Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 4, 2021)
Back in 1951, filmmaker Elia Kazan and playwright Tennessee Williams joined forces for A Streetcar Named Desire, a much-lauded adaptation that stands at 47th place on the AFI 100 Greatest Films list. The two reunited for 1956’s Baby Doll, another steamy drama.
Set in Mississippi, middle-aged cotton miller Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) marries teenaged Baby Doll McCargo (Carroll Baker). This marriage comes with one stipulation: Archie can’t consummate the union until Baby Doll turns 20.
As this birthday nears, Baby Doll finds herself less than thrilled at the sexual prospect. She taunts Archie with the way she flirts with other men and lives up to her name via perverse childlike twists on sexuality.
Into this setting steps Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), a Sicilian whose cotton gin devastates Archie’s business. This sets up a rivalry between the two men, and matters complicate when Baby Doll experiences a sexual connection with Silva.
While I enjoyed Streetcar and 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - another film based on a Williams property – I admit they teetered on the edge due to their overt theatricality. Williams wrote big, broad characters, and they could veer toward over the top qualities.
To a large degree, Cat and Streetcar worked due to the sheer magnetism of their stars. With Paul Newman/Elizabeth Taylor in Cat and Marlon Brando/Vivian Leigh in Streetcar, the film boasted tremendous leads.
No offense to those involved with Baby Doll, but they lack the same charisma. Wallach enjoyed a good career as a character actor, and Baker got regular work until her apparent retirement in 2003, though she remained best-known for this film.
Though solid professionals, Wallach and Baker lack the fireworks that would appear necessary for this story to work. Frankly, Wallach seems like a decidedly odd choice for this role, as he doesn’t exactly come across like someone who could do much to seduce a young hottie.
Wouldn’t the role make sense with a younger, better-looking actor? Maybe that’s part of the gag – the fact that Baby Doll goes with a schlubby-looking dude – but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the surface.
Also, Baker doesn’t seem as sexy and incendiary as she probably should for the role. While attractive, I get the impression Baby Doll should be a real scorcher, and Baker seems cute at best.
Adapted from a one-act play, Baby Doll doesn’t really feel like it comes with the character development or story material to sustain a nearly two-hour film. Frankly, our love triangle never becomes especially interesting, and without more magnetic performances from our leads, we don’t buy into the tale to a substantial degree.
This makes Baby Doll something of a lackluster ride, as the broad theatricality of the tale can’t be overcome by the characters or acting. This feels like an overwrought piece that doesn’t become especially compelling.