Baby Doll is a 1956 black comedy/drama film directed by Elia Kazan. It was produced by Kazan and Tennessee Williams, and adapted by Williams from his own one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. It stars Karl Malden, Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach, in his feature-film debut, and features Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn. The film was controversial when it was released, provoking a largely successful effort to ban it, waged by the (Catholic) National Legion of Decency. Nevertheless, the film received nominations for major awards. Elia Kazan won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director and the film was nominated for four other Golden Globe awards, as well as four Academy Awards and four BAFTA Awards awards, with Eli Wallach taking the BAFTA prize for "Most Promising Newcomer to Film." The film is credited with originating the name and popularity of the babydoll nightgown, which derives from the costume worn by Baker's character. In the Mississippi Delta, failing, bigoted, middle-aged cotton gin-owner Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) has been married to pretty, empty-headed 19-year old virgin Baby Doll Meighan (Carroll Baker) for two years.
The first shot of Baby Doll slaps you in the face with the promise of something unique and the assurance that you’re about to watch a real Tennessee Williams production. That shot is of Carroll Baker, lolling on a child’s bed with her thumb in her mouth. When we see Karl Malden leering at her through a peephole, we assume he’s the local pervert. He turns out to be her husband. And that’s the source of all the film’s sexual tension.
Baby Doll (as she’s known) turns out to be a virgin, and Malden’s Archie is due to change that on her 20th birthday, which is set to occur in two days. But things take a strange turn when one of Archie’s competitors, Silva (Eli Wallach) — both men are cotton gin owner/operators — accuses Archie of burning down his gin. As payback, Silva figures he’ll take the only thing of value that Archie has: His wife… if you could call her that.
Strangely, the bulk of the film concerns Silva and Baby Doll. She doesn’t want his advances, though she teases him just enough to convince him otherwise, and Archie is absent for large stretches of the film. What follows is mostly cat and mouse as Silva woos Baby Doll with parlor tricks and Baby Doll alternately swoons and tries to escape. Who’ll win this little tete a tete? If you’ve seen any of Williams’ other film adaptations (this one is loosely based on two of his plays), you’ll probably figure that no one will end up very much ahead.
The film isn’t without its weaknesses. Malden, always an impressive performer, seems tragically underused after his fiery opening scenes. Wallach’s Silva is played as a one-note lech, and Baby Doll’s histrionics ultimately come off as forced. The battle between Silva and Archie is equally contrived, and it seems like with half an hour of thought, Williams could have come up with a more believable way to get Silva and Baby Doll in the same room together, alone.
Still, an impressively steamy story for its day and some moments of true greatness make Baby Doll a film worth seeking out. And strangely it’s Malden who makes it more worthwhile than anyone. It’s finally on DVD, and part of the new Tennessee Williams box set.
The DVD also features a restrospective featurette.