I Feel Bad About Baby Doll
THE PICTURE “Baby Doll” set off one of the most excited public controversies in recent movie history. A national news magazine called it “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture.” Cardinal Spellman, in an unprecedented move, denounced it from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Billy Graham, refusing to see it, said, “I don’t like to see anything to blunt my spiritual life.” Other religious groups added to the uproar, and the headlines were fanned by director Elia Kazan’s sharp defense of his work. The critics, joining in the clamor, battled among themselves as to whether the film was art. A New England theatre chain, having made up its mind, announced that “Baby Doll” would not be permitted on its screens. Southerners were furious at its sordid picture of life in the South, and it was banned in Memphis and Atlanta. On the other hand, many critical voices acclaimed its artistry, in direction and acting and photography.
By the time “Baby Doll” was released generally to the public it was notorious, and the theatres where it was shown did a roaring business. The reaction of the moviegoers was mixed. Some said, “What was all the fuss about?” Others denounced it as “trash.” Those who were excited by its artistic values, and they were many, were as furious in its defense as others were in denunciation, and the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considered Carroll Baker’s portrayal of the Mississippi farm girl called Baby Doll worthy of an Oscar nomination.
“I never expected all that to happen,” Carroll Baker says now. Talking of Baby Doll as though she were a real person, she adds, “I feel very bad about the fuss she caused. I feel that she was a very innocent child, very sweet, very pure. It hurts my feelings when I hear people say she’s a moron.”
Which is very interesting when you consider that Carroll herself is likely to strike people as very much like Baby Doll—as more girl than woman, perhaps, and perhaps even more child than girl. There is a certain innocent sweetness about her, almost a colorlessness, which is evident in the way she sits down, folds her hands and prepares to carry on a conversation. And there is a kind of serenity.
While the commotion over “Baby Doll” was going on, Carroll Baker was going quietly about her daily life with her husband, preparing to have a baby of her own. Baby Doll, too, went on being her own sweet, serene self while angers and passions boiled about her. And three months after Carroll’s baby was born, seated in the sparsely furnished living room of her new apartment in uptown Manhattan, she still gave a distinct impression of similarity between herself and the girl she had portrayed—although it was also clear that she would be the first to deny it.
“I haven’t really been much affected by Baby Doll,” she said, looking fragile and serene. Nor is her claim of detachment unreasonable. Carroll is a product of the Actors Studio, a meeting place for young people who follow the “method” school of acting. They practice an almost complete immersion of self in the role while it is being played and an equally complete detachment afterward. Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, the male principals in “Baby Doll,” also follow the “method.” They believe, and Carroll does too, that they can think about their parts, after they have played them, with some objectivity, as though the roles actually had nothing to do with their own personalities.
Yet there was a significant warmth in the way Carroll spoke about the young girl who was the subject of so much hot discussion. “I don’t think that sex always had the upper hand in Baby Doll’s life, as some people insisted. I didn’t feel that she was a moron, I felt she had native intelligence. And I didn’t feel she was primarily sexual, but that she wanted love and affection, the way any person does. And I felt she was frightened. I really felt very bad when I heard people talking about her—”
On the other hand, to prove her detachment from the character, Carroll described her feelings the first time she walked down Broadway and saw the tremendous block-long sign with her picture on it, above the theatre in which “Baby Doll” was playing. “I didn’t feel at all that it was me,” she said. “My legs looked so big! It was hard to believe that they would put up such a big picture. I couldn’t quite think of it as a picture of me.”
There, too, was similarity to Baby Doll, who, in the film, could not quite believe in herself. Yet today, more than a year and a half after the picture was completed, Carroll feels even more removed from it. She declares that she has not permitted the controversy to impinge upon her personal emotions. “I played that part as well as I could,” she said. “I tried to put what I thought of the girl, her pureness and innocence, into the role.
“If some people interpreted it some other way—well, I just don’t understand how their minds work,” she went on, the intensity of her words strangely contradicting her claim to detachment. “They must have been looking for something to disapprove. After all, there were many, many people who saw nothing whatever wrong with the picture.”
There have been some other irritations, Carroll stated. She finds herself getting furious when well-meaning friends lean over her baby, Blanche Joy, and say, “Hello, Baby Doll.” But she Controls her anger; she is a most self-contained young woman. Also, she gets livid when she hears people say that for weeks and months after she made the picture, she continued to suck her thumb, as Baby Doll did. “I can’t think what idiot could have circulated that report,” she said. “At the screening in New York, during one scene I did put my hand to my face as I was watching the action on the screen. Then, as I did it, I realized that Baby Doll was sucking her thumb—and I quickly pulled my hand away from my own face. I was self-conscious, afraid that people would think I had identified myself with her.”
At the time of the interview Carroll was reading a screen dramatization of a novel which, last autumn, caused almost as much scandalized sensation in its own way as “Baby Doll” did. She picked up the script, glanced at it and let it drop on the coffee table in front of her, grimacing. “It’s a good job of adaptation,” she said, “but I’m not sure I want to do anything so sensational again.” Then she smiled and said, “Besides, Warners have something else for me to do—Diana Barrymore’s ‘Too Much Too Soon’—and I’ll be going out there in a few weeks to do that.” Her present contract with Warners, she explained, calls for one picture a year. It also gives her the right to do one for an outside studio—she will make “The Devil’s Disciple” for United Artists this summer—and to do as much stage and television work as she has time for and wishes. Since “Baby Doll”—in fact, since before her appearance in a small part in “Giant”—she has been beleagured by offers of roles. She is what in Hollywood is called “a hot property,” perhaps the hottest young female star in the business.
She enjoys this situation, naturally. But again, she keeps herself a bit detached from it. She appears to be more interested in her husband, director Jack Garfein, whose first film was “The Strange One,” and her baby, unquestionably a tiny Carroll Baker in looks, as well as her home, a modest five-room apartment in a new building on upper York Avenue in Manhattan.
The apartment is simply and inexpensively furnished. Most Hollywood stars of Carroll Baker’s stature would throw up their hands at sight of it. The living room, which includes a dining area at one end, is furnished with a studio couch, a couple of occasional chairs, an old-fashioned rocking chair (in which she rocks the baby), a dining table and chairs, and a television set flanked by a number of philodendrons and other large house plants. There is a coffee table in front of the couch and there are a few prints of paintings on the walls. The carpeting is a black-and-white fabric.
“We’ve been collecting things little by little,” Carroll said, “trying to buy only things we really love. It’s a little bare, right now, but we’re getting there.” The place looks like hundreds of thousands of others occupied by young couples living on modest incomes.
That is just what the young Garfeins are. Neither has yet really begun to cash in, in a big way. During this past theatrical season, Jack directed Shelley Winters on Broadway in the N. Richard Nash play, “Girls of Summer,” but it closed after a few weeks. Carroll was well paid for her work in “Giant” and “Baby Doll,” but her price per picture has not yet begun to approach that of a major star. Today the two are comfortable, but they are by no means rich. The baby has a full-time nurse who lives in. “She might as well get used to a nurse,” said Carroll, ‘‘because there probably will be times in the future when my work will keep me away from her a good deal of the time.” There is also a cleaning woman who comes in to do heavy work a couple of times a week. For the most part, Carroll does the housework herself—the cleaning and dusting, all the cooking, and the dishwashing after meals.
Her daily routine neatly combines her three careers. She manages to be housewife, mother and actress simultaneously. She gets up around ten each morning, goes directly to the nursery to spend a few minutes with the baby, makes breakfast for herself and Jack, then reads the newspapers. Shortly after the baby was born, she was getting up on schedule to nurse her. “But then,” she said, “I got an infection and had to stop. I cried for days when I had to give it up.”
After getting Jack off to his work and doing the breakfast dishes Carroll plays with the baby a little more. Presently a secretary comes in to help her answer mail. “The mail has been so terrific I could never answer it all by myself,” she said. “I’ve heard from all kinds of people who apparently read things into the movie. Actually, people didn’t seem to realize that nothing obscene was intended. In the scene that was most criticized, it was meant to be a lyrical scene, a matter of spiritual growth and discovery on the part of Baby Doll. Yet I’ve had letters that indicate that people didn’t understand that at all. Some girls from a parochial school wrote to me the other day and said they felt they didn’t want me to act in parts like that. On the other hand, I’ve had hundreds of letters of praise from foreign countries. There, those in positions of authority in such matters aren’t nearly as severely censorious. People can go to see a film and make up their own minds. And most of them seem to have grasped the real point of the picture—the lost, hopeless life those people down in that Southern town have.
“But the best part of the mail,” Carroll continued, “was that I had letters from all sorts of people I knew years ago—teachers, old friends, kids I went to school with in Pennsylvania and Florida, names I’d long since forgotten. It’s wonderful to know that people remember you, and I try to answer every letter.”
I asked Carroll how much of her mail seemed to favor “Baby Doll” and how much was against it. “I thought I would get many protesting letters, at first,” she said, “because of what I read that some people were saying. But only about ten percent of my personal mail has criticized me or condemned the movie.”
Two mornings each week, Carroll goes across town to work with a group in the Actors Studio. This is typical of her conscientiousness. Far from feeling that she is a finished, experienced actress, she insists that she still has much to learn. And she believes that the best way to learn is by acting with others and by observing her colleagues going through exercises of their own. Lee Strasberg, the guiding genius behind the Studio, describes Carroll as “a sensitive, remarkable talent.” Elia Kazan, another Actors Studio stalwart, has said that she is “a wonderful young actress with a vast potential.”
Carroll spends most of her afternoons reading Scripts, both those that have been sent for her scrutiny and those submitted as possibilities for Jack to direct. Recently, Jack was out of town for the tryouts of his second play of the season, “The Sin of Pat Muldoon,” starring the veteran James Barton, and was keeping irregular hours. The play had opened to good notices in New Haven and Boston. “Jack?” Carroll laughed when asked about him. “Who’s he?”
When Jack is in town, she is the model of the devoted wife. She waits up for him every night, no matter how late his hours may be, and has a hot dinner ready when he gets home. By the time they finish dinner it usually is very late, but they stay up another hour or two, watching old movies on TV or talking, which accounts for her late rising at ten in the morning.
“It certainly isn’t a glamourous life,” Carroll says, but there is no regret in her voice. Rather, there is the strong suggestion that she prefers it that way. The two of them never go to night clubs, and when they have a free evening, they prefer to spend it with close friends. They like Eva Marie Saint and her husband, director Jeffrey Hayden; designer Peter Larkin and his wife, Mary Ann; playwright Arnold Schulman and his wife, actress Jean Alexander; and what Carroll calls “a whole lot of wonderful doctors and dentists.”
“We’ve been trying to cultivate friends outside the theatre,” she said. “We feel it’s better for children if their parents know a variety of people . . . and we plan to have several children. Half of our opening night seats, now, go to our doctor-dentist friends. We just seem to get along with people whose work is very different from ours.”
The more I sat watching her, the more I was impressed by how completely she has managed to keep her personal life separate from her professional one. She appears glad to be privileged to work in jobs that she likes—but she also appears to feel that it is only right that she should, since she held out for so long. She could have been a success much sooner, but she refused to do anything she believed was not right for her. Her story is an unusual study in human integrity.
When this is in print, Carroll will have just turned twenty-six. She was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, previously celebrated only for its flood, on May 28, 1931. Her full name is Mary Carroll Olive Baker. Her father, William Baker, was first a salesman and then later became a farmer near Carpentertown, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Virginia, also worked as a secretary and bookkeeper. When Carroll was born the family was not too well off, but later when William Baker began farming, he discovered a vein of coal on his land and became more prosperous. However, he was never able to keep his family in more than fairly comfortable circumstances.
“I took my first dancing lesson when I was seven,” Carroll told me. “In small towns you either take piano lessons or singing lessons or go to dancing class. Those classes are big social things for the mothers. They help the mothers get out of the house and get together with each other for an hour or so while the kids are in class. But even though I started early, I never learned as much ballet as I wanted to. They didn’t offer toe-dancing in that little dancing school. There was a time when I wanted to be a ballerina, but I gave that up in junior high.”
Carroll attended rural schools and finally matriculated at Greensburg, Pennsylvania, High School. She was only an average student, she said, but she was far above average in extra-curricular activities. “My parents were separated the first year I was in high school,” she said, “and the effect it had on me was to make me more interested in things outside the home. It wasn’t exactly a shock to me. I’d known that my parents might separate some time. But it made me devote more energy to outside interests. I was a drum majorette for three years, and in my senior year I led the school band. Then I was secretary for this and that club, and queen of this and that.” It never occurred to her in those days, she said, that she might some day be a movie star, but she did decide that she would be a dancer if she got the chance.
In 1949, after Carroll graduated from high school, her mother decided to move to Florida. Carroll’s younger sister, Virginia, was not in good health, and Mrs. Baker believed that the Florida climate would be better for her. “I had thought I might go to drama school at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh,” Carroll says, “but neither of my parents had money enough to send me there. So I thought I would go along to Florida with my mother and sister.” It was a lucky move. Mrs. Baker had chosen St. Petersburg, and soon after arriving Carroll went to study with a dancing teacher. That led her to various jobs tap-dancing at conventions, banquets and parties in and around the St. Petersburg area, and before long she was earning a living from her dancing.
After a year she was beginning to think of herself as a professional, and ready to strike out on her own. “I worked nearly every night and finally saved enough to go to New York. My teacher encouraged me, and up I came.”
Carroll landed a job in the chorus of a night club, where she drew the attention of a wealthy furrier named Lou Ritter, who fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. She accepted, and for the next eight months she did nothing all day except wander about her nine-room Park Avenue apartment and shop for expensive clothes. In the evening she and her husband would go night-clubbing. It was too much for Carroll and she sued for divorce.
Carroll moved into a basement room the cheapest she could find, in Elmhurst, Long Island. Then began a long period in which she made the rounds of every TV studio and stage casting director’s office in New York. “I worked on the theory that if you show up often enough they’ll begin to remember you,” she said One stroke of luck took her out to Hollywood for a few months, where she did a bit part in an Esther Williams picture “Easy to Love.” Then she came back to New York. Presently she got some jobs in television commercials, and after months she finally landed a “regular” job on one of the local stations, giving the nightly weather report.
The following season she got her first Broadway break, a walk-on role in a Broadway show called “Escapade.” Across the Street, “End as a Man,” directed by Jack Garfein, was enjoying a long run, having been brought up from an off-Broadway theatre. The fates already were beginning to work. The actors in “Escapade,” mostly English, talked a good deal about the Actors Studio, usually in disparaging terms. And Garfein, who was going every evening to performances of his own show, became curious about the show opposite On its closing night he stopped in to see it. Later, after he and Carroll began going around together, he described her performance minutely, thereby astonishing her. “He remembered how bad I was,’ Carroll said recently.
“Oh, you made a few faces,” Jack said “I got the impression you were trying to build up your part.”
“Oh, shut up,” Carroll said.
The two did not actually meet until nearly a year later. The talk about the Studio had intrigued Carroll, and she resolved to attempt to get into the group She tried out once, and was turned down, But during her audition Garfein, who was on the Studio board, heard her, waited for her afterward, and asked her out to dinner. This, as it turned out, was a bad move. Although they dined in an inexpensive Greenwich Village place, Garfein did not have cash enough to pay. He finally settled by writing a five-dollar check, and Carroll handed over her share.
From then on they were inseparable. Carroll eventually was accepted at the Studio, and the two of them took flats in the same block on West 85th Street. “We kind of ate that year,” Jack says. Carroll was working occasionally in television, but Garfein was not doing much of anything. The two of them were going to classes at the Studio and hoping for the breaks they were certain would come eventually. Each was offered several scripts to work on and in, and each firmly turned down everything that was not exactly what he had in mind. Once Jack was called in by CBS and offered a 42-week contract at $500 a week. He refused it because he did not feel it would be artistically satisfying. Downstairs in the CBS lobby, he used his last dime to call Carroll and ask her to come and get him with subway fare enough to go home.
In the early spring of 1955 they finally decided to get married. They broke the news to Lee Strasberg, who immediately insisted that the wedding be held at his house. They were married on April 3. Previously, Carroll had begun to make a name for herself in television. She had been offered the starring role in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the part that first brought Natalie Wood into prominence as a young actress, but she had turned that down. Then, soon after her marriage, she was given the opportunity to do a small part in “Giant.” She accepted because it meant working with George Stevens, the director, whom she and Jack both admire. Three weeks after the two were man and wife, Carroll was on a plane for Hollywood. Her performance won unanimous acclaim, except from Garfein’s relatives.
“They read in the papers that Carroll was going to Hollywood,” Jack recalls, “and a group of them called me out to their house. They were very solemn. They said, ‘Don’t worry,’ and they said, ‘We understand.’ It finally dawned on me that they thought Carroll had left me. I straightened them out.”
In New York, Carroll was known around the Actors Studio as Jack Garfein’s wife. And one day Elia Kazan said to Garfein, “Say, is your wife a good actress?”
“What am I going to say to that?” Jack said. “Of course she is.”
Actually, Kazan had seen Carroll in “All Summer Long,” a short-lived play she had done between television engagements. That brief glimpse had been enough to impress him with her talent, and he had resolved to use her at the first possible chance. When he decided to make “Baby Doll,” he did not even audition her. He simply asked her to come and see him.
Carroll, although eager to work at her best for Kazan, felt no trepidations about taking on the part. “She was a young girl, and I felt that I understood her,” she said. In order to make sure she would be fully prepared, she went to Benoit, Mississippi, where the picture was photographed, to acquaint herself with the residents. By the time the cameramen and crew arrived, she was thoroughly prepared. “But don’t forget,” she told me, “I’d lived in the South before. I already had done some work on a Southern accent, just by listening to the people I knew in Florida.”
The picture was shot in three months, plus a dismal week and a half in a New York studio. By the time it was m the can, all concerned knew they had done something outstanding. But no one expected that it would cause the sensation it did.
Today, Carroll and Jack both feel that the long period of poverty, uncertainty, and unfulfilled ambition was more than worth it. “Of course I would go through it again,” Carroll said that day I interviewed her. “It wasn’t so bad. And besides, I had my husband.”
I asked her about her future plans. “Why,” she said, “to go on living here, to work every once in a while in a movie, and—I hope—to do a play next season in New York, if the right script comes along.” She gave a little sigh. “Who could want more out of life?”
DON’T MISS: Carroll Baker in Warner Brothers’ “Too Much, Too Soon.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JUNE 1957