“Baby Doll?” Does the name sound familiar, but you cannot recall where you saw it? The answer is that “Baby Doll” was originally a screenplay written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan in 1956. It took the current adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann to bring it to the stage, using only Williams’ original language, but trimmed to fit in a small live theater.
If you knew nothing of this prelude and came to The Fountain you would realize in an instant that you were watching pure Tennessee Williams: provocative, immature female under the thumb of overbearing male. He is as unsuccessful at home as he is in the outside racist, class obsessed world. Cotton is king and personal economic disaster is just around the corner. Add to all this the character of Baby Doll Meighan herself, Lindsay LaVanchy (in the role which marked Carroll Baker’s steamy ’56 debut). Baby Doll will turn 20 in two days. This birthday takes on great significance as she and the much older Archie Lee Meighan, John Prosky (in the role originated by Carl Malden), were wed two years before; they are not yet “married” (her distinction). To please her dying father she had become Archie’s wife at 18 with the understanding that he was going to provide a comfortable living; she would sleep with him when she turned 20. Since her father walked her down the aisle. Incredibly immature Baby Doll has been sleeping in a crib in the nursery, sucking her thumb, holding her doll and things have not been going well for Archie.
Hard times have followed the marriage. The dilapidated plantation house Archie bought two years ago has further decayed, his gin is beset by mechanical problems, and the furniture he bought on time is being repossessed. The Italian newcomer, Silva Vacarro, Daniel Bess (in the role originated by Eli Wallach) has stolen the ginning business of everyone in town. Archie sets fire to Vacarro’s cotton gin. Making the move Archie is counting on, Vacarro arrives on Archie’s doorstep with 27 truckloads of cotton to be ginned. Vacarro has a pretty good idea who the culprit was but dangles greedy Archie, using the cotton as bait. While calling Vacarro every Italian slur in the book, Archie invites him to have a cool drink in the house with “Baby Doll” while Archie processes the truck loads.
In the movie the broken down house could have been listed under the cast of characters. Handsome and charming Vacarro half seduces Baby Doll, half inveigles her, and ultimately forcing her, into admitting her husband set the fire. With Archie at work they play hide-and-seek throughout the two story house and attic. There is a rumor that the house is haunted; Vacarro causes chandeliers to sway, doors to slam, floors to groan. It is an engaging part of the film that is impossible to reproduce in a small theater. The writers wisely cut it out for stage, but I would be less than honest if I did not say, something is lost in the process.
Kazan’s casting for the film was pitch perfect. Fountain Director Simon Levy has wisely chosen to have his actors closely follow the original performances, which they have done admirably. In 1956, “Baby Doll” was called notorious, salacious, revolting, etc. It was banned in much more than Boston. 77% of the theaters scheduled to show it cancelled. Now, in 2016 Los Angeles, it has lost some of its bite. While the stage version may not set the world on fire in this day and age, and the characters may seem overdrawn, “Baby Doll” is certainly good entertainment. We might wonder, however, if this is what some Trump followers mean when they say “make America great again.” It is easy to forget just where women’s rights stood throughout the US in 1956, and how ugly and prejudiced it was and can still be.