It’s hard to imagine a more imposing example of religious architecture in America than St. Patrick’s Cathedral. With its glorious white-marble facade and soaring Gothic spires that rise 330 feet above Fifth Avenue, the Roman Catholic church trumpets its moral authority and divine judgment. And on the morning of December 16, 1956, that judgment came down like a hammer on Hollywood.
It was a week before Christmas. Cardinal Francis Spellman, New York’s rigid-as-a-yardstick 67-year-old archbishop, had just returned from the Far East. It was rare for the cardinal to take the pulpit. And when he did, his flock knew his message was of earth-shattering importance. ”Dearly beloved in Christ, I have a statement to make,” Spellman began. He said he was ”anguished” to learn of a motion picture ”that has been responsibly judged to be evil in concept and which is certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it.” Spellman went on, ”The revolting theme of this picture, Baby Doll, and the brazen advertising promoting it constitute a contemptuous defiance of the natural law….” In other words, it was a sin for any Catholic to see the film.
The cardinal was not alone in his wrath. Though the industry’s Production Code Administration had approved Baby Doll’s release, the National Legion of Decency (the Catholic film-reviewing organization) had tarred it with the rarely invoked C rating. The C stood for ”condemned.” Nor was it just religious moralists who blasted the film. TIME decried it as ”possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.”
In the last half century, we’ve seen films grapple with sexuality in ways that make Baby Doll look quaint. But in 1956, when the red-hot charge of ”un-Americanism” was being branded on anyone or any idea deemed remotely threatening, Baby Doll was more than a movie. To many, it was a terrifying threat on the same shelf as Communism.
Written by Tennessee Williams (from two of his one-act plays) and directed by Elia Kazan, Baby Doll is a dark comedy about a precocious, 19-year-old virgin bride (Carroll Baker) in rural Mississippi who withholds her ”wifely responsibilities” from her older husband (Karl Malden). When they wed, they made a pact to remain chaste until she turned 20. But now, just over a year later, that debt has come due. Malden is fantastic as a down-on-his-luck, sexually frustrated cotton ginner. And Baker, then 25, smolders as the proto-Lolita, sucking her thumb while she sleeps in a crib. The couple’s powder-keg union finally detonates when a cotton mogul played by Eli Wallach comes to town and seduces Baby Doll to get back at Malden for burning down his cotton mill.
Shot in Benoit, Miss., Baby Doll reteamed Kazan, Williams, and Malden from 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire — another sultry, Southern drama teeming with sexual tension and hardscrabble lives. Marilyn Monroe had coveted the title role, but Kazan felt she was too old and too famous. Instead, the part went to relative newcomer Baker, a product of the Actors Studio. As for Wallach, he made his film debut in Baby Doll and remains puzzled by the uproar it kicked up. ”I was always an innocent in these things,” says the actor, now 91. ”If you look at what movies are like today and what happens with discussions about sex, Baby Doll was a mild movie.”
Perhaps the spiciest scene is Wallach’s seduction of Baker’s Baby Doll on a plantation swing. As she swoons, he whispers in her ear, breathes on her neck, and nuzzles his face against her cheek. But people objected to what they couldn’t see: his hand. His right hand is often just out of the shot, below the frame. Many assumed it was wandering a little too familiarly. ”Critics implied that all sorts of lurid things were going on,” recalls Wallach.
Slated to open on Dec. 18, 1956, Baby Doll was pulled by several theater chains, including one owned by Joseph Kennedy, the famously Catholic father of the future president. Some newspapers rejected ads for the film. One kid who was both titillated and terrified by Baby Doll was a 14-year-old on New York’s Lower East Side named Martin Scorsese. ”Being Catholic, we weren’t allowed to see it because it was condemned by the Church,” says the director. ”It was the cause scandale, so I didn’t see it. But I bought the soundtrack.”
Despite the controversy — or perhaps because of it — Baby Doll performed decently at the box office. And in early 1957, the film earned four Oscar nods, including Best Actress for Baker and Best Adapted Screenplay for Williams, but went home empty-handed. (The top prize went to the safe-as-kittens epic Around the World in 80 Days.) No one was very surprised. And some were downright giddy. Gossip maven Louella Parsons said that the general feeling of Oscar night was ”obvious relief, including mine, that Baby Doll didn’t win anything.”
Still, Baby Doll’s searing naturalistic performances and steamy provocations hold up much better 50 years later than the other films of 1956. In many ways, it was ahead of its time — perhaps even the first carnal shots fired in a sexual revolution that wouldn’t fully take shape for another decade or more. ”It’s one of the most exciting, daring movies ever made,” says Wallach proudly. Then, after a breath, he adds, ”People see it today and say, ‘What the hell was all the fuss about?”’