The High & the Low

Hollywood on the Delta

A true tale of a racy movie, a small Mississippi town, and a big house

Illustration: Michael Witte

Last fall at the second annual Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, Mississippi, there was a kickoff party for the visiting writers and chefs at what we locals refer to as the Baby Doll House. The party, designed and catered by my friends Amanda and Carl Cottingham, was stunning, as was the setting. Guests arrived just as the sinking sun had turned the sky a gorgeous fuchsia and an enormous harvest moon was on the rise. The house, a majestic three-story Greek Revival, appeared like an apparition in the middle of hundreds of acres of cotton and soybeans. Eden Brent dazzled with her trademark rollicking blues piano from the front porch, and two bars flanked the entrance.

It was a really, really good party, but for a lot of the guests who made the trek to Benoit, the tiny Mississippi Delta town along the river where the house is located, the history of the place was as alluring as the shindig. Completed in 1861 by Judge J. C. Burrus, the home was spared destruction by the Yankees thanks to the fact that the commander of the Union troops in the area had befriended the judge while at the University of Virginia. During the war, it became a makeshift hospital for hundreds of Confederate troops; after Lee’s surrender, General Jubal Early hid out there before being secretly transported across the Mississippi by his host.

Most tantalizing, though, was the fact that it served as the location for the 1956 film Baby Doll, a mashup of two Tennessee Williams one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and The Long Stay Cut Short, that starred Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in his very first film role. The movie was billed as “Elia Kazan’s production of Tennessee Williams’ boldest story,” with the “boldest” part driven home by its poster, featuring the twenty-five-year-old Baker (in the title role) wearing what is now universally known as a “baby doll” nightgown, curled up in a crib, and rather provocatively sucking her thumb.

Since Benoit is only twenty miles from my hometown of Greenville, I’d heard the stories all my life. The cast and crew had camped out for months on end at the Greenville Hotel downtown and dined out almost nightly at Doe’s Eat Place. Malden, who played Archie Lee Meighan, Baby Doll’s frustrated husband, went deer hunting with my best friend’s grandfather Jesse Brent, while Eades Hogue, the uncle of another close friend, was cast in the role of town marshal. My father, a habitué of a “tonk” called Mink’s, frequently spotted Williams among the crowd there, and on a particularly frigid day, he and a friend slipped onto the set to watch Malden jump out of the house with a gun in pursuit of his nemesis, Wallach. “It was cold as hell and he had to do it five or six times in a row. I said, ‘Man, this movie stuff is tough.’” (Though the story was set in summer, the movie was filmed during a cold snap so brutal that the actors had to suck on ice cubes to keep their breath from showing.)

Kazan and his wife stayed at the house of Hodding Carter II, the editor of the local Delta Democrat-Times who’d won a Pulitzer ten years earlier for editorials championing racial tolerance. After a raucous Thanksgiving feast at the Carters’ home, their teenage son Philip was enlisted to drive Baker back to the hotel. “She was trying to draw me out and asked me what kind of car I’d like to have one day,” he remembers. “I was so tongue-tied, I finally spluttered ‘a Buick.’ It was the most uncool reaction I could’ve had.”

Philip’s nephew Hodding Carter IV was one of the featured authors at the tamale party, and we both realized that while we’d heard all the lore surrounding the movie, we’d never actually watched it. So I did. And man, no wonder people persist in thinking of us Delta folk as decadent. When the film came out, Time described it as “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.” Francis Cardinal Spellman pronounced it “evil in concept” and “certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence upon those who see it.”

For those who have not been so corrupted, allow me to recap: The witless, down-on-his-luck Archie Lee marries the seventeen-year-old Baby Doll but promises her dying father he won’t consummate the marriage—or indeed, lay a hand on her—until her twentieth birthday. As the big day approaches, a rival owner of a more modern cotton gin, the Sicilian Silva Vacarro (Wallach), has usurped all of Archie’s business, the Ideal Pay As You Go Plan Furniture Company arrives to repossess all five sets of furniture in the house, and Baby Doll threatens to leave (one of the stipulations of the marriage agreement is that the house be fully furnished). Archie Lee retaliates by burning down Vacarro’s gin, and Vacarro proceeds to try to seduce Baby Doll—not for sex necessarily, but so that she’ll sign an affidavit confirming Archie Lee’s guilt.

You sort of have to see it to figure out what got the good cardinal so bent out of shape. The movie opens with a hot and bothered Malden watching Baker through a hole in the wall of the adjoining room. Wallach, who says Baby Doll is his favorite of all his films, spends more time in the crib than Baker. Baby Doll drinks Cokes for breakfast and all but makes love to an ice cream cone as poor Archie Lee laments, “There’s no torture on earth to equal the torture which a cold woman inflicts on a man.”

Despite its outrageous components, the movie is actually not campy at all, but pretty great, and all manner of really smart people are obsessed with it. Not long ago, I interviewed John Mellencamp, rocker, painter, occasional actor, and, as it happens, avid old-movie buff, about something else entirely, but before the conversation was over, we’d somehow gotten onto the film. Impressively, Mellencamp can quote whole chunks of dialogue, including one in which Vacarro comforts Baby Doll about the fact that she never made it past fourth grade: “I don’t think you need to worry about your failure at long division. I mean, after all, you got through short division, and short division is all that a lady ought to be called on to cope with.”

Clearly, Time and Cardinal Spellman did not have much of a sense of humor, but neither did countless others, including the Legion of Decency, which denounced the film with a C rating (for condemned). One of the critics who managed to suss out its more “sardonic” qualities was the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther, who declared that given the nature of the folks involved they’d be “unendurable” shaped by a less talented pen. “Williams has written his trashy, vicious people so that they are clinically interesting. And Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Mildred Dunnock and Eli Wallach have acted them, under Mr. Kazan’s superb direction, so that they nigh corrode the screen.” But it’s the house that comes off best: “Mr. Kazan’s pictorial compositions, got in stark black-and-white and framed for the most part against the background of an old Mississippi mansion, are by far the most artful, and respectable, feature of ‘Baby Doll.’”

My father, whose memory is usually infallible, insists that Kazan returned to Greenville a year later with his daughter to have her presented at the Delta Debutante Ball. None of the ladies on the Society’s current board can find evidence confirming that rather unlikely turn of events, but in a weird way, it would have been fitting. After all, the debs, done up in all those big white dresses covered with loads of embroidery and lace, look a lot like dolls, and are meant to be as virginal as Baker. Also, for years, my parents and our friends the McGees referred to the annual presentation as the Baby Tot Ball, a moniker inspired by the McGees’ babysitter Mary Bell, who kept Anne and Elizabeth McGee and me when the grown-ups attended the annual event and who misheard the real name as they went out the door. Everyone decided Mary Bell’s version was far more fitting, and my father subsequently immortalized it as a verb, as in we’re going “babytotting.”

It turns out that Williams, who spent a lot of time in New Orleans, could have been inspired by a whole group of grown women there who dressed as baby dolls. In 1912, like the rest of the city, the red-light district was divided along racial lines and there was a rivalry between the two groups of prostitutes. When the black women heard that their white counterparts were going to mask and parade during Mardi Gras, they decided to outdo them, according to Kim Vaz, a dean at Louisiana’s Xavier University who has written a book on the subject. “They said, ‘Let’s just be baby dolls because that’s what the men call us,’” Vaz recounts, adding that their outfits consisted of short satin skirts with bloomers.

I’m happy to report that things in the world of baby dolls have come full circle. A few years ago, a New Orleans choreographer resurrected the Baby Doll maskers, and now they march in the Zulu parade. And the Baby Doll House, which sat fallow for decades and lost its facade in a 2001 tornado, was beautifully restored two years ago by the heirs of Judge Burrus, including my friend Eustace Winn, who rents it out for parties like the one during the tamale fest. Perhaps someone will throw an appropriate fete during the coming season for one of the Delta’s lovely debs, aka Baby Tots. It’s just too bad that Baker’s crib is long gone from the premises.