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[NOTE:  I was going through some of the papers I wrote for classes this past semester and thought I’d post a few of the ones that focus on various art forms. This was my final research paper for my honors class on Banned Media.  I have no copyright, but stealing isn’t cool and you’ll probably get busted anyway, so don’t do it.  Feel free, however, to use the works cited for inspiration.]

The 1950s saw the Production Code Administration’s firm grip on Hollywood loosening.  Studios had to compete with television for viewer’s attention, and oftentimes found that they could fill theater seats by pushing the envelope, in terms of subject matter.  They were less willing to comply with the Code if it meant taking a loss at the box office.  Director Elia Kazan knew this, and relied on edgy material to draw in an audience.  It had worked with his adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and he employed the tactic yet again with another Williams adaptation, Baby Doll.  This time around, however, his film became the target of the Catholic Church’s ire, and a pawn in the Production Code Administration’s struggle for power and relevancy.  The objections to Baby Doll were certainly based on morality – so much so that it became a matter of eternal damnation for Catholics to see it – but it truly became something of a landmark of censorship history when it got tied up in the politics of Hollywood.

Based on a one-act play by Williams, entitled 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (Palmer par. 4), Baby Doll focused on the marriage of a middle-aged cotton gin owner, Archie Lee (played by Karl Malden), to 19-year old Baby Doll (played by Caroll Baker).  Baby Doll agreed to the marriage at the behest of her now deceased father, and with Archie’s promise that he would wait until her 20th birthday to consummate their union.  The film takes place during the two days leading up to her 20th birthday, and both Baby Doll and Archie are considerably aware of the occasion.  The first half of the film establishes their dysfunctional relationship and climaxes when Archie, in a fit of anger at his failing business and sexual frustration, burns down a neighboring cotton gin that had been putting him out of business, along with every other cotton gin owner in their county.  The next day, the owner of that cotton gin, a Sicilian immigrant named Silva Vacarro (played by Eli Wallach) comes to their house, distracts Archie with business propositions, and promptly seduces Baby Doll, who lets it leak that Archie was the one who burnt down his cotton gin.

When Kazan first toyed with the idea of making Baby Doll, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was still being run by its first director, Joe Breen.  No studio could seriously expect their film to be featured in prominent cinemas across America unless it passed the Code’s standards.  Technically, then, Breen controlled which films would be seen by Americans, and what content would have to be cut before approval could be given to said films.  Interestingly enough, just prior to becoming the director of the PCA, Breen, along with Martin Quigley, publisher of The Motion Picture Herald and co-author of the original Code, formed the Legion of Decency (Brook 349).  The Legion of Decency was a Catholic review board with its own ratings system for films (Walsh 99-100).  Because of Breen’s strong Catholic affiliations, the PCA and the Legion of Decency worked almost hand-in-hand in objecting to “questionable” content in films. Read the rest of this entry »


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