Thursday, June 26, 2014

Baby Doll (1956)

Yesterday the big news in entertainment was the death of Eli Wallach. As much as I enjoy old movies, I didn't know the name off hand so I went looking and that lead me to his first movie, Baby Doll. Eli Wallach is known for The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly among other things and was never considered a heartthrob, possibly because he was primarily a character actor.

Based on a Tennesse Williams' play, Baby Doll is about a 19 year old girl who was married off to an older husband because her dying father wanted her taken care of. A deal was struck with the husband that the marriage will not be consummated till Baby Doll's 20th birthday which is just a few days away. Baby Doll actually sleeps in a crib (much like a current toddler bed) and behaves rather childishly. I personally interpret all of this as mechanisms to keep her husband, Archie Lee, away as she finds him unattractive and old and seems to look for reasons to break the deal. Her husband, frustrated with his wife and his failing business, burns down a neighboring cotton gin. The owner vows revenge and visits the next day obstinately to have Archie Lee gin his cotton but really to find proof that he committed the arson. After meeting Baby Doll, he begins a seduction of her in effort to get her to admit Archie Lee's guilt.

Baby Doll is a movie known for being denounced and banned for its sexual themes. I read a few things yesterday that dealt with the theme of adultery but mostly it was the idea of feminine sexuality that upsets its critics. That a girl might want to have sex for her own pleasure was a radical idea at the time. But there is no actual sex shown in the movie rather it is implied and the scene that so upset people, albeit slightly creepy and outdated by today's standards, actually had little to do with sex. But there is something about the way Wallach's character, Vacarro, speaks to Baby Doll and the way he carcasses her that is sexy as hell. The touching and the whispering and the way the camera closes in on them makes it one of the most intimate moments I've seen. And this is, I believe, where Baby Doll begins to experience a sexual awakening. Her experience thus far as been boys and men trying to force themselves on her and now there is a man telling her she is delicate and soft and caressing her. The scene alone comes off creepy but somehow arousing on its own. Viewed in context of the whole movie, it really brings together that this is the moment that Baby Doll first experiences the idea of sex for pleasure.

I've seen it mentioned in several comments that Baby Doll is just a pawn for these two men and that is despicable. And yes it is but the thing is even once she knows that Vacarro is just using her to find out Archie Lee's guilt, she still asks him to stay and take a "nap." Now the nap can be taken as an actual nap or it can be seen as a "nap." It's claimed by Vacarro himself to just be a nap but certainly something has changed in Baby Doll. She exhibits a more grown up style afterwards and, in fact, dresses to mimic Vacarro's dark clothing. She also somehow becomes a bit more sensible though still prone to immaturity.

 The crib itself can be taken as a symbol of her growth. In the beginning she is clinging to her virginity more out of disgust for her husband and as a weapon to get what she wants. She uses the nursery as a means to that end. But suddenly, with Vaccaro, she is offering it to him as a place to lay down and she cares for him in a tender fashion. Afterwards, he seems more caring of her than before. Before he was ruthless in his seduction and treating her like a child in order to gain proof of Archie Lee's crime. After he tries to save her from her increasingly unhinged husband as well as maintain some semblance of normalcy in face of an angry man. The characters are all once sympathetic and gross as most people are, but Archie Lee seems to be the foulest of them all. And while Baby Doll is saved from consummating the marriage she is ultimately also left alone by the two men who wanted to use her for their own separate gains.
(Interestingly the ending of the movie came out of the idea that an adulteress must be punished in some fashion as was dictated by the Motion Picture Production Code of the time. Since a case could be made that Baby Doll did not commit adultery, she was allowed to survive as it were but not with a completely happy ending. The play ends more happily for the lovers than the movie.)

* Though I've included key scenes it really is a movie worth watching but be warned that racism is pretty prevalent throughout the film.

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