IRVINE — Tennessee Williams must have had a hoot of a time with "Baby Doll," the 1956 erotic comedy he wrote for director Elia Kazan.
The movie, based on two of Williams' short stories about Southern discomfort, "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" and "The Long Stay Cut Short," gave the playwright the opportunity to indulge one of his favorite vices--repressed sexuality in the hot and humid Dixie psyche.
His screenplay about a Southern nymphet, her husband and a shrewd businessman features some of Williams' funniest dialogue and juiciest characters. "Baby Doll" (screening tonight at UC Irvine) is a near-classic, balanced evenly between camp and carnality. For Williams, it's also another worthy collaboration with Kazan, who brought "A Streetcar Named Desire" to the screen in 1951.
As with that film, "Baby Doll" unsettled a lot of people. The easily embarrassed couldn't handle the steamy plot or publicity posters of Baby Doll, played by a young Carroll Baker, lying in a crib and sucking her thumb. Religious leaders denounced the movie, and Time magazine described it as "possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited."
Much of the ruckus, which seems silly now, was inspired by Baby Doll, who, we're told, is almost 20 and still acts like an adolescent. When we first meet her, she is indeed napping in a crib, thumb wedged between her lips.
She's not the brightest thing around; when her intelligence is questioned, Baby Doll replies blankly, "I've been to school in my life . . . and I'm a magazine reader!" As played by Baker in one of her first film roles, Baby Doll knows nothing about nothing, but she excites men anyway.
Archie (Karl Malden) is the most excitable boy around. He's been married to Baby Doll for two years but still hasn't taken her to bed. That makes him crazy, as does Silva (Eli Wallach), the Italian entrepreneur who's all but put Archie's cotton-gin out of business.
When Archie torches Silva's plant, Williams and Kazan push the temperature way up. Silva suspects Archie and slithers up to Baby Doll for confirmation. He knows she's a child-bride fool, but passion (and eventually a sort of love) ends up carrying the day--after Archie chases them through the fields with a shotgun, of course.
This scene near the picture's end is hilarious, if only because Williams' idea of drama here is so base and combustible. But he's been leading up to the grande finale throughout "Baby Doll"--it's a movie where everybody seems ready to explode into mania of some sort or another.
The expertly pouting Baker may be more like a simmering pot ready to bubble over, but crude Wallach and even cruder Malden are walking dynamite, with fuses lit from the get-go. Williams knew that if you mixed these three together, trouble was the only reward. He also knew how much fun a little trouble could be.
\o7 * "Baby Doll" (1956), directed by Elia Kazan, screens tonight in Crystal Cove Auditorium, UC Irvine Student Center, Campus Drive and Bridge Road, Irvine. 7 and 9 p.m. $2 to $4. Part of UC Irvine's "Standing in a Different Light: No Longer Silent and Invisible, a Woman Seizes Her Moments" series. (714) 824-5588. \f7