Though Elia Kazan had considerable success as a director, especially with Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” that didn’t give the two much leeway with the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, which denounced their collaboration on “Baby Doll” on the film’s 1956 release. Some reviewers called it a dirty movie, and it was banned in Sweden and other countries.
The title became the name for the fashion of baby doll dresses and nightgowns the film inspired. The namesake character, though she’s about to turn 20 years old in the film, wears clothes that make her seem childlike. She sleeps in a crib (famously captured in the movie poster), partially because her much-older husband Archie’s cotton ginning business has nearly collapsed and they’ve lost their furniture.
Their neighbor Silva Vicarro’s new cotton ginning operation had scooped up the local business, but his gin burned down the night before the play’s action begins. He’s brought the cotton to his main competitor and neighbor Archie Meighan to gin and meets the ingenue, Baby Doll.
“My little girl, every precious ounce of her, is mine, all mine,” Archie tells Silva, before he leaves them alone.
Intrigued by the young woman, who has not consummated her two-year marriage to Archie, Silva hopes to enlist her to get Archie to divulge whether he set the fire. They sit on a porch swing to talk.
The porch swing encounter may have been what upset the Catholic Church, says Maxwell Williams, who is directing the show that opens Friday at Le Petit Theatre. Kazan shot the scene with just closeups of Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach’s faces. What was happening out of view was the question, Williams says.
The film also starred Karl Malden as Archie, and despite its star power and perverse and possessive relationships, it didn’t inspire many stage productions. There have been several versions of Williams’ story, and this treatment by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann is a dark comedy. The plot comes from Williams’ one-act play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” which Kazan and Williams expanded into “Baby Doll.” In the 1970s, Williams wrote another version called “Tiger Tail.” Laville created a French version, and he and Mann reworked that and drew from earlier versions to create this work. This is its local premiere.
This “Baby Doll” is more compact than most of Williams’ plays, trimming all but the core characters. Archie is played by Paul Whitty, who starred as Mitch in “Streetcar” at Le Petit last year. Baby Doll is played by Maggie Windler, a veteran of local musicals who just appeared in Le Petit’s comedy “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Todd D’Amour (“The Lily’s Revenge,” “Venus in Fur”) plays Silva, who tries to seduce Baby Doll as a form of revenge. Janet Shea, who recently starred as Flora Goforth in Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” plays Aunt Rose Comfort, who lives with the Meighans and takes care of the household.
While the script preserves Williams’ obsessions with youth and beauty and tortured relationships, it also is full of irony. Archie extols the virtues of being a good neighbor, even as he profits from Silva’s loss: “It’s only when you have bad luck like yours, Mr. Silva, that you find out who your friends are.”