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Like taking candy from a Baby Doll

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Yesterday, CineVerse delved into a film that was a powderkeg of controversy back in 1956: Baby Doll, directed by Elia Kazan. The movie was rife with pschological subtexts, symbols and themes. Here's a recap of our group discussion:

·       It was condemned by the Legion of Decency, yet also approved by the production code administration (PCA; Hollywood censors).
·       It was given a provocative marketing campaign with a salacious poster and trailer.
·       Usually, women of loose morals and characters who violate moral codes of society have to be punished by the end of the film—the only person punished at the conclusion of Baby Doll is Archie, not his wife.
·       The film somewhat explicitly suggests female desire/arousal and female sexual fulfillment: she says she’s “ticklish,” which is code for sexually aroused; consider how Silva plays footsy on her stomach, suggesting genital stimulation.
·       She and Silva sleep in a crib, insinuating a “robbing of the cradle” and taboo sexuality.
·       A sexually free woman and sensual female would have been deemed a threat to the patriarchal society of the 1950s.
·       Baby Doll represents a new kind of woman for 1950s America and Hollywood movies: a woman who refuses to sexually satisfy her husband and be his cook/maid, and a female who prioritizes her own sexual gratification over her husband’s.
·       The film exposes the double standard prevalent in pre-1960s Hollywood films: when married characters in these films cheated, it usually wasn’t considered a big deal; it was more of a casual fling (consider The Seven-Year Itch). Yet, when a wife cheated, it was a serious offense unless her husband was a murdering psychopath or a scumbag deserving of punishment; in these cases, adultery by the wife can be considered justified.
·       Ultimately, audiences and religious types would have found the following points, quoted from Michele Meek’s outstanding essay on this film (visit,  most controversial about Baby Doll:
·       “What offended audiences was not merely the portrayal of an affair but the depiction of a woman’s sexual arousal.”
·       “Baby Doll challenges its audience with characters who are neither purely good nor blatantly evil. Author and director “were deliberately flouting the time-honored concept of providing compensating moral value to balance the material that was questionable in code terms” (Palmer and Bray 142). Such ambiguity muddies the morality of the story: without knowing who is good or evil, there is no way for the audience to identify if or how “good” wins in the end.”
·       “Williams does not show her ‘falling in love’ in any conventional sense” This lack of “love” not only makes moral restitution in the film’s conclusion impossible but, perhaps more significantly, also presents female sexual desire as independent of love.”
·       “It seems the film’s implicit challenge of the domesticated woman’s role and its explicit portrayal of female sexual desire presented an antiestablishmentarian perspective, and it was this that provoked the greatest fury. Baby Doll was released at an important juncture in American culture. Superficially, marriage and motherhood were considered “the only genuinely valued activities” for women, “every woman’s sole destiny”. A sensual woman was seen a threat to the sanctity of the nuclear family. In Hollywood films, there was no indication that women could simultaneously be sensual, successful and respectable.”
·       “The film’s depiction of the voyeur-husband who must peep on his own wife identifies the audience with the inadequate ogler and, as such, emasculates the gaze of the viewer as well. The subsequent disruption of Archie’s impotent gaping by his female object sets a satiric tone for the film, mocks the audience’s peeking into their lives, and portends the larger theme regarding women’s roles addressed in the film.”

·       Keep in mind that the PCA (film censors) required “poetic justice” by the end of the film for characters who commit immoral acts.
·       Kazan convinced censors, however, that a sexual infidelity never occurs in the film, which carefully covers its tracks and never really shows any sexual activity onscreen. However, what is suggested on- and offscreen makes it fairly clear to audiences that Baby Doll and Silva have sex.

·       We see Silva’s hands run across her body, but the hands fall out of frame before they would presumably reach her legs/private areas.
·       Silva tickles her with his foot, simulating genital foreplay.
·       They retire to her crib for a nap; the nap isn’t shown in full, but she says her “daddy would turn over in his grave”.
·       After they awaken, Silva remarks that she is different, “grown up suddenly,” and she says she feels “cool and rested for the first time in my life.” The implication is that she has been sexually awakened and liberated; she has achieved orgasm and consummated the earlier teasing.

·       It’s not overtly sexually graphic in what we’re actually shown.
·       She’s not even a minor or “jailbait.”
·       Silva is more interested in revenge than sex.
·       We don’t know what’s going to happen “the next day”. Baby Doll’s closing quote is, there’s “nothing to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we’re remembered or forgotten.” In other words, her future is wide open, but now that she is a sexually liberated female, how will she be viewed by men in society? There’s no certainty that she will end up in a relationship with Silva.

·       It stands as a symbol for Baby Doll’s psychological, sexual and physical development. Most of the rooms are empty because she hasn’t been “filled up yet” as a sexually and intellectually satisfied woman.
·       The one room that is filled is her bedroom, with its crib, toys and children’s phonograph, symbolizing her arrested state of development, immaturity, na├»ve nature and relative innocence.
·       The barren, fragile attic could represent her feeble, uneducated mind, which needs to be reinforced/bolstered by knowledge and experience.

·       A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Viva Zapata!
  • On the Waterfront
  • A Face in the Crowd
  • East of Eden
  • Splendor in the Grass
  • Gentleman’s Agreement

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