

    But I don’t mean for this comment to be an essay on how I was turned on by Eli Wallach.

    What I mean to say is: Spot-on. Spot. On.

  5. Vicktor Lee

    I saw this film as a fourteen-year-old in a dark, stinky theater during a hot, steamy summer in Killeen, TX. I had no preconceptions of the film’s contents; so, every scene was surprising,even shocking, to me. I recall leaving the cinema in a frazzled sweat, but not especially attracted to the principal players, particularly to Eli, and Carroll did not diminish my staunch infatuation with Marilyn Monroe.
    vtraven MEMOIRS OF A DROMOMANIAC — 2011

  6. Man oh man… I just watched Baby Doll, and you are sooooo right. Funnily enough, I had mainly known Eli Wallach as Tuco in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but after watching the director’s cut version of THAT movie over & over (a recent obsession and realization that it’s no “B” movie, but a rather brilliant, epic film), I became more and more enamored of Wallach’s performance as Tuco, and began to see him not as “ugly”, but as an A-MAZING actor, and actually… kind of hot! So when I found out about “Baby Doll”, I just had to see it. I’ve watched everything from modern so-called “hot romance” movies to full-on porn, and yet Baby Doll REALLY had me turned on! And hours later I can’t get it out of my head! The way Vacarro sooo gently strokes her skin as they sit on that swing, and how he gets soooo close to her, and the way he talks to her… the seduction just goes on and on till I was feeling almost as ” fuzzy” and breathless as Baby Doll was on screen! And Karl Malden’s character is such a brash, loud jerk that I was yelling at the screen to PLEASE… DO ELI WALLACH ALREADY! I can’t take it anymore! GO for it, girly! Eli Wallach absolutely smolders with masculinity and sexuality in that film. I’m thinking his wife, actress Anne Jackson, is one very lucky woman. No wonder they’ve stayed married all these years!


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