From One White Man to Another: Sex, Bigotry and Desperation in Elia Kazans Baby Doll by Judy Berman
By Yasmina Tawil
It can be disappointing to read what great filmmakers have to say about their movies. But rarely has a director seemed to misunderstand his own work as completely as Elia Kazan, in a lengthy interview about his sole comedy, Baby Doll (1956), that appears in Jeff Youngs book Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films. It has no meaning, he claimed. By the time I got to Baby Doll, I was determined to make a picture with no sympathy and no heroes.
Kazan appears to be describing a very different film from the one he made. Set in a small Mississippi Delta town just months before Brown v. Board of Education made segregated public schools illegal, and scripted by Tennessee Williams (with lots of uncredited assistance from Kazan), Baby Doll is essentially a Southern Gothic three-hander. Carroll Baker, who also appeared in the George Stevens classic Giant in 1956, plays the title character, a beautiful 19-year-old whos married to the hapless, middle-aged cotton gin owner Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden). Their union is the result of a tragedy and a lie: Baby Dolls ailing father wanted to ensure her financial security before he died, and Archie Lee led the terminally ill man to believe he could give her a life of luxury. Now, the unhappy couple dwells in a squalid, crumbling mansion. Because Archie Lee promised Baby Dolls father that he wouldnt touch her before her 20th birthday, the marriage remains unconsummatedand everyone in town seems to know it.