Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.12: Elia Kazan's Baby Doll

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 93/A

Elia Kazan had flirted with controversial sexuality in film before with A Streetcar Named Desire, but much of the world wasn’t prepared for Baby Doll. Like Streetcar, the film was based on the work of Tennessee Williams (although this was inspired by a one-act, and Kazan admitted to writing much of the screenplay), dealt with characters of different class in the South, and had more than a handful of eyebrow-raising sexual material. But Baby Doll is a much more difficult work, and its not surprising that the Catholic Legion of Decency gave the film a rating of “C” for Condemned. It’s uncomfortable stuff. It’s also hilarious, like a (less explicit) precursor to Killer Joe.

When middle-aged cotton gin-owner Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) married Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), he got more than he bargained for. Archie agreed to wait until Baby Doll’s 20th birthday to consummate their marriage, and while the day is coming up, Baby Doll doesn’t hide her disdain for her husband at any point. Archie has lost much of his business to Silva Vicarro (Eli Wallach in his film debut), a Sicilian businessman with more modern equipment. When Archie burns down Vicarro’s cotton gin, Vicarro plots revenge. He hires Archie to make cotton for him, but in the meantime he spends time with Baby Doll, tries to get her to confirm Archie’s guilt, and gets close to her in ways Archie might not care for.

Baby Doll sees Kazan reteaming with his On the Waterfront cinematographer Boris Kaufman. The two films share a mixture of stark realism and expressionism, but here Kazan takes it to the level of intense black comedy. The large, crumbling mansion Archie Lee buys for Baby Doll feels like something out of Southern Gothic, both decrepit and gorgeous, tactile but somewhat mysterious. It’s a terrific symbol for a receding sense of power for a southerner like Archie Lee, but it’s also a great way to ground the story, which could easily fly off the rails in scenes of sexual farce. There’s an intensely voyeuristic feeling to everything, as if we’re seeing something we shouldn’t, and that’s largely the point. Kazan knows he’s working in controversial territory here, so he plays the audience like a piano, getting it worked up over what we can see (Malden peeping through to see a sleeping Baby Doll, who sucks her thumb suggestively) and what we can’t (Malden trying to climb into the bath with Baby Doll, which we can only hear as he falls in and she jumps out).

Like much of Kazan’s work, Baby Doll makes heavy use of deep focus and close ups, but it feels more essential here than ever. Kazan plays with spatial dynamics in Baby Doll in order to make the audience deeply uncomfortable, particularly when Baby Doll first meets Vicarro. She, a virgin, is dressed in white. He’s dressed in all black, framed like an enticing but frightening sexual force. In one scene, Kazan puts them in a cramped, broken-down automobile together, as if she has nowhere to go and he could take her at any time. Later, as the two sit on a swing together, Kazan starts in a wide shot with the two sitting across from each other, then in a two-shot as he sits next to her, and finally in a close up on her face as he leans into her, heaving, caressing her skin to the point where her face is borderline orgasmic. Vicarro is a dangerous character, but she’s undeniably drawn to that danger. Kazan was a major influence on Arthur Penn, and in a sense, the Vicarro/Baby Doll dynamic is a precursor to Bonnie and Clyde, not to mention Joe and Dottie in Killer Joe.

The film’s most memorable scene plays up danger, the sexuality, and the humor of the situation through spatial dynamics. Baby Doll has locked Vicarro outside, promising to let him in only after she’s finished making lemonade for both of them (clearly a distraction from her attraction to him). Vicarro cuts through the screen door and proceeds to play an increasingly bizarre game of cat and mouse with her where the roles switch back and forth. First he’s deliberately taunting her by swinging the chandelier and plucking piano chords, only to run out of sight before she can see him. Then he’s the one hunting her, strutting around, drinking lemonade from the pitcher. Then he’s taunting her again, riding and spanking a rocking horse (I’ll let you draw the conclusions there). It’s a humorous scene, but it takes a dangerous turn when he chases her up to a crumbling attic, threatening to cave the floor in and let her fall if she doesn’t sign a confession for Archie’s guilt. It’s clever gamesmanship from both Vicarro and Kazan: the objective changes throughout the scene from taunting Baby Doll to groping Baby Doll to threatening Baby Doll to, finally, at the end, seeing if he has reason to stick around other than a way to get Archie’s confession.

Wallach would go on to have a long and fruitful career (the dude is 97 years old and still working!), but he gives some of his very best work as Vicarro, a man who’s equal parts despicable and admirable. On one hand, some of his scenes toying with Baby Doll are undoubtedly cruel and predatory. But he’s also infinitely more charismatic and likable than the overblown tyrant Archie Lee, and he has reason to be angry. A Sicilian, he’s faced prejudice in the south his whole life, and now that he’s worked his way up and attained the American Dream legitimately, some entitled southerner has damn near ruined him, and the man’s racist good ol’ boy pals aren’t about to help someone like Vicarro. He’s got to take the law into his own hands.

What’s impressive about Malden work is how he turns Archie Lee into a composite of all of the worst characteristics of Father Barry (his On the Waterfront character) and Mitch (his A Streetcar Named Desire character) and almost none of the best ones. Oh, sure, it’s likable old Karl Malden up on the screen, but gone is Mitch’s genuine sweetness, replaced by extra bits of entitlement and irritation of being made a fool of. Gone is Father Barry’s righteousness, while the overblown sense of importance has been exaggerated to comic degrees. Combine these characteristics and add leeriness and casual racism and sexism and you get a particularly unsavory character. But Malden never condescends to Archie Lee. He’s a dumb guy, and he’s not likable, but his intense embarrassment over his predicament, known by the whole town, is understandable. Still, there’s a reason most of the film’s best jokes- “Baby Please Don’t Go” playing as he comes home to Baby Doll and Vicarro, a black Greek Chorus of sorts who laugh at this dumb bigot being made a fool of- are on him: most of his entitlement comes to being a man and a white, and Kazan has no sympathy for such fools.

Carroll Baker would unfortunately never quite top her Oscar-nominated performance here, but it’s a damn fine career high. Twenty-five years old but looking much younger, Baker taps into an uneasy mixture of childishness and womanly sexuality, someone who’s both frightened by sex and well aware of the power she wields over men. Archie Lee constantly towers over her, but more often than not he’s completely powerless to this girl. Contrast that with the mixture of fascination and fear she holds for Vicarro, a dominant, sexual character, and you’ve got a clear reason for why she might go for him (well, that and as another way to embarrass Archie Lee).

Sexist? Maybe not. Kazan certainly walks a fine line with the sexual material here- an uncomfortable scene of Baker eating bread soaked with pot liquor out of Wallach’s hands is particularly high on the “ew” factor- but no doubt much of it is tongue-in-cheek, and Kazan has no illusions that either of the men are good people. Sure, Vicarro offers to take in Baby Doll’s senile Aunt Rose (a hilarious Mildred Dunnock) after Archie throws her out, but it’s mostly as a way to further get Archie’s goat. And while Vicarro wins after he proves Archie’s guilt, Kazan is skeptical as to whether or not he’ll stay with Baby Doll. “I’ll be back tomorrow with more cotton”, he yells, which Baby Doll hopes might be a sign that he’ll stay with her, but the doubt in her voice as she walks back into the mansion says it all. Even if the class and race struggle goes against the entitled white man, it’s still going to a man. Baby Doll is something special: an exploitation movie (or at least ancestor) about exploitation.

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