Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll (1956)
by Andrew Hamilton
SOUTHERN playwright Tennessee Williams, “a descendant of hardy East Tennessee pioneer stock,” is considered, together with Irish American Eugene O’Neill, and Jewish Arthur Miller, to be one of the “three foremost playwrights of 20th-century American drama.”
Of English, Welsh, and French Huguenot descent, he was an alcoholic and homosexual. Wilmot Robertson observed in The Dispossessed Majority that mid-century Broadway was dominated by Jews and homosexuals: “The chief dramatic contribution of the homosexual playwright has been the sensitive heroine in an insensitive society and the bitchy heroine in a depraved society, the former representing how the author feels, the latter how he acts.”
I haven’t actually seen Williams’ plays or movies, with the exception of most of Baby Doll (1956), a film I stopped watching before it finished.
Baby Doll was based on a one-act play by Williams, who also wrote the film’s original screenplay. Blacks exist as furniture, but there isn’t a major subplot involving them. The racism lies in the movie’s utter contempt for Southern Whites.
Karl Malden stars as a bigoted arsonist reminiscent of Abner Snopes in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” (1939).
His wife Baby Doll is played by Carroll Baker, whose reputation was made by this sleazy film. Baker’s husband at the time was a Jewish movie director. The actress converted to Judaism and had her only two children by him.
The husband and wife live — not exactly together — in a decaying mansion. Baby Doll’s senile Aunt Rose is their permanent house guest.
Contrasted with this trash is the “hero,” a Sicilian American outsider who is more intelligent, enterprising, and capable than the natives. Played by Jewish actor Eli Wallach, he steals and then beds his rival’s wife.
The movie was helmed by Greek American director Elia Kazan, who resented Whites of American stock as much as Tennessee Williams did. Born in Turkey when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, Kazan was a member of the Communist Party who clawed his way to the top of the Hollywood heap by making anti-White “message films.”
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was based on a Jewish novel depicting (the proper word is really “defaming”) White Americans in mid-century New York City and adjacent Connecticut suburbs as anti-Semites who discriminated against Jews at every turn! (Talk about relying upon a willing suspension of disbelief!) Unsurprisingly, Kazan’s blatant pandering was rewarded with eight Oscar nominations and three wins, including Best Director for the ambitious immigrant filmmaker.
Pinky (1949), likewise highly acclaimed, was an interracial film about a White man paired with a pretty mulatto female who passes as White. The novel upon which it was based was written by a Mississippi-born White woman; the book made her reputation and fortune.
I wondered what Williams’ motive or psychology was in selecting a Sicilian as a racial outsider superior to his own native Southern stock. (Because that’s how Williams and Kazan depicted the character. Both men saw themselves in, and identified with, the slick, capable newcomer.)
It has been noted, “The importance of Italy on Tennessee Williams’ life and literary aesthetic is unfathomable. And yet, strangely enough, not until now  has that influence ever been discussed to any great length in Williams studies.” (Alessandro Clericuzio, Tennessee Williams and Italy: A Transcultural Perspective, Palgrave Macmillan.)
An Italian gigolo featured in Williams’ novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and the heroine of The Rose Tattoo, set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, was Sicilian American. (“Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo: Sicilian Migration and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2014.)
An underlying sexual element was also present. Williams spent 1948 in Rome with a teenage Italian boy. The longest and most intense homosexual relationship of his life was with a Sicilian American from New Jersey who’d served in WWII.
I didn’t know any of that when I saw the movie, however. Nevertheless, Italians appear to have been sexually desirable to Williams, who viewed them as “not Southerners” (hence good, and superior to his own ethnic group — not uncommon among Nordics).
At any rate, the film drips with anti-White — and anti-Southern — venom. My visceral dislike for it is so intense I would be hard-pressed to explain it.
The movie caused controversy among conservatives and Roman Catholics because of its dissolute sexual themes. Reading approving feminist accounts of the film today shows that these objections were well-founded. Baby Doll was an attack on White American sexual mores, marriage, and the family.
Nevertheless, it was the unconcealed racial contempt that brought me to a slow boil. I can’t imagine that A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also set in the South, are fundamentally any different in that regard. Williams played to his audience, the hostile American elite — and particularly the Jews at its core.
Critics showered Baby Doll with praise. The New York Times applauded its “amusingly picturesque assortment of white-trash protagonists, ranging from moronic to dim-witted, except for a brash, alert ‘foreigner,’ Eli Wallach,” who seduces the Southern businessman’s “bird-brained fluff of a wife, Baby Doll.”
Powerful people nominated the movie for numerous prestigious awards, but White American audiences in 1956 did not embrace it, and it was a box office dud.
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