Released in 1956, with a screenplay billed to Tennessee Williams and a cast composed mainly of stage actors and "some people of Benoit, Mississippi," Baby Doll was intended by Elia Kazan to be his portrait of a particular era of the rural American South, which he admitted was already disappearing by the time that he got there. The story is a romantic triangle. Archie Lee, a no-good lush and the owner of an out-of-work cotton ginning business, has a pretty young wife who he has promised not to "touch" until her 20th birthday, which is only a few days away. The girl—who likes to sleep off humid afternoons in a broken, wrought-iron crib, hence her nickname: Baby Doll—has made Archie Lee the joke of the county. And with the forced closure of his cotton gin due to a farming syndicate takeover, there is nothing left for Archie Lee but an insurmountable list of financial (and sexual) aggravations.
Everywhere there is a feeling of hotness and wetness, of dirtiness and dustiness, of things falling apart, of no space and no room, of no clean sheets, and only Baby Doll seems to have a clean dress. Out of desperation or madness, Archie Lee sets fire to the syndicate's gin, sending the gin's Italian-immigrant owner Silva out on a hunt for the culprit. When Silva pulls up at Archie Lee's rotting plantation house, sure that he's found his man, the story's triangle is complete; one man wants revenge on another, and the object between them is Baby Doll.
In the film's best scene, Silva slides into an old rickety swing with Baby Doll who turns away with the half-hearted prudishness of someone caught between repulsion and desire. With his nose against the back of her neck, he whispers, "You make me think of cotton." The line elicits nothing but an uncomfortable, squirming response, and we are likely to forget it as the film digs even deeper graves for its character's self-pity. Yet, in that one line we can read the entirety of the film's subtext, which amounts to a damning recognition of the absolute poverty of the region, the country, and its inhabitants. The only word the man can think of to describe the soft down on the back of a woman's neck is the commodity he pays black men to harvest and gin to make him his fortune. But whose fault is it?
For whatever else he was, Kazan was not a cynic, and mixed in with all of this despair is a genuine tenderness for this very problem—which you might call History—and the people who bear its weight. If any blame is assigned it is to something called the human condition with all of its flaws and its violent tendencies; whether or not humanity deserves such a concession is one step further than the film is prepared to go.