About the only Tennessee Williams drama that could be called fun. For Karl Malden’s Archie, this is a tragedy; for his wife Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), it’s mainly a comedy. It’s mostly fun for Vacarro (Eli Wallach), Archie’s personal and business rival. All three turn in very strong, distinct performances. Archie is an incredibly tormented character.
He’s either panicky, frantic, exuberant, or some combination throughout. He’s ready to drop dead of humiliation or excitement at any time. While wanting desperately to keep up appearances to maintain a veneer of status–“I’ve got position!” he insists–he’s undermined and betrayed at every turn. Not only his wife, but the townspeople, his hired hands, even his doctor won’t take him seriously. In an effort to jump-start his arrangement with Vacarro, he’s nearly turned away by the shop that has a replacement part for his dilapidated gin, as he can’t pay in cash. This is after he’s driven a good distance for his trouble; only to discover that nobody cares. Vacarro already has another part at hand. Archie’s one act that works is motivated by jealousy and entirely negative–burning down Vacarro’s more prosperous gin.
But what of Vacarro? He’s opportunistic, ruthless, and never lets up. The middle part of the movie shows his thorough exploitation of Baby Doll. First he’s cool with her, in a Marlon Brando sort of way, then he harasses her, finally, he gets just plain nutty. His ulterior motive isn’t seduction, though: he gets her to implicate Archie for arson. There’s some nice lines and antics in those scenes, but there’s way too much else going on; the tone is spun off in too many directions. Thankfully, once Archie shows up again, we’re back to dramatic intensity in the dining room scene. When the action spills out into the rainy night, the black humor thread picks up smartly, a rude counterpoint to Archie’s never-ending degradation.
Even though the constable lets on that Archie’s arrest is pretty much a sham, it still looks bad. Vacarro happily drives off, free to return for more cotton-ginning and more Baby Doll; while Archie has to leave with the authorities, and has nothing promising awaiting him at home. Coincidently, the bell sounds, signaling that it’s Baby Doll’s 20th birthday, but Archie knows that, despite the ‘agreement’ they had, he’ll still not consumate their marriage.
The run-down house mirrors Archie’s run-down life. The vacant rooms, rotting roof and leaky refrigerator–just about every square foot of the once-fancy place–is, like Archie, now old and about to collapse. By extension, Mildred Dunnock (as Aunt Rose) is the embodiment of the house’s ghostly irrelevance. It’s sort of consumed her. In fact, both Baby Doll and Archie are living in the past (Baby Doll defiantly so). They’re vulnerable to the stubbornly practical Vacarro, who has literally left his traditions behind.
Baby Doll is very entertaining, but is a sort of guilty pleasure; watching Archie and Baby Doll twist about like a couple of puppets is both funny and agonizing. 7/10.