|Baker as Jean Harlow in the 1965 film Harlow:|
The film pretty much ended her career in Hollywood.
Before her career went the route of sex, cheesecake, and Playboy photo shoots, playing Jean Harlow wannabes in movies like The Carpetbaggers and a version of the real Harlow in the 1965 film of the same name, Carroll Baker was a talented actress. A product of New York's Actor's Studio, Baker's film debut came in an Esther Williams movie called Easy to Love in 1953. 1956 was Baker's breakout year with two films both regarded as classics: George Stevens' sprawling rendering of Edna Ferber's epic novel of Texas oil and cattle, Giant, and Elia Kazan's take on Tennessee Williams' seamy, steamy Baby Doll, with Ms. Baker in the title role as Karl Malden's child bride.
|Amazing billboard at New York City's Astor Theater|
Giant was one of 1956's most anticipated movies after the recent death of its star, James Dean. Giant is a huge film, sprawling and not quite certain of whether it wants to be a love story or a social drama about class distinction and racial equality. Baker plays Luz Benedict II, the oldest daughter of Bick and Leslie Benedict as played by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor (her brother is played by future biker and wild man, Dennis Hopper. Some family!). Baker's Luz falls hard for Dean's Jett Rink, an all-around scoundrel, whose real love for Taylor's Leslie is unrequited. A scene between Baker and Dean--a favorite of mine--takes place in his new hotel shortly before its grand opening. Dean's Jett--by now an alcoholic mess--proposes marriage, which Baker's Luz gently talks him out of.
Carroll Baker's other film that year--the one that sealed her cinematic fate--was Kazan's Baby Doll. Based on Tennessee Williams' play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Baby Doll was condemned upon release by the Catholic Church. The film is a comically absurd yet extremely suggestive study of misogyny and greed. From scene one, Baker nearly dominates the screen as Baby Doll, more than keeping pace with the masterful work of her co-stars, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden. Malden--always good--brings the ignorance and lust of Baby Doll's husband, Archie, front and center.
|Carroll Baker in the nightie that gave birth to the term "Baby Doll."|
Carroll Baker does an terrific job as the flirtatious yet virginal Baby Doll. Whether parading around in her short,"babydoll" nightgown or eating an ice cream cone in the back seat of a convertible, Baby Doll appears aware of her sexuality, yet maintains an innocence as she remains ignorant of the lust she generates in the entire male population of her Mississippi town. The eroticism of Baker's scenes with Archie's rival, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), is intense even sixty-plus years removed. It's a wonder the film got made at all. Baby Doll was the scandalous movie of its day, though still classy enough to gain four Oscar nominations: Carroll Baker for Best Actress, Mildred Dunnock for Best Supporting Actress (as Aunt Rose Comfort), Tennessee Williams for Best Screenplay, and Boris Kaufman for his magnificent cinematography.
Under contract to Warner Bros., after Baby Doll Baker declined the part of Diana Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon and went on suspension, missing out on MGM's version of The Brothers Karamazov. The Warner's contract also prevented Baker from making MGM's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Three Faces of Eve at Fox. Clearly her contract was holding her back.
When the suspension was lifted Baker made The Big Country. Directed by William Wyler, this 1958 western is often overlooked when great films of that genre are discussed, but the film is a good one and a big one. Starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning role, it did well at the box office. Baker is good as Patricia Terrill, a woman completely different from Baby Doll.
Owing Warner's one more film on her contract, after The Big Country, Baker played in The Miracle. Then she moved across town to Paramount for a comedy with the "King," Clark Gable, But Not For Me, an enjoyable film, after which she found herself in a film as controversial as Baby Doll.
1961's Something Wild was directed by Baker's then-husband, Jack Garfein. Financed by Baker and Garfein, Something Wild was meant to prove to Hollywood that Garfein was a top flight filmmaker and get Baker's career as a serious actress back on the track. Unfortunately, it nearly ruined it.
Something Wild tells the story of Mary Ann (Baker), a college student who is brutally raped one night while walking home from school, and the effect the rape has on her psyche. Traumatized, a suicidal Mary Ann is stopped from jumping off a bridge by Mike (Ralph Meeker), a lonely auto mechanic. Sympathetic, he takes her back to his small apartment, tells her to stay until she feels ready to go home, and leaves. He comes back several hours later, drunk, and makes stumbling advances, grabbing her. Fighting back she kicks him and hits him in the face, but he will not let her leave. Mike asks her to marry him, but she refuses. Though Mary Ann manages to escape one day when Mike leaves the door unlocked, after wandering the city and sleeping in Central Park, she returns to Mike.
|Baker as a rape victim in the independently made Something Wild, 1961|
The film got mixed notices from critics and a cold shoulder from filmgoers. Something Wild was ignored for years before a small cult surged around the film, started by bloggers like me. Seen today the film plays ambiguously. Its tone is mysterious, and its subject is disturbing even by today's standards. Its technical work anticipates the ground-breaking work to come later in the Sixties and into the Seventies with much location work in New York City. But the film's failure pushed Baker back to Hollywood with its mega-watt stars and big budget features.
|Baker, Debbie Reynolds, Karl Malden, and Agnes Moorhead|
in the epic How The West Was Won, 1962
First up was 1962's How The West Was Won. Filmed in Cinerama and top lined with heavy hitting stars like John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, and Richard Widmark, HTWWW is an entertaining (yet not always accurate) ride through the history of the American West. The film is broken up into five sections: The Rivers, 1839; The Plains, 1851; The Civil War, 1861-1865; The Railroad, 1868; and The Outlaws, 1889. More important for Baker was the movie's huge box office, making nearly $50 million worldwide and giving her the biggest success since her Giant days. Next came the movie, which I will forever associate with Ms. Baker, 1964's frolic, The Carpetbaggers.
|The chandelier scene from 1964's The Carpetbaggers|
In 1964, I was five years old. In my young brain, Carroll Baker was (suddenly) the naughtiest woman I had ever seen. And it is with this film that her sex symbol status is reinforced, though the Carroll Baker of 1964 was not the same woman as Carroll Baker of 1956. She had matured into an even more beautiful woman. I don't know when The Carpetbaggers was first shown on network television, but when it did, I was watching it in our family room, probably sitting on the shag carpet, eating popcorn, and wondering what it was all about. I didn't know a a thing about Alan Ladd, who played Nevada Smith a.k.a., Max Sand, or George Peppard who played Jonas Cord (based--very loosely--on Howard Hughes), but I sure as hell thought I knew what Ms. Baker as Rina Marlowe (supposedly based on Jean Harlow) was up to when she was scantily clad on top of the chandelier or rolling around on a bed telling Peppard to "love me, Jonas, love me!"
The Carpetbaggers was the biggest financial success of 1964 ($28 million gross in US) and became one of those bad-movies-I-love, a camp classic alongside 1967's so-bad-it's-good Valley of the Dolls. The result of all this box office gold was a boon to Ms. Baker's career as an international sex symbol. After the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, audiences and press were on the lookout for the next blonde bombshell, and Baker was the first flavor of the month to appear. Unleashed on the American public in the spring of 1964, the film pushed the censors of the day about as far as they could go, including a brief nude scene with Ms. Baker.
|Baker embraces a young Indian girl in John Ford's swan song to|
the American West, Cheyenne Autumn. Dolores Del Rio is on the left.
John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn was the great director's swan song to the western form he loved so much, and also served as his tribute to the American Indian, which he has been accused of misrepresenting in previous films. Based on actual events, the film about 300 starved and weary Cheyennes trek from their reservation in Oklahoma territory back to their home in Wyoming takes Baker, who plays a Quaker school teacher, about as far from the sleazy world of Harold Robbins as possible. Baker's subsequent films were The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens' ponderous take on the life of Christ, in which she had a cameo; Sylvia, a drama with Peter Lawford, Aldo Ray, Joanne Dru, and Edmund O'Brien with Baker as a scheming prostitute; the entertaining yet hard to find Mister Moses with the always watchable Robert Mitchum as a con man trying to convince an African tribe to relocate for their own safety; and Harlow, a biopic very loosely based on a book about the first blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow. A movie that blatantly disregarded the facts, Harlow is true trash, albeit with a good cast (Red Buttons, Peter Lawford, Angela Lansbury, Martin Balsam), that brought Baker back to the land of The Carpetbaggers (i.e., sex, sin, and scandal). This time out, however, the film did poor business.
This post-Carpetbaggers flurry of failures effectively ended Baker's career in Hollywood. In the late Sixties, Baker relocated to Italy where she made a slew of thrillers with names like Orgasmo; The Sweet Body of Deborah; So Sweet ... So Perverse; and Her Harem. In June 1969, The New York Times published the article titled, "Whatever Happened to Baby Doll?," which sums up what audiences in America were wondering. Her European stay, which lasted about ten years, did bring financial stability for the actress, whose films were successful there but got limited bookings in the States. In 1977, Baker returned stateside in Andy Warhol's Bad as the owner of a beauty shop who makes extra money by operating a murder-for-hire side business.
|Baker in 1969's The Sweet Body of Deborah, one of her many European films|
that got limited playing in American theaters
Back in the US, Baker made the low budget The Sky is Falling, reuniting with her Giant co-star, Dennis Hopper, who was also in the career doldrums. Baker also appeared in stage productions of Bell, Book and Candle; W. Somerset Maugham's Rain; and Lucy Crown, which was based on a story by Irwin Shaw. Divorced from Jack Garfein in 1969, Baker married for a third time in 1978 to British actor, Donald Burton. During the 1980s Baker began her long career as a character actress in films, including The Watcher in the Woods opposite Bette Davis; Bob Fosse's last film, 1983's Star 80, about the brief, tragic life of Playboy centerfold and budding actress Dorothy Stratten; Ironweed with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep; and Kindergarten Cop, a big money-spinner starring former bodybuilder and future California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Baker remained busy in television as well, appearing in Murder, She Wrote and L.A. Law, among other series. Her final film was 2000's Another Woman's Husband. I haven't seen much of her post-Sixties work, but I will always be grateful to Carroll Baker's Rina Marlowe, a performance that taught me what sex symbols are all about.
Sources : IMDB
Baby Doll : An Autobiography by Carroll Baker
Images courtesy of the Internet
Baby, I Don't Care by Lee Server