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|A CurtainUp Review
By Lizzie Loveridge
When Elia Kazan's film Baby Doll was released in 1956 there was an outcry about its immorality. Cardinal Spellman told his congregation at St Patrick's Cathedral, in New York, "I exhort Catholic people from patronizing this film under pain of sin. . .since these degrading and immoral pictures stimulate immorality and crime they must be condemned." Tennessee Williams was surprised at the reaction to the story which he considered funny rather than an incitement to corruption.
The film was a merger of two one act plays from a 1946 anthology, The Unsatisfactory Supper and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Williams wrote a stage version of the screenplay called Tiger Tail but it was always overshadowed by the film, though the current interest in the playwright's less successful plays led to a revival of Tiger Tail in New York (see link). Now we have director Lucy Bailey who has obtained permission to use both the stage and screenplay and given us an imaginative new Baby Doll.. She notes that she found the play over written, over elaborate and over explained and preferred Kazan's simplicity which left more to the imagination. The result as she puts it is Baby Doll by Williams and Kazan."
The story is set in Mississippi in the area where King cotton once ruled. Baby doll, a very pretty blonde girl has been married at eighteen to Archie Lee Meighan, an ageing cotton planter but refuses any physical contact with her husband until her twentieth birthday. Archie Lee has pushed himself to his financial limits. Their house, once grand, is falling apart and their furniture is about to be repossessed. It looks as if financial disaster is theirs until the Syndicate Plantation Cotton Gin, owned by the newcomer, an Italian, Silva Vacarro is burnt down which brings the cotton for ginning to Archie Lee. Silva however has his suspicions as to the arsonist and conducts his own investigation by interviewing Baby Doll.
The play opens very cinematically with our first glimpse through sliding doors into the house. These doors slide up and down and right and left in a black screen. It is as if we are looking into someone's house.
In a wooden crib upstairs, lies Baby Doll, (Charlotte Emmerson) the child bride, sucking her thumb. In another room an old balding man with a fithy vest (singlet) and dirty pyjama bottoms, calls to her. Bunny Christie's set is breathtaking, floor to ceiling of dilapidated wooden planking letting through the light. In the corner cotton is piled high, to the fore theres the silhouette of a hand water pump and to the left, there's an old car now collapsed but formerly splendid. The lighting through the broken slats makes a marvellous pattern of light and shadow. There is the noise of machinery, the gin sorting the cotton, and jazz. It is all affluent but decaying South.
Charlotte Emmerson looks just right as the original dumb blonde, cute but dim enough to make us laugh. Her performance is of a na´ve, childlike girl. When Archie Lee (Paul Brennan) tells her off for wearing provocative clothing she says, My figure has filled out since ma daddy bought ma trousseau. I got two choices, wear ma clothes skin tight or go naked. She almost seems to be laughing at us. Beside's Paul Brennan's seedy Archie Lee and Jonathan Cake's muscular, sexy Silva there is a nice cameo from Georgine Anderson as Baby Doll's eccentric Aunt Rose who haunts the local hospital because of her addiction to chocolate.
The climactic scene when Silva pursues Baby Doll through the house to the attic is erotic and, yes, great fun. His aim is to get her to sign a statement about the arson, but the chase seems to take Baby Doll away from being a child into womanhood. In a final scene all the cast "come out of the woodwork" from under the pile of cotton, everyone laughing as Archie Lee gets his comeuppance. In a play on a very different Southern heroine, Scarlett O'Hara's famous closing speech, Baby Doll says, "We'll have to wait until tomorrow to see if we are remembered or forgotten." I think this production of Baby Doll will be remembered with the smile Tennessee Williams intended.
To read CurtainUp's review of Tiger Tail go here
For a backgrounder on Tennessee Williams life, work, quotations from his plays and links to other CurtainUp reviews go here