This film came to my attention on reading the obituary of Karl Malden – it got his career off on its very long run. Elia Kazan directed, Carol Baker and Eli Wallach starred as well. Tennessee Williams provided the story of corruption, repressed, seething sexuality, vengeance, race relations, and a whole lotta other stuff.
Some discuss this film as a comedy, a campy masterpiece, but I see it as much more than that. It’s a finely wrought drama about three strong, conflicting characters in a moral quagmire. It has humor, but it’s kind of sad.
Archie Lee is married to Baby Doll – her daddy wanted to provide for her as he was dying. She wasn’t ready for marriage, so he extracted a promise from Archie not to touch her until her twentieth birthday. She sleeps in the nursery, in her old crib, in a broken down plantation mansion that Archie Lee bought to convince her daddy he was coming up in the world.
Archie’s plans to expand his business and restore the house fall victim to Mr. Vacarro, a recent arrival who bought up some old farms and cottin gin mills and cornered all the local business, including Archie’s. He’s not well liked, but he is respected for his business acumen. During a party he throws for the community to try and smooth over hard feelings, Archie, the only local planter not attending, torches his mill.
Vacarro vows to get his own justice. He contracts with Archie to gin his cotton, and then moves in on his “wife.” Does he want to sexually possess her, or just get her support for a legal action against Archie? In the end, he does both, but he doesn’t “touch” her either. He knows she’s “just a child” and he has some decency – but there is, as he admits to Archie when insisting that he “took nothing else from her,” an attraction between them.
All the actors do a wonderful job, but Carol Baker, in her first big role, is remarkable. Malden is great, and a figure of pathetic fun, but she and Wallach are amazing in their sexual pas de deux. Much of the humor in their exhanges comes from her ridiculous affectations of proprietry, despite her obvious, wilting fascination with Mr. Vacarro. When he offers her a pecan nut he cracked with his teeth, she demurs, “Oh, Mr. Vacarro. I could never accept a nut that had been in a man’s mouth.” He replies, “You’ve got many refinements.”
Baker’s career was rocky, and she eventually left Hollywood for Italy. Before she left, her second husband fashioned her into blonde bombshell sex symbol, and she starred as Jean Harlow.
Some clips of my favorite scenes are linked below: