The Tell-Tale Dissolve: BABY DOLL and the Collapse of "Decency."
Fifty years after its scandalizing 1956 release, BABY DOLL, Elia Kazan’s hot-to-trot Gothic hothouse dramatic-comedy
starring an impossibly sexy and beautiful Caroll Baker, makes its way to DVD. With a shiny transfer bringing out the glinting
eyes and southern beauty of Boris Kaufman's Wong-Howe-like cinematography, we can move past our old TV memories of the film
as merely southern Gothic exploitation aping LOLITA (with that indelible image of Baker sucking her thumb in her crib a fine
substitute for Lo's heartshaped glasses and lollipop)and see the film as a brilliant, spontaneous satire of outmoded social
Marilyn Monroe wanted to play the part, but Kazan held out for Baker, a protege from his actor's studio. Despite this feint
at respectability BABY was massively protested by Catholic groups during its initial release, even though it had been cleared
with the code. It became notorious as a lurid sex film and though the crib picture lingered in the American consciousness,
the film's genius and genuine subversion was obscured. The reason that the film aroused so much fear (even Time magazine damned
it as being "the dirtiest picture...") is, ultimately this subversive complexity; the innocuous smut of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH
by contrast poses no threat to the status quo, but BABY DOLL functions as a deconstruction of cinematic "codes."
To understand these codes we might quick recall the writings of Slavoj Zizek and Richard Maltby concerning the dissolve in CASABLANCA, from Bogie and Bergman kissing to the airport light tower, then back to them smoking (still dressed). Maltby
notes that "Rather than ambiguity, this "excessively obvious" sequence presents contradiction: Rick and Ilsa must have slept
together, and (yet) they can't have done so." (Bordwell 37) This is the means by which Hollywood and the censors were able
to agree; the splitting of "meaning" for those in the know and those who would stay naive. This strategy is, according to
Zizek, "a model of the social order in illustrating how the 'dirty' inferences co-exist with and even support the "innocent"
reading. To put it in the Lacanian terms: during the infamous 3 1/2 seconds, Ilsa and Rick did not do it for the big Other
(in this case: the order of public appearance which should not be offended), but they did do it for our dirty fantasmatic
imagination." This is the structure of inherent transgression at its purest: Hollywood needs both levels in order to function."
And YET, TIME magazine infamously derided it as “the dirtiest picture ever to come out of mainstream Hollywood.”
Yes, it was racy in 1954, but interestingly, the picture is still ahead of its time in 2008, in that it eschews the winky-dink
sexuality of the Frank Tashlin-era, where sex was spoofed with top-heavy Jayne Mansfields chasing neutered males like Tony
Randall or Tom Ewell around. As with those films, there’s a distinct accent on the woman as a dangerous powder keg of
sexuality, with the men stranded in various states of dysfunction and typecasting (the cinematic equivalent of the innocuous
baggy pants comics in between strippers at a burlesque show). BABY DOLL escapes dichotomy via the spidery figure of Vacaro,
played by Eli Wallach, the "other" so marginalized here risen to wreak havoc. Vacaro can scheme and lust with abandon since
he's Jewish and/or Italian; he's come to steal ze wimmen. It's outrageous to our collective white dignity to think
of this beady-eyed schemer (the "ugly" in GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY) getting his dirty paws on the alabaster skin of fair
Baker... another reason the response of the time was so nakedly hostile.
There’s a famous (if you’re a film geek) quote from sleaze-meister David F. Friedman who when describing the fall
of the great grindhouse days to the world of porn, noted that his films gave you “the sizzle without the steak.”
Now that there was steak (porn) to be had, no one cared for the sizzle (of mere exploitation). But the sizzle is, in a Lacanian
sense, the best part, even... perhaps... the only part, and this is implicitly understood by both Kazan and Williams-- as
is obvious in their collaborations. BABY DOLL is so effective because it takes the famous “did they or didn’t
they” aspect of Joseph Breen-enforced censorship and makes it the focus of the film itself. Karl Malden’s bald-spotted
hick goes literally insane trying to figure out whether the hazy dissolve in the nursery where Vacaro takes a nap in baby
doll’s bed represents them having sex. Is Baby doll so “cooled down” later that night because she’s
lost her cumbersome virginity? Or is it just that she’s found attraction to a man who knows how to play the game of
seduction rather than the hot-headed “who stole my orgasm?” franticness of Malden?
Vacaro is Sicillian and as such represents a mix of craftiness and the earthiness, the very things Malden thinks he has (as
a good ole boy) but lacks (as a dumbshit redneck); his own sense of privileged "whiteness" keeps him blind to this lack. The
African American men working for him treat him with contempt; idling and making wry faces at each other over his stupidity.
The African Americans Vacaro employs, by contrast are hard-working and respectful; he speaks to them as working professionals,
as equals doing a job. Malden is so outgunned he has to stammer and shout and over-act, and the more he does, the more idle
his black cotton workers become.
See, what Friedman, Kazan, and Baby Doll understand is that old Courtney Love lyric, “When they get what they want /
they never want it again.” And this was the way Hollywood dealt with the issue of “did they or didn’t they:"
the narrative split. You get an equal amount of clues that they did and an equal amount of clues that they didn’t. If
you expect a yes or no answer and really try to find one, you will go insane. In the tree of sex, the cardinals can rest easy
in one corner, and the horny bald-spotted Maldens can go nuts in the other... it must be so, or society cannot function. BABY
DOLL calls attention to this split however, and ridicules those who would prefer one side over the other... if you feel the
need to insist "they did it" you are a pervert, and if you feel the need to prove they did not, you are a prude. As such,
BABY DOLL poses an affront to the pious and phony moralizing of so-called "decent" citizens, which may account for the huge
Catholic protest the film created.
But who has won in this bizarre charade? Malden's Archie Lee thinks he will win by taking Baby Doll’s virginity. He’s
become so obsessed on this point that self-sabotage prevents his desire. He’s like the stalker who keeps stalking you
because he thinks he has to convince you he’s not a stalker, or the wife who is so jealous and suspicious she compels
her husband to cheat. Vacaro meanwhile is blessed with a more complex motivation, diffusion; he keeps Baby Doll interested
in him by constantly deferring gratification of sexual desire. (He wants her to sign a statement that will implicate Archie
Lee in the burning of Vacaro's cotton gin) When Vacaro and Baby Doll have been alone in the house all afternoon neither Archie
Lee nor we in the audience know if they did or didn't have sex. Rather than confront them directly, Archie Lee hems and haws
around the issue, and Baby Doll and Vacaro play up their flirtations... for Archie's benefit! The play the same game Dietrich
and her young bucks were working on Von Sternberg's masochistic stand-ins back before the code. What makes this scene so “dirty”
is not the seductive play between Vacaro and Baby Doll, but its performative aspect towards Archie Lee. They exaggerate their
seductive fire for each other in order to enflame the jealousy of Malden. Their kisses are passionate in direct relation to
Malden’s proximity; the harder Malden tries to control things, the steamier their interaction gets.
The lesson to be learned is how to let go of control: Vacaro wins Baby Doll via a constant ebb and flow of masculine aggression,
a flow that pushes her boundaries and then moves back a bit to let her catch her breath. He chases her but when she stops
running, he stops chasing. When she chases him, he run; thus play is introduced into the mating ritual, letting Baby Doll
assume a more pro-active role. Once he has her where he wants her (trapped on an attic beam) instead of demanding sex he forces
her to sign the statement against her husband; she's disappointed. Why this film outrages the Catholics may lie more in this
area than in the idea of a man obsessed with an "under-developed" woman (Baker doesn't seem the least bit under-developed,
There's an implicit notion in code-sanctioned romance that the sex must be dealt with quickly
- one dissolve between a kiss fade-out and a cigarettes-in-full-dress afterwards-- and then move on with the story. BABY DOLL
lives in the twilight realm of that fade-out. The "did they or didn't they" ambiguity is allowed to drive the censor stand-in
(Malden) to a point of sweet insanity.
If this film was shot by Luis Bunuel for example, all the critics would know that it’s a story of masochistic obsession.
But since it’s pigeon-holed as southern hothouse pulp, people refuse to recognize the presence of myth, the mythic re-enactment
of a maturation ritual, of sexual awakening in a young woman, and of maturation in a man. Just as Vacaro earlier in the film
makes a comparison between Aunt Violet and Baby Doll as the old making way for the new, so too Malden and Wallach represent
two sides of the same psyche – the virgin teenager and the sexually experienced adult. In order to become a man, the
libidinal obsession of the Malden side must be forever denied. Truly it is written (on the Stones' bathroom wall): “You
can’t always get what you want / but if you try sometimes (as in submit to the symbolic castration of the social order)
you get what you need.”
LET'S GET DEVELOPED!
For indigenous tribes, school kids, and the animal world there is a constant jousting and fighting and jockeying among the
males for top position, for the right to breed with the female or the symbolic token thereof. With the advent of agrarian
society and the ownership of wealth this constant “testing” of strength falls by the wayside. One can’t,
for example, challenge the president to an arm wrestling contest to take over the country (though that’s how they do
it in Klopstockia in 1933’s MILLION DOLLAR LEGS). One of the few places this sort of contest still carries currency
is in competition for a girl’s hand, where an older guy may flash his diamond coat pin in order to woo, but may well
and fairly lose to a poorer man who has youth and beauty. Thus the older guy goes out of his way to encourage the social
validation of wealth and prosperity while the younger man devalues wealth and gets on his motorcycle and says live for today,
suckers. Which one is right will depend on which one you ask, and each chick has a different set of values, usually related
to her father's own situation.
With his role here, Malden is the method actin’ uncle to all those horny kids in PORKY’S and AMERICAN PIE. He’s
so sure that once he gets his seed planted he’ll have that crazy demon super-ego off his ass and be able to settle back
down to whittlin’ and mopin’ that he sabotages himself. The dude needs to read some Kafka or Nietzsche. Wallach
on the other hand, is given superhuman patience; his ugliness and shortness seems to evaporate in the highlights in his demon
eyes (provided by cameraman Boris Kaufman) He doesn’t have to say anything; he doesn’t have to do anything; the
less said or done the more rope Malden takes to hang himself. Thus it is that too much anticipation inevitably spoils the
moment when it does finally come. Xmas day, once the wrapping paper is all strewn around and the hooplah has died down, settles
into a depressive torpor. Malden is the kid who has yet to learn this, as such, he reminds all us good Christians still waiting
for the rapture just how stunted we really are; what better motivation for busting out the old burning cross and pitchforks?
1. Richard Maltby, p. 434-435, Post-Theory (edited by David Bordwell and Noel Carroll (University of Wisconson Press, 1996)
Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Sympton (?)
c. 2008 Acidemic