Hide And Seek
n 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".