by Stephen Sachs
When the movie Baby Doll was released in 1956, it was the film’s sexuality that drew all the attention.
Time magazine called it “possibly the dirtiest American picture ever legally exhibited,” and the film was condemned for lewdness by the Legion of Decency.
The week before Christmas, Cardinal Francis Spellman, New York’s rigid archbishop at the time, pronounced from the pulpit. “Dearly beloved in Christ, I have a statement to make. I am anguished to learn of a motion picture that has been responsibly judged to be evil in concept and which is certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it. The revolting theme of this picture, Baby Doll, and the brazen advertising promoting it constitute a contemptuous defiance of the natural law.” Essentially, he admonished, it was a sin for any Catholic to see the film.
Today, mainstream movies depict sexuality in ways that make Baby Doll look quaint. But in 1956, when the red-hot charge of “un-Americanism” was being branded on anyone or any idea deemed remotely threatening, Baby Doll was more than a movie. To many, it was a threat.
For me, the deeper, more insidious threat dramatized in Baby Doll is not about sex. Yes, Baby Doll is sexy and steamy and seductive. Yet more than that, Baby Doll is sadly relevant to the systemic racism and anti-immigration paranoia still seething in our nation today.
It’s easy to now snicker at Spellman’s condemnation that Baby Doll was “immoral” and “evil” in 1956. But that same righteous judgement of sex and morality is echoed in the right-wing ideology of Christian Conservatives today. Throughout sections of our country, views of sex have not changed much since 1956. Neither have opinions on race or immigration. Turn on Fox News and witness the rise of the dangerous, white supremacist, anti-immigrant views of the Alt-Right.
In Baby Doll, Archie Lee is a Southern white male, a middle-aged, cotton gin owner whose business is failing. He is financially drowning, struggling to stay afloat. Archie Lee is a traditionalist, set in Old Southern Ways , baffled and overwhelmed by the shattering realization that what has made his family and his land flourish for generations is now no longer working. His once-stately mansion and plantation is, literally, falling apart around him. Decomposing. He is afraid. And he is angry.
Today, Archie Lee would be a Donald Trump supporter.
Enter Silva Vacarro. The Italian who now runs the cotton gin across the way. Silva Vacarro is an immigrant.
In Tennesee Williams’ early years, there was a significant immigrant population in the Delta—notably Syrians, Chinese, and Italians. Italian farmers first came to America through the port of New Orleans and worked in cotton and sugar cane fields. Many suffered from the same system of discrimination that kept African Americans in poverty long after slavery was abolished. From the south of Italy, Sicilians immigrated to the Delta, settling in towns where they established new businesses of their own, in competition with local farmers. These hardworking people inspired multiple characters in Williams’ plays, including Silva Vacarro in Baby Doll.
To the white male Archie Lee, Silva Vacarro is the immigrant outsider who has come to this country to steal what Archie Lee has worked so hard all his life to preserve. The immigrant is the invader, hellbent to corrupt Archie Lee’s American Dream into a nightmare. The immigrant is the problem. Sound familiar? Listen to the anti-immigrant ranting at any Donald Trump rally. Illegal aliens are vilified as murderers, drug dealers and rapists.
In Baby Doll, the dark immigrant is also a sexual threat. Silva Vacarro targets Archie Lee’s young bride, Baby Doll, who has refused to consummate her marriage to her husband until she turns twenty in two days. This, of course, dramatizes the classic fear of the bigoted white male in America: the dark man stealing his woman. In Baby Doll, the dark man seducing the blonde virgin white girl is every racist white man’s nightmare come true.
But Archie Lee has recourse. He has “friends” who know how to take care of dirty outsiders like Silva.
I! Got position! Yeah, yeah, I got position! Here in this county! Where I was bo’n an’ brought up! I hold a respected position, lifelong! –member of the— Yes sir, on my side‘re friends, longstandin’ bus’ness associates, an’ social! See what I mean? You ain’t got that advantage, have you, mister? Huh, mister? Ain’t you a dago, or something? Excuse me, I mean Eyetalian or something, here in Tiger Tail County?
Archie Lee’s “friends” who know how to take care of people like Silva is an obvious reference to the Klu Klux Klan.
Silva aligns himself with black workers and asserts his right to work and succeed as an immigrant in this country. He’s here to stay. He’s not going anywhere.
I’m a dark man and a Catholic in a county of Protestant blondes —disliked, distrusted, despised. You call me ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ like you call your workers ‘nigger,’ because of a difference in blood. But I came here with a purpose. You can’t freeze me out or burn me out. I’ll do what I came to do.
No one in Baby Doll — not even the well-seeming Silva — is wholly good. Each, in their own way, are manipulative, vindictive, selfish, in some cases mean. But none of are purely evil either. They are complex human characters struggling in a drama of social, sexual, and cultural politics taking place in a specific state in our country in a specific time in our history.
But racism and anti-immigration phobia in this country are timeless. Deeply planted and tilled into the soil of our nation’s history. They are the worms and repellent insects in our national garden that survive in the dark fetid soil under rocks. Always there, hiding in plain sight, just below the surface. Plays like Baby Doll — and the terrifying propaganda of the current election campaign — turn the rock over and expose the distasteful vermin underneath — and, because we are all citizens of this country, remind us that they are ourselves.
When Baby Doll builds to its explosive conclusion, with the defeated Archie Lee hollering in anguish and being carted off to jail, it seems to be Williams’ intent to demonstrate that the era of Archie Lee is, if not over, at least changing. One of the last lines he says to the Sheriff as he is hauled away, is “I’m a white man. You can’t do this to me!”
Today, sixty years later, as the ethnic and cultural complexion of our country’s population continues to evolve into more widespread diversity, I want to hope that our tolerance will evolve with it. We shall see.
I was first eager to produce the west coast premiere of this new stage adaptation of Baby Doll — the first approved by the Williams Estate — because it offered the rare opportunity to present a “new” Tennessee Williams play never seen by our audiences.
I knew it would be sensual and poetic. I was surprised by how timely and relevant it would be.
Stephen Sachs is the co-founding Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.