Baby Doll (1956)

Baby Doll is a 1956 American film based on a pair of one-act Tennessee Williams plays. It’s a steamy love triangle between a young virginal wife, her husband, and his rival. Although passed by the Production Code, it was condemned as immoral by the US Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, and banned in several areas. Time magazine described it as “possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited” (December 24, 1956).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, presumably a more moderate organization than the League of Decency, rated it L, for “problematic content many adults would find troubling.” It’s not clear when this rating was assigned. (The Catholic News Service still reviews movies for their artistic merit and moral suitability.)

With the exceptions of British Columbia and Alberta, there’s little information available about how Canadian film censors responded to the film. Most list a rating on their websites, but in some cases this appears to be the original rating, while in other cases it appears to be updated. Classification standards have changed over the past 60 years, and older films sometimes get new ratings. None of the online ratings show if the approved version was cut, though it likely was. Even today, most agencies do not indicate if a film has been cut for approval or for a specific age rating (the British Board of Film Classification is a happy exception). Dates of classification are often incorrect for older films.

The current ratings are:

  • Maritimes – Restricted (under 18 requires adult accompaniment) and 14A (under 14 requires adult accompaniment)
  • Quebec – G (all ages)
  • Ontario – Restricted (under 18 requires adult accompaniment)
  • Manitoba – PG
  • Alberta – A (under 16 requires adult accompaniment, a classification no longer used)

Alberta has records showing the cuts that were made. The cuts related to sexual imagery and dialogue, such as the line “Your husband sweats more than any man I know. Now I can understand why.” The print approved, in July of 1957, was publicly identified as cut. Advertising included “This motion picture was reconstructed and edited to meet the requirement of the Alberta Censor Board.” This open approach was very different from the practice in Ontario at the time, where the Chief Censor once wrote: “At all times the Department attempts to avoid censorship which is apparent to the patron, since it would defeat the purpose of censorship.”

British Columbia does not list ratings for older films on its website, but there is some correspondence from the period, which shows that the film was initially approved, then rejected, rejected again, and finally approved.

In January of 1957, the Chief Censor wrote to the distributor, and referred to earlier correspondence:

You will recall that when I granted approval for this picture I insisted upon very conservative advertising that would avoid any reference to the current controversy about it. In this you have most certainly cooperated.
At the same time, I pointed out that should I get a larger number of complaints…I would have to withdraw the approval. Unhappily the situation has developed where I feel I must take that action.

In October of 1957, a revised version of Baby Doll was submitted for approval. From looking at the dates, this may have been the version that had been approved in Alberta in July. (Keep in mind that at this time, there were usually only one or two prints of a film circulating in western Canada, landing in British Columbia after doing a circuit of theaters in Alberta.) The censor noted that the “eliminations that have been made have greatly changed the picture.” However:

If it were not for the enormous publicity which accompanied our decision when we first viewed it; especially here in Vancouver, and the publicity that is bound to recur in mounting intensity should it be shown, I would have been tempted to approve it. People who would now go to see Baby Doll would be seeing a picture which has a tradition of cheap sensationalism behind it. I feel very strongly that it is not in the public interest to show such a picture.

As always, the censor reminded the distributor of their right to appeal, and the film was passed by the Appeal Board in January of 1958.

The reviews were good, and the film was nominated for several American Academy Awards, American Golden Globe Awards, and British Academy Film Awards. Director Elia Kazan won a Golden Globe for best director, and actor Eli Wallach, playing against Karl Malden, won a British Academy Award for “Most Promising Newcomer to Film.” Box office receipts were modest, but the film popularized the existing name ‘baby doll’ for the short nightgown which was worn by Carroll Baker’s character.

In our less innocent age, these once shocking films are no longer disturbing. Wallach noted “People see it today and say, ‘What the hell was all the fuss about?’” The director made a similar comment in his autobiography: “If you were to look at the film now, you’d see a rather amusing comedy and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

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