1956’s Baby Doll marks the second film collaboration of director Elia Kazan and playwright Tennessee Williams. In their first outing, A Streetcar Named Desire, the two brought to life images depicting lust, seduction, and corruption of the human soul. In this film, their attempts come close, but the overall result is far less successful than what they achieved in Streetcar. At the center of the story is the sexy, immature teenager Baby Doll Meighan (Carroll Baker) who is married to middle-aged louse, Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden). Before their wedding, the two agreed that he would be allowed to bed her after one year of marriage, provided that he keep her happy in a beautiful home. The film opens on the eve of their first anniversary and their sleeping arrangemens are odd to say the least- Baby Doll sleeps in a crib, wearing only a short nightie, while Archie spends his time spying on her through a hole in the wall in an adjoining room. Archie is in a financial freefall due to the failure of his cotton gin business and moving vans are coming to take away their furniture. Since Archie’s life is in ruins, Baby Doll still won’t let Archie touch her. His only comfort comes from the bottle. The county’s new gin magnet, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach) has swept in and stolen everyone’s business. To get even, Archie secretly sets fire to Vacarro’s cotton gin. Vacarro knows Archie is the culprit and since no one in town likes Vacarro, he sets out to get his own personal revenge on Archie. Although Vacarro’s main intent is to convince Baby Doll to implicate her rotten husband in the crime, things begin to develop between the two and the action soon spirals out of control.
This odd and quirky slice of Southern life was the recipient of four Academy Award nominations. Tennessee Williams received a Best Screenplay nomination for adapting the script from his one-act play, “27 Wagonloads of Cotton.” Boris Kaufman received a nomination for Best Cinematography. Two actresses from the film both received nominations for their work in the film. Carroll Baker received a Best Actress nomination for her role as the seductive, infantile bride, Baby Doll. The second actress to receive Academy Award attention was Mildred Dunnock, nominee, (151), for her supporting role as Baby Doll’s dotty, eccentric Aunt Rose Comfort. Dunnock has a great handle on the aunt’s scatter-brained antics, but she isn’t given enough material to work with. Although she has one great scene in which she confronts Malden’s smary Archie, it still doesn’t make up for nearly a film’s worth of strange, vacant staring. Dunnock lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress to Dorothy Malone in Written On the Wind.