Baby Doll (1956): Controversy and Critical Response

Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll offers a fascinating case in film history, since both the film and its advertising strategies were condemned by the Catholic Church. Cardinal Spellman voiced his condemnation from the platform of Saint Patrick’s Church, describing it as “a definite corruptive moral influence” on American society and warning his Catholic constituency to stay away from the film.

Although defended by some Protestant leaders for its “essential morality,” Catholic leaders were quick to point out that Baby Doll offended the moral standards not just of the church, but also of the entire community.

There were also picket lines, threats to boycott movie-theaters that showed it, and even some bomb scares materialized. The conflict over this film between the Legion of Decency and the Motion Picture Association of America is considered to be one of the most vicious battles in history; it was also one of the Legion’s last attempts to exercise censorship on motion pictures.

Baby Doll, more than any other Tennessee Williams-driven movie, demonstrated not only the conservative attitude and the power of the Legion within the movie industry, but also among film critics who one would assume to be more liberal and less biased than church officials.

To think today that the Time critic described Baby Doll as “just possibly the dirtiest Americanmade motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited,” and one that “might well have embarrassed Boccaccio,” is both artistically and intellectually shocking.

And this critic was not alone in the dark. Entitling his review “Streetcar on Tobacco Road,” Bosley Crowther wrote in the N.Y. Times that Williams was “on the level of pure ‘white trash,”‘ and went on to describe the heroine as an “unmistakable victim of arrested development.” Crowther’s critique was so literal-minded that it focused mostly on the content of the story and the characters, instead of the artistic values of the film, which were indeed very high. Defining Baby Doll’s protagonists as “morons,” he also wrote that they were “virtually without character, content, or consequence.”

Reviewing the film in the Herald Tribune, the critic Zinsser also felt that the tale was “too slender,” with “few thin sketches,” and a “hackneyed and theatrical climax,” but at least conceded that it was an “unusually good film,” featuring “magnificent acting.”

There has been contradictory evidence over the issue of whether the controversy damaged or contributed to the financial performance of Baby Doll at the boxoffice. According to Variety, the film received only one fourth of its booking potential. Released in December 1956, the picture became one of the 40 top-ranking films in 1957, grossing in domestic rentals $2.3 dollars.

In the long run, Baby Doll may have been more influential in the area of fashion, reducing nightgowns to the “babydoll brevity” that Carol Baker so provocatively wear for most of the film.