Baby Doll (1956)
Director: Eila Kazan.
Starring: Karl Malden (Archie Lee Meighan), Carroll Baker (Baby Doll Meighan), Eli Wallach (Silva Vacarro), Mildred Dunnock (Aunt Rose Comfort), Lonny Chapman (Rock), Eades Hogue (Town Marshal), Noah Williamson (Deputy), Rip Torn (the dentist).
excellent portrayal of white trash of the white southern racist culture by playwright Tennessee Williams
Archie Lee Meighan goes to the room next-door to his wife's room. Her name is Baby Doll Meighan. She sleeps in a nightie in an old crib with the slats down. Archie Lee's coon dog is very curious as to what his master is doing. He keeps poking his nose into the opening in the wall and he starts to howl a bit. Archie is using a file to make a hole through the back of the sheet rock in Baby Doll's Room. From the hole he peeps at his wife. But the howling of the dog wakes up Baby Doll and she hears the sound of the file creating a bigger peep hole for Archie Lee.
Baby Doll is sucking on her thumb as she lays in the crib. She sees the file being pushed through the hole in the wall. She sneaks up on her husband in the other room and tells him: "Archie Lee, you're a mess. Do you know what they call such people? Peeping Toms." She leaves the room in a huff. She goes now to her regular bedroom.
He follows her and she tells him that she's going to plug up the hole with chewing gum and if she ever catches him peeping again, she's moving out to the Cotton King Hotel. Archie Lee says he wants to have a talk with her. She tells him: "Save your breath. Save your breath to drum up some business for your broken down cotton gin." Archie Lee is all excited about the soon to arrive date of November 7. That date is Baby Doll's twentieth birthday. And that's the day their agreement comes due. That's the day when Archie Lee is supposed to be able to consummate his marriage with Baby Doll. She doesn't want to keep the bargain because she figures that Archie Lee has never kept his side of the bargain. He told her daddy that he was going to put Baby Doll in the grandest house in the county. Archie Lee fires back that he put her in Tiger Tail, the grandest house in the county. She retorts: "Yeah, you put me in Tiger Tail, the biggest old wreck of a place in the whole delta." She adds if the furniture store truck comes up to take away the last of their furniture, the agreement is automatically canceled. Baby Doll mocks her husband for being overweight and losing his hair, as well as being at least 20 years older than her.
Baby Doll's Aunt Rose cooks for the small family. She is very old and a bit senile, but has no other place to go. Archie Lee does not care for Aunt Rose and yells at her. He gets a phone call from the furniture store saying they're coming out to pick up the unpaid for furniture in the house. Archie explains that he needs more time. A new cotton gin factory was put in place and Archie Lee and many other cotton gin owners have been losing most of their customers to the new cotton gin factory. The furniture store guy says Archie Lee has already had plenty of time. Archie Lee becomes furious, tells the store that they will never get any of his business anymore and slams down the telephone on the receiver.
Archie Lee warns Aunt Rose not to say a word about this to his wife, or he will pack her stuff up and send her to that county home in Sunset. He goes upstairs where Baby Doll is taking a bath. He goes into the bathroom and horses around with her. She gets really mad and tells him to keep his hands off her. She grabs a towel to put around her body and says the very next time he gets fresh with her she's moving into the Cotton King Hotel.
Archie Lee has been waiting downstairs in the car for Baby Doll to come down so they can go to town. He keeps shouting for her to come down and keeps blowing the car's horn. There are three older black men sitting against the trunks of trees on the lawn. They are just watching Archie Lee become more and more exasperated. Baby Doll shouts down to her husband that if he's so impatient, he can just go to town by himself. She has plenty of other ways of getting downtown without Archie Lee. One black man laughs and says ain't that the truth. The other black man sitting by him also laughs. Archie Lee shoots a dirty look at the black speaker and the man quickly straightens up and stops laughing.
Baby Doll comes downstairs slowly and then the couple get into an argument about Archie Lee not opening up the car door for her. This arguing just cracks up the two black men and they just start rolling on the ground laughing their fool heads off.
Driving in the car, Archie Lee stops to talk with a man who used to work for him. He asks Sid what is he doing? Sid says that Vacarro has got him working for him and the Syndicate now. What else could he do because the Syndicate shut his cotton gin down tight. And now the Syndicate is having a big celebration of their success. Archie Lee says: "Why shouldn't the Syndicate celebrate? It's got every last bit of business in the county, including every last bit of what I used to get and every last bit of what you used to get."
Now Archie Lee drives to the downtown area. When Baby Doll gets out of the car, all the men closely watch her waltz up the stairs to a second floor doctor's office. The nurse tells Archie Lee that he is late for his appointment. While the husband is in the doctor's office, Baby Doll flirts with the dentist in the next office asking about taking a job as a receptionist. Baby Doll's flirting and laughing with the dentist starts to really bug Archie Lee. He runs out of the office to give his wife a dirty look. The two young people finish their talk and Archie Lee glares at the dentist. Archie Lee returns to the doctor's office and the doctor gives him a prescription for a sedative.
Baby Doll waits outside in their convertible automobile. The guys are all staring at her. Archie Lee says something to the guys and some of them move on. He talks to Baby Doll of her publicly humiliating him.
The furniture store truck goes by and Baby Doll gets so upset that she tries to flag down other cars to get a ride back to her house. Archie Lee has to get in the car and start driving. He picks up Baby Doll running along the road. They arrive home and Baby Doll starts screaming bloody murder. She starts hitting the furniture movers with her purse.
She goes inside. She tells Archie Lee that she's not staying in a place that has no furniture in it. She is moving to the Cotton King Hotel. She places a call to the Hotel to reserve a room there. Archie Lee walks out the back door. He turns the corner of the house and puts his back up to the house wall and shares a drink with a black man. The guy asks Archie Lee when are they going to gin some cotton. Archie Lee doesn't answer him. He leaves him the bottle and walks away. He takes a ride down to the Syndicate party at night. Mr. Vacarro is being congratulate for the big celebration in honor of his first year anniversary with the cotton gin.
Archie Lee is just disgusted with the honoring of Vacarro. He walks away from the ceremony. Vacarro mentions to his business assistant that a couple of the boys don't look too happy to him. The assistant says: "They got reason to be. You put them out of business."
Archie Lee grabs a can of kerosene out of his car trunk. He sets fire to the cotton gin. The building quickly is covered in flames and the building starts collapsing in on itself. The black guys seem to be thrilled at the burning of the fancy new cotton gin.
Vacarro goes to the restaurant and demands to know what the marshal is going go do about the burning down of the cotton gin. One of the men with the marshal asks how does Vacarro know the fire was set deliberately? Vacarro knows because of all the happy faces he sees around him over the burning.
The one piece of evidence Vacarro has is the can that held the kerosene, but when his assistant tries to put the evidence in the Vacarro's trunk, someone knocks the assistant out from behind, grabs the can and disappears.
The marshal gives Vacarro advice from a man who really knows Tiger Tail County: "My advice is you not make any more reckless charges Cause you're being a foreigner, you already got strike 1 and strike 2 against you." Vacarro is from Sicily and he says there each man sees to it that he gets his own justice. And that's Biblical justice: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Vacarro's assistant says he figures the one that burned down the cotton gin was the one absent from the celebration. Vacarro says well that one who wasn't there is going to gin out his cotton.
The next morning a convoy of trucks full of unprocessed cottons heads over to Tiger Tail house. Archie Lee is all ready to welcome Vacarro and his assistant to his home. When the subject of the fire comes up, Archie Lee just keeps saying he never saw any of that fire. Archie calls Baby Doll out on the porch and he says he wants her to entertain their guests. Now Archie Lee goes into the house.
When Archie Lee comes out of the house he says he wants his wife to take Mr. Vacarro down to the King Cotton Hotel and have a chicken dinner on him, Archie Lee. Out of vengeance, Vacarro has a plan to seduce Archie Lee's wife. Archie leaves to go down to his cotton gin.
Vacarro sees an old vehicle owned by the previous owners of the house. He acts like a chauffeur and asks Baby Doll to hop aboard. She is thrilled saying they are going to play chauffeur. Vacarro starts being very fresh with Baby Doll sitting very close to her. He talks sweetly to her. He puts his left foot up on the dashboard, which blocks Baby Doll's escape route from the car. She asks him to move his leg and he does so. She climbs out of the car and he follows her.
They go up on the porch. She tells him that she ought to be going in now. She mentions that sometimes she's afraid to go into the old house, which is said to be haunted. She also says that Archie Lee was out late last night and didn't come back home until after the fire broke out. Vacarro perks up at this news. He keeps asking her questions about the whereabouts of her husband last night and she starts to become a little wary of her guest. She asks him what's he driving at? She adds that his questions make her feel like she's on trail for something. He aggressively questions her some more, until he decides to change the topic of discussion.
Sitting in a swinging chair she tells him that he makes her nervous with all those questions about the fire. She then says that there's no reason why she should have to explain things to Vacarro. Vacarro agrees. He sits down right next to her in the swinging chair she is sitting in. He puts his arm around her and snuggles up to her. He starts flattering her figure and her skin. He starts caressing her face with his left hand. She says she doesn't like to be touched and, anyway, he is making her feel a bit hysterical. She says she's going in to make some lemonade, but he stops her. She says: "Mr. Vacarro you are certainly getting very familiar." Baby doll tries to get up, but says now she feels so weak. She does manage to get up even though her head is fuzzy and buzzy.
She finally makes it back to the porch. Baby Doll blames her dizziness on Vacarro's suspicions about her husband and the fire. So Vacarro now starts talking more and more about the fire. He says he sees the fire as the work of evil spirits. Baby Doll tells him not to frighten her. She calls out for Aunt Rose and then runs away heading down to the cotton gin. Vacarro follows her in his pickup truck. She runs over to Archie Lee, but he just yells at her to get out. He says he told her never to cross over here when there are niggers working here. He then slaps her.
That really makes Baby Doll angry and she runs out of the cotton gin. Vacarro asks why isn't the cotton gin running right now? The assistant tells his boss that the saw cylinder is busted. Vacarro now really balls out Archie Lee. He tells him he better start hauling fast and get the cotton gin a new saw cylinder. Archie Lee doesn't like being yelled at like this, but he swallows his pride and goes for his car.
After Archie leaves, the assistant tells Vacarro that they got another saw cylinder like the one Archie Lee has over at their commissary. Vacarro tells the man to go get the cylinder and install it, and get this cotton gin working.
Baby Doll runs back to her house. Archie Lee goes whizzing by Baby Doll in his convertible and she starts crying. Vacarro walks up on her and touches her, but she tells him not to touch her. She calls for Aunt Rose, but Aunt Rose gets into a taxi saying she is going to visit a sick friend in the hospital.
Vacarro asks Baby Doll if she is really married to Archie Lee? She explains that her daddy was dying and he wanted to make sure that someone would be taking care of his daughter. Archie Lee had been hanging around and daddy asked her if she would marry Archie Lee. Baby Doll told her father that she was too young for marriage, that she wasn't ready for it. So Archie Lee agreed that there would be no sex in the marriage until she was 20 years old. So then they got married. And Archie Lee still hasn't consummated the marriage. Of course, she did not tell this story so bluntly, but she told it anyway. Now that gets Vacarro to really start scheming against the girl.
She will be 20 years old tomorrow. Vacarro asks her if she's ready to honor the agreement. She says that depends upon if the furniture comes back. Vacarro says now he understands why Archie Lee is so jumpy and sweaty all the time.
Without being invited in, Vacarro goes inside the house. This shocks Baby Doll, so Vacarro opens the screen door and comes out and holds the door open for Baby Doll to enter her house. She enters the house and then quickly puts the latch on so Vacarro can't get in. She laughs and tells him to wait right there on the porch because she's going to make some lemonade and will serve it right on the porch. She says: "Now you wait right there." He says he will wait. But he doesn't wait. While she is making lemonade, he cuts the screen and releases the latch. He comes into the house.
Vacarro knows that Baby Doll is scared of ghosts. So he starts making noises in the house. She comes out of the kitchen and sees the chandelier moving back and forth. While she is wondering about that, Vacarro places a chair on top of a table and sets in motion the light bulb hanging down from the ceiling. As she is wondering about the light bulb, Vacarro sneaks passed her. She goes to check on Vacarro but he's just right there on the porch. She goes upstairs and Vacarro comes back in the house. The dog barks a couple of times. Vacarro goes into the kitchen and starts chopping the lemons up with a knife. That makes a lot of noise. Baby Doll gets nervous and runs into her bedroom and closes the door. Vacarro finishes making the lemonade. He finds some of Archie Lee's hidden whiskey and he throws that into the lemonade mix.
He takes the lemonade up stairs with him and starts making lots of noise to upset Baby Doll. He also sets the light bulbs in the hall to swaying back and forth. She says she knows that's Mr. Vacarro and he's making her mighty nervous. She goes to find him, but he comes at her hiding his face behind a mounted deer's head. Now Baby Doll sees this as a game and joins in the spirit of the chase. So now they are both running around the house on the second floor. She falls down and he puts his foot on her mid-section and shakes it back and forth. She starts laughing and he's laughing, but then she bites him on the ankle and he yells out in pain. Now she runs up into the attic, a place where she was always to afraid to enter.
Baby Doll closes the door and stands with her back to the closed door. She says the game is over now, but he says she has to keep playing hide and seek until she is it and she has to chase him. She tells him that the floor in the attic is very weakened. She is a bit scared of him. Vacarro is going to use her fear to get her to sign a statement that Archie Lee burned down the Syndicate cotton gin. He starts writing out the statement. Then he tells her to sign it. She resists and so he busts through the door sending Baby Doll scampering across the weakened floor of the attic. Part of the floor breaks away and causes Baby Doll to scream out with fear.
He now shakes the floor with his added weight, scaring Baby Doll even more than she already is scared. She is laying down on an attic beam and that saves her from falling through the floor. He grabs a long two-by-four and sticks his statement pad with the pencil on a nail at one end of the piece of lumber and moves it slowly over to Baby Doll to take and sign. She signs it and Vacarro now retrieves his note paper. He looks at the signature and then kisses the writing pad. He gives her his handkerchief via the nail in the two-by-four and then takes off as happy as can be.
Baby Doll comes down after Vacarro, acts flirtatious and asks him: "Is that all that you wanted?" He asks her what else could Mrs. Meighan have imagined he wanted? She tells him that he could take a siesta in the crib with the slats down. He say: "Ill be happy to accept the invitation." He asks her to come up and sing him to sleep. He gets into the crib all curled up on the mattress. Baby Doll now covers Vacarro with her light shawl.
Archie Lee gets the saw cylinder but has no money to pay for it. He haggles with the salesman. Then he offers up his daddy's watch to hold for him. He will come back later with the money and will retrieve the watch then. The salesman is not going to take the watch, but the boss, busy on the phone, yells at the salesman to just take the watch and get that man out of here! Archie Lee thanks the boss and takes his saw cylinder.
Archie Lee returns to his cotton gin and sees that it is working just fine. He gets angry when the assistant tells him that they had a saw cylinder over at their place. Archie Lee asks why wasn't he told this before he drove out of here? And now he wants to know where that wop Vacarro is. The assistant and the black employees laugh and say they don't know where Mr. Vacarro is. Archie Lee tells the assistant to keep working and gets back in his car to go back to the house.
Archie Lee goes into the house. He calls out is anyone living in the house anymore? Baby Doll comes down. Archie Lee asks why is their plaster from the attic on the stairwell? Baby Doll says it just happened that way. Aunt Rose has returned and says that dinner is almost ready now. Archie Lee gets mad at Baby Doll for just being in her slip. He tells her to go back upstairs and put some clothes on. The two of them start in on each other, until Baby Doll brings out the trump card that she knows that her husband was the one who burned down the cotton gin.
Vacarro is up now and listens to the fracas. Baby Doll goes out on the porch in her slip and the men walking by give out with some wolf whistles. She had used the word "arson" and now Archie Lee wants to know who she was talking to because he knows she didn't know that word before he left to get the saw cylinder. She says she's been to school some and she's a "magazine reader". She and Archie go back inside and Archie Lee starts to go up the steps but stops and argues some more with Baby Doll. She says she came today to Archie Lee for protection, but all she got was a slap in the face.
Now Vacarro comes walking down the stairs. Baby Doll says Mr. Vacarro has agreed to let Archie Lee gin out all his cotton, while she entertains him. Vacarro now slides down the banister. Archie Lee just stands looking shocked and bewildered by the recent events.
Vacarro says the wife invited him to stay for dinner, but he wanted to ask her husband's permission first. Archie Lee thinks awhile and then says yes. Baby Doll says she'll go upstairs to put some clothes on.
Archie Lee goes into the kitchen and closes the door. He asks Aunt Rose if she's been here the whole afternoon or down at the hospital eating some sick woman's candy? Aunt Rose says she was at the hospital almost the whole time. Now Archie Lee goes ballistic saying that Aunt Rose left Baby Doll alone with Vacarro for the entire afternoon! Meanwhile, Vacarro has opened the kitchen door and stands there listening to Archie Lee's ranting and raving. Archie Lee turns and sees Vaccaro there. He passes by him saying he has to make a phone call.
Baby Doll passes by her husband talking on the phone. She goes around the corner and tells Vacarro: "He's on the phone about something and, if I was you, I wouldn't hang around." Vacarro says he has the ace of spades in his pocket and he's gonna use it. He says he does his own justice.
Archie Lee is calling to gather his friends to come out and deal with this Vacarro character. It sounds like it's something out of the annals of the Ku Klux Klan. Vacarro doesn't seem to be worried, but he is a stranger in these parts. He tells Baby Doll that in her nicer clothes she seems all grown up now. She looks very different. She says: "I feel cool and rested for the first time in my life."
Archie Lee says on the phone: "Well, there's no place where he can run to in this county. . . . Well, you can say that again, boy."
Vacarro and Baby Doll now kiss passionately
Archie Lee says to his contact man that after Vacarro leaves the place they can send someone to find Vacarro and take care of him. He hangs up the phone.
They sit down at the table. The two love birds now orchestrate a scheme to drive Archie Lee crazy with jealousy. And Archie Lee is already furious. He starts picking on Aunt Rose and Baby Doll starts defending her. Archie Lee tells Baby Doll to stay out of this business. Now he tells Aunt Rose to sit down. Vacarro gives up his seat at the table and stands nearby with his back to the wall. Archie Lee starts asking the forgetful old woman what are her plans for her future. He demands to know how long has she been cooking around for other people. Aunt Rose says she cooked for her relatives and her own parents. When anyone needed her, she was always there to cook for them and help them out. Nobody ever had to put her out. She starts crying and leaves the table saying she is going to pack.
Vacarro intervenes saying Aunt Rose can cook for him and stay at his place. Baby Doll urges Aunt Rose to go with Mr. Vacarro. Archie Lee asks his guest: "Is there anything else around here you want to take away with you, Mr. Vacarro?" Baby Doll mocks Archie Lee.
He stands up suddenly and then walks out of the dining room. The two schemers start talking and laughing together and having a good old time. Archie Lee grabs an ornament off the chandelier and throws it at the rooster trying to come into the dining room. He then starts fake laughing, but then quickly switches over to a confrontation with the two people acting as if they were lovers. He gets right in Baby Doll's face and mocks her saying: "Yeah, some sweet, little innocent baby doll of a wife, huh. Oh, but not ready for marriage, huh Oh no, not ready for marriage. . . Wait a minute, now. I see how it's funny. It sure is funny isn't it? But there's one little, tinze, winze, little thing that you overlooked. I got position . . . I hold a respected position: lifelong member of every organization in the delta." Now he gets in Vacarro's face shouting: "On my side are friends!" The two start arguing. Archie Lee says something much like what Vacarro has been saying for awhile. He says he can handle this situation by himself. Now he turns his ire back on Baby Doll.
Vacarro intervenes once again saying that Archie Lee burned the Syndicate's cotton gin down to the ground. And he has in his hand a signed affidavit by his wife that Archie Lee burned down the cotton gin. And now Vacarro reveals why he was here the whole afternoon -- to get that signed affidavit. That's all her came for, that's all he got and whatever else Archie Lee thinks he got, well, Arch Lee is just mistaken. Isn't that right, Mrs. Meighan? He does admit that there's some attraction between the two of them, but that's all. Nothing really happened. (Of course, he doesn't mention the passionate kisses.)
Archie Lee tells Vacarro that he just fixed his wagon. "I'm going to wipe that grin off your greasy, wop face for good." Archie Lee goes to get his shotgun. Baby Doll kisses Vacarro, but he doesn't respond. Baby Doll hears the sound of shotgun shells falling on a hard surface. She goes to look and motions to Vacarro to get out of the house. Vacarro runs outside. Baby Doll shouts out that her husband is a "stinking stinker". He ignores her because he wants that Italian. Baby Doll calls the police. Vacarro climbs up a tree and starts eating a pecan. Two black men try to take the gun from Archie Lee, but he pulls away from them. Vacarro pulls Baby Doll up in the tree with him.
The problem for Archie Lee is that he can't find Vacarro in the dark. He starts shouting: "Baby Doll! Baby Doll!" Then he starts crying for Baby Doll.
And now the police arrive. They take the shotgun from Archie Lee. Vacarro jumps down from the tree, Archie Lee sees him and tries to catch him. But Vacarro climbs up in the tree again. The police grab Archie Lee and pull him away.
Archie become indignant when they put the handcuffs on him. He says: "Okay, okay, put me in that stinking black calaboose. I ain't a white man! No, I ain't a white man, so throw me in. But don't you leave my Baby Doll out here with him! Don't you leave him with her!. . Please, . . . as one white man to another. Just for tonight. Don't leave him on the place."
The sheriff calls Vacarro over to them. The deputy says they have nothing on Archie Lee to arrest him. Vacarro is angry and tells the police that he doesn't want anything from them. He shouts out for his assistant who is waiting in the pickup truck for his boss. He just brushes past Baby Doll ignoring her calls of "what about me?" He walks to the pick up truck, gets in and away they go. He yells back that he's gonna come back tomorrow with lots more cotton to be ginned.
The police take Archie Lee with them just for the night.
Baby Doll goes up on the porch to speak with Aunt Rose. She says to her Aunt: "Well, let's go in now. We got nothin' to do but wait for tomorrow and see if they remembered or forgot." The two go inside the house.
Great film. You know there are not a lot of films dealing with what they call "white trash". There are plenty of films that deal with the effect of racism and terror on black families, but very few films showing the effect of racism on white families. But Tennessee Williams was a homosexual living in the deep south and he saw things that most white people miss or gloss over. He saw and heard the racism toward the blacks. In the South, he felt the oppressive atmosphere of the fear of violence laying just barely under the thin veneer of civilization. He lived in the repressed atmosphere of racist politics, attitudes and beliefs about everything under the sun.
And it's that atmosphere that Tennessee Williams catches in this play of his. He shows the ugliness just beneath the surface of Southern culture and society: the use of the word nigger, the treatment of a Sicilian as a foreigner, the injustices inflicted on the weaker ones hurt economically by the influx of huge firms in the area, the inability of whites to cooperate with each other to fashion an organization to go up against the economic bullies, the quick turning to friends who will harm someone for you, like the KKK would do, and of referring to one's self as one white man speaking to another, etc., etc.
I grew up in the South and experienced the oppressive atmosphere of Southern politics, attitudes and behaviors. I was very happy to leave the South after graduate school and would never go back to live in a Southern state. The states are just too influenced by all kinds of right wing extremism and it sickens me. I always had to be careful of what I said in the South for fear of some type of harmful retribution. You can't trust a people steeped in racist extremism. And they are always trying to push right wing Christianity down your throat. There just so little freedom speech and action in the South.
The three main actors were just terrific: Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach. My wife said it reminded her of a Southern version of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night". And the film is about a dysfunctional Southern family fighting it out in a dysfunctional society and culture.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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