Cotton Gins And Coca Cola: Reviewing Elia Kazan’s ‘Baby Doll’

by Rachel Bellwoar

For all the harmless nicknames out there, there are just as many damaging ones. In Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) is so defined by her nickname that her actual name is never mentioned. Despite being nineteen, all of the men in her life treat Baby Doll like a child. Her father wanted to see her married before he died so he arranged a wedding between her and Archie Lee (Karl Malden). Archie might’ve been the best choice on such short notice, but he’s far from the best match for the much younger Baby Doll.

In recognition of her youth, Archie agreed that they wouldn’t have to consummate the marriage until her 20th birthday. “Agreed” makes it sound like he was a gentleman about it, but he’s been whining and trying to get her to change her mind ever since. With only two days to go, Archie is still impatient, while Baby Doll’s eager to back out of their deal.

It’s not like Archie’s come through on all his promises. Tiger Hill is a dump and business has been bad ever since the Syndicate Plantation came to town. But when the Syndicate’s cotton gin goes up in flames during a party to celebrate their one-year anniversary, the manager, Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach), decides to pay Archie a visit and ends up spending a good amount of time with Baby Doll.

Was Archie the one who set the fire? That’s what Silva thinks, and what follows is one of the most unabating and claustrophobic two-handers ever to be caught on celluloid. Alone together at the isolated Tiger Hill, it doesn’t take long for Baby Doll to realize Silva might be a threat, but she can’t get away from him.

This isn’t the Geico commercial, where the people in the horror movie make all the wrong calls. Vaccaro would still be in the wrong if it was, but here you have this character who’s been infantilized, and who’s been trying to grow up, but no one believes that she can, and she’s pitted against this man who doesn’t care about anything except proving Archie Lee set that fire. Both Kazan’s direction and Wallach’s performance utilize space as a means to intimidate and confuse. Language is just a tool for Silva to come across as charming and to make Baby Doll second guess herself about the implicit threat of Silva’s body language. The more tense the scene becomes, the closer Kazan’s camera gets until, as a viewer, you feel just as trapped as Baby Doll.

All of the details are disturbingly spot on, from Baby Doll trying to deescalate the situation, to Silvia then passing off her giggling as consent. Baby Doll tries everything to remove herself from the situation, all while not giving Silvia what he wants (which would be completely understandable – she doesn’t owe Archie Lee anything) and if it’s distressing to watch, it’s because Baker’s performance, Tennessee Williams’ screenplay, and Kazan’s tight frames are meant to be uncomfortable. Baby Doll is made to think she might be imagining things. Maybe someone who sees Baby Doll will realize it’s not all in their head.

Other thoughts on Baby Doll:

  • When the film begins, Baby Doll is asleep in her crib. When she takes a bath, there are toys in the tub. Without knowing what the division of labor was between art director Richard Sylbert and set decorator Gene Callahan, everything is so over the top at Tiger Tail (Archie Lee’s hidden bottles of alcohol!) that it’s the house that keeps on giving.
  • Warner Archive’s discs aren’t always known for having extras, but while the featurette, “See No Evil,” that comes with Baby Doll isn’t the longest, and was available on the 2006 DVD, it does involve the people you want to hear from the most – namely the three, main cast members (Baker, Wallach, and Malden). They don’t talk generally about the film, either, but bring up specific scenes, like the ice cream scene (which was a suggestion of Baker’s) and the opening scene (where Malden wasn’t expecting to work with a dog). The featurette also provides some context for the film’s reception – it was very controversial at the time. Baby Doll is a film you could write a whole treatise about, but at least Warner Archive made sure its one supplement was a banger.

Baby Doll is available on Blu-ray now from Warner Archive. Warner Archive provided me with a free copy I reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own.

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