Elia Kazan was not known for his drolleries, although his sometime collaborator Tennessee Williams had a taste for the absurd. Together, these two giants of the post–World War II stage (and screen) concocted an outrageous comedy about a Mississippi Delta child bride (Carroll Baker) who refuses to allow her glad-hander, cotton-gin proprietor husband (Karl Malden) to touch her, and then gets herself seduced (maybe) by his hated, ultra-ethnic rival (Eli Wallach).
Released in the Year of Our Elvis 1956, this mad Actors Studio farce—complete with one of Hollywood’s first rock-and-roll scores (mainly Smiley Lewis chanting “Shame, Shame, Shame”)—was publicized with one of the largest posters in the history of Times Square: the unforgettable icon of a nightie-clad Baker curled up in a rumpled crib, sucking . . . her thumb. Baby Doll was instantly condemned by the Legion of Decency. Two days before it opened, New York’s Catholic Archbishop, Francis Cardinal Spellman, made his first pulpit appearance in the seven years since excoriating the Hungarian Communists who jailed Cardinal Mindszenty, informing his flock that seeing Baby Doll was in itself a sin: The movie was “evil in concept . . . certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it”—not to mention the entire nation. (Joseph Kennedy refused to have it shown in his theater chain.)
You can corrupt yourself Monday night, December 22, at the Film Forum. Ms. Baker and Mr. Wallach will be on hand for a post-screening conversation.
The waning year has been a banner one for the great film artist Ken Jacobs: His latest feature, Razzle Dazzle, enjoyed a successful run at Anthology Film Archives in June; he won accolades for his acting, playing himself in his son Azazel Jacobs’s well-received movie, Momma’s Man; he was given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art; and, having recently turned 75, he’s back at Anthology this Friday and Saturday (December 19 and 20) for a victory lap. The program juxtaposes his early, newly preserved vehicles for madcap performer Jack Smith (including a costumed Smith scampering through 1961 Provincetown and the premiere of a 35mm blow-up of the 1963 underground classic Blonde Cobra) with two recent video works—Pushcarts of Eternity Street and The Scenic Route—both predicated on Jacobs’s patented kinetic rejiggering of the two-dimensional film plane, and madcap in a wholly different way.
The season’s designated CinePhile stocking stuffer is Icarus Films’ recent release pairing two long-unavailable films: Alexander Medvedkin’s 1934 silent comedy, Happiness, and Chris Marker’s 1993 doc, The Last Bolshevik, a fascinating portrait of then-octogenarian Medvedkin. The New York Times recently declared that the “great period in Soviet filmmaking” was “effectively over” by 1927, when Trotsky was purged from the Central Committee. Not so. The great period actually peaked around 1929 to 1930, and Soviet Cinema remained vital into the ’30s—witness Medvedkin’s sly, innovative magic-realist account of (ulp!) agricultural collectivization, hailed as a “new model Chaplin” and later attacked for Bukharinist tendencies.