Monday, February 8, 2021

Baby Doll (1956) Warner Archive Blu Ray Review

 Baby Doll (1956) Warner Archive 2/16/2021

Directed By: Elia Kazan 

Starring: Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Mildred Dunnock 

Disclaimer: Warner Archive  has provided me with a copy of this film free of charge for the purposes of review. All opinions contained within are my own honest reflections. 

    It might be hard to believe in 2021 but, Baby Doll (1956) was one of the boldest Hollywood films to grace silver screens. One only has to look at the suggestive marketing which features Carroll Baker in her crib to see that this movie aimed to push boundaries. Though it was technically made during the Hays Code, it was one of a number of movies that over the years would help slowly chip away and ultimately destroy the Code leading to the formation of the MPAA or Motion Picture Association of America. 

   Written by famed playwright Tennessee Williams based on his play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton the story tells of a Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) a young woman on the verge of her twentieth birthday. This is important because per a deal which was made with Baby Doll's father, her husband Archie (Karl Malden) would reframe from any sexual activity with her until she turns twenty. However, the fiery Baby Doll is cruel to Archie and seems to have no desire to be physical with him. To make matters worse she flirts with men in town and constantly puts Archie down for his weight and age. Meanwhile, Archie is a hot tempered ball of stress. This isn't helped by his massive debt which stems from his failing cotton mill venture. This is made worse by the fact that a newer and better cotton-mill opens up stealing away any business.  The new mill is owned by an Italian American man named Silva (Eli Wallach). Silva's mill is mysteriously burnt down and Silva suspects Archie and will stop at nothing to secure a confession. Even if it means seducing his wife. 

   Director Elia Kazan best remembered for gems like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1955) helms this lesser known but still just as amazing South-Gothic melodrama. So, this movie, is an interesting one as it tackles subjects what even in the '50's was pretty shocking stuff  namely: virginity and what a good wife is suppose to provide for her husband. Though it never gets graphic about sex (keep in mind they still had to be approved by the Production Code) it's pretty frank about Archie being sexually frustrated and horny for Baby Doll. 

   Baby Doll plays like a psycho-sexual thriller wrapped in the hot-sweaty Southern-Gothic overwrought world of Tennessee Williams.  What is so brilliant though is Kazan is able to take this strange set-up between husband and childlike wife (but again not actually a child) and craft a film that is over-flowing with raw sexuality, real tension and pitiful human drama. Eli Wallach's sexually tense overtures (though not overt) is honestly some of the most sizzling stuff on screen that is completely devoid of sex. This is thanks to the amazing chemistry Baker and Wallach have. I mean, it's really something to behold. But Kazan and Williams set's up the drama like well placed dominos and we get a very lean, well constructed screenplay that doesn't have an ounce of fat or filler material in sight. Every scene is either driving the plot forward or setting up plot or both.  And, when the mill burns down in a extremely well done and exciting scene the entire energy and momentum of the film shifts into a cat-and-mouse game that is part thriller-part sexual-dance. 

   The film is not without some cringe-worthy moments. Seeing how this was 1956 we get a very uncomfortable snap-shot out Jim Crowe era segregation in the forms of White Only signs and so forth. Also, Wallach's character could be seen as a bit of a stereotypical hot-blooded Italian. Some very ugly slurs are directed towards Silva. It's just a stark reminder that we've come a long way and we still have a long way to go as a society.  

   As overwrought and steamy as any good Tennessee Williams production, Baby Doll is a strange, sexually provoctative film that still pack's an emotional punch thanks to Williams screenplay, Kazan's pin-point direction and stellar performances by Karl Malden, Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach. 

Picture: I might sound like a broken record but I don't care- Warner Archive has been crushing it in terms of providing their audience with dazzling HD presentations. Baby Doll is a movie that is visually incredible, in fact, it earned an Oscar nomination for Boris Kaufman's black and white photography. Though it doesn't say I would wager to bet this is probably a 2k scan. This new transfer is rich in details in the sets and locales which are very much apart of the story. Grain levels are present and are minimal and consistent throughout. The black and white contrast is also well handled, again really giving you a new found awe for Kaufman's cinematography. Overall, this is a nearly flawless transfer. 

Sound: Baby Doll's sound a DTS 2.0 presentation is equally as impressive. This isn't an effects heavy film and relies mostly on dialogue and Kenyon Hopkin's score, all of which comes through nicely. Background hiss is non-existent and overall it offers a dynamic front-center range. 

Extras: Ported over from the previous DVD release is the featurette entitled See No Evil (12mins) A really nice feature with interviews with cast including Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach. Seeing how only Baker remains of the main cast, this vintage segment is a historical artifact and well worth the watch, especially if you are new to the film. 

1 comment:

  1. First of all, the worst news: The 1.85 aspect was achieved by chopping off the top and bottom of the video. I have a 4:3 version (1440 x 1080) of this movie which includes that area. I consider this unforgiveable.

    Second, and perhaps this is personal taste, the focus is more than a bit soft compared to the 4:3 version. This is likely a result of the enlarging of the pixels once the video was decapitated. Also, it has a greenish tint. I certainly don't see any evidence of "stunning, silvery black-and-white cinematography".

    I don't know where my 4:3 copy came from (it was downloaded from the internet), but the fact that it includes additional film area leads me to believe that this was the original cut, not the 1.85 version. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable can explain this.