Carroll Baker: An interview on “Baby Doll” and Hollywood’s studio days

Carroll Baker will be attending a screening of “Baby Doll” (1956) this weekend, Saturday, Aug. 17, in Winston-Salem, NC through the RiverRun Retro film series. Following the film, Ms. Baker will be interviewed by film historian Foster Hirsch. Learn more about how to get tickets.

Today, Ms. Baker is retired from films and is now an author. Her fourth book, Who Killed Big Al?, was published this May.

I interviewed Ms. Baker on the phone about her career and upcoming appearance:

Comet Over Hollywood:
Have you ever done anything with River Run Film before?

Carroll Baker:
My daughter has. Um, she, she does the short films with her students. She’s an acting teacher. She went to the festival (River Run International Film Festival) last year, and I think she’ll go again this year. Then Rob came to New York. And then he came up with this incredible thing of doing, uh, and evening with just me. They do wonderful stuff. So the screening will be of “Baby Doll” and then Foster Hirsch, a film historian, will interview me, and we will talk about my new book, “Who Killed Big Al?”

Comet Over Hollywood:
I had some questions about your career that I was going to ask. So we’ll start kind of at the beginning of it all. What made you get into acting? What interested you about the craft?

Actress Carroll Baker in the 1950s

Carroll Baker:
Well, you know, this is a long story. My mother and father had divorced, and I was living with my father in Pennsylvania. We didn’t have very much money. And when I graduated from high school, I was working in a factory. All my girlfriends had gone to university. The boy I was in love with went to university. And, and I said to myself, “I’m just not going to be stuck in this small town working in a factory.”

Because of my mother, I had taken dancing lessons. So when I was off work, I would go to our attic, which had a wooden floor. I used to tap, tap, tap and follow Ann Miller’s routines. So then my mother said, “Well, why don’t you come for a while and stay in Florida with me?” Well, that was terrific, because in Florida they have every conceivable club, like the Lions Club. And I got my first engagement there dancing. I earned $20. I kept getting dancing engagements and went to beauty contests.

We went to Daytona Beach and there was an International Convention of Magicians. There was this one magician, named Burling Hull and he called himself the Great Volta. So He was retired, and he didn’t have an assistant. He said, “I’m inventing acts now, and I’ve invented an act that’s just for a woman. It’s the magic jewel act.” So I went to stay with he and his wife and practiced really hard. And learned how to do this magic act. And this ties me into North Carolina! I was booked on Kemp Time, which was one of the last vestiges of vaudeville. It was a western show. Everybody famous you could think of was in it, like Elvis Presley. Virginia Mayo did her act with Pansy the Horse.

Comet Over Hollywood
So how did you go from there to Hollywood?

Carroll Baker:
I thought I was there (the vaudeville variety act) forever. It was so grueling, because we do our show after the last movie so it was around, around midnight when we had to pack up and leave. And then we drove all night, and then we got to the next town and slept just a few hours. So I was rather anxious to leave. When we got to Washington, DC, I’d saved up enough money so that I could leave the show and come to New York.

So in New York, I found a basement apartment in Queen that had a dirt floor. On the landing, there was a refrigerator, which I shared with my landlady. And I had all this magic equipment with me, and I had a rabbit. And, you know, the rabbit is really a rodent. I hated that rabbit. He’d dig in the dirt floor and try to get out of the apartment.

So I religiously took to Time Square to find jobs. I got some television commercials on live television. I was lucky, I got the commercial where those bobby socks girls drink Coca-Cola. We were sitting on the sidelines during the “Eddie Fisher Show.” I was watching them act and thought, “My God, that’s so much easier than any of these backbreaking things that I’ve been doing. I’m going to become an actress.” And that’s how it happened.

I loved Marlon Brando’s performance in Streetcar. I’d never seen a performance like that before, so I said, “I want to study where he studied.” And I was fortunate enough to study with Lee Strasberg and eventually got into the Actors Studio. The people from the Actors Studio were so famous in those days. The fact that I just got into the studio, that I was young and pretty, Hollywood came after me. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I should study some more. But at a certain point, I said, “Well, I can’t keep on turning these people down.”

So I asked somebody at the studio what I should do because I didn’t know these directors. The advice I got was, “Go with a top notch director, and leave it to them.”

And that’s what I did. I, I had several other offers, but I auditioned for George Stevens for “Giant.” That was my first film. And then, after that, right after that came Baby Doll, so I was off and running.

Comet Over Hollywood:
So, you know, you’re new to acting, and your first film is this huge epic, Giant. What was that like? Being thrown into that?

Carroll Baker:
Oh, I was very impressed with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. I already knew Jimmy Dean, because he was at the Actors Studio as well so I’d known him for a long time. We went on location to Marfa, Texas – it was a tiny town then.

There was a hotel, and then the hotel dining room was large for the crew and the cast and everybody. That’s the only place you could eat. So we, we gathered there at night to eat. So at first, Jimmy would make fun of Elizabeth and Rock. He sat with me. So we’re in this dusty little town. Everybody was wearing jeans and getting their boots made and leather belts. Well, Elizabeth was always late for dinner. She came in when most people had finished. And the first night she came down, she had on a black chiffon gown with ermine tails. And she came with Rock, and they, they ate. And so Jimmy used to just make all kinds of remarks about them.

However, after about two weeks, Elizabeth took to Jimmy Dean. She was friendly with him, and he was very flattered. And believe me, he never ate with me again.

And then right after that Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. They called George Stevens, and he gave me a rave review. I had to audition for them, and I got Baby Doll.

Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach in “Baby Doll” (1956), screening on Aug. 17 in Winston-Salem with Carroll Baker as a special guest.

Comet Over Hollywood
I was reading that Baby Doll is your favorite role. Is that correct? How come?

Carroll Baker:
Well, it’s because it was Tennessee Williams, and his only original screenplay. I loved that character. But I didn’t only love my character. I was bowled over by some of his lines.  Oh, by the way, I thought, “Now, this is ridiculous, to call a girl Baby Doll.”

But some of the lines that I loved were not even my lines, because when Aunt Rose Comfort came in late with the, with the dinner, a big pot of greens. Archie Lee was angry with her, and he said, “You’ve been cooking here, cooking out there, cooking everywhere. How many years you been cooking around people’s houses?” I think that’s such a gorgeous line. And I love the ending of the movie, too. I think it’s so poetic.

Comet Over Hollywood:
Did you feel like you were typecast as a sex kitten, particularly after this film? How did you try to kind of get out of that mold?

Carroll Baker:
I had to suffer to get out of it, because I was under contract to Warner Brothers. I had to be under contract or they wouldn’t have let me do the films. Once Baby Doll got so, so much attention, they thought I really was a little Southern girl. Warner Brothers kept coming up with these scripts that, that, where she was a little sex pot, usually from the South. And I just refused to do them.

I wasn’t so much thinking about typecasting. What I was thinking of is the fact that I don’t want to do anything that takes away from Tennessee’s Baby Doll.

I was living off salary, eating Kraft 10 cent dinners, and a friend of the Warner Bros hierarchy came to me and said, “Okay, Carroll. You can come back to work. We’ve got something that you will not turn down. You’re going to play a nun.” (The film was “The Miracle” 1959)

So I didn’t get to read the script, because actors in those days didn’t get to read the script until they were ready to go into production, and then you had to learn your lines.

Well, I wasn’t a nun at all. I was a postulate. In the film I was looking out a gate with the other postulates and here comes Roger Moore. He was gorgeous in this red uniform and on a white stallion. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and that was the end of the convent. So I was this girl who left the convent, went to Europe and had everybody, every kind of a man. I had a bullfighter, and I had a famous painter, and I had a gypsy. I mean, they just had me with everybody.

Comet Over Hollywood:
I’ve seen that movie, too, pretty recently. But even still, I think you were in some pretty different roles for the time, like Bridge to the Sun and Something Wild.

Carroll Baker:
Yeah. Those were toward the end after I was no longer under contract. But I had the ability to do one independent film. That was part of my contract with Warner Bros. So after I had worked for them, then I could take whatever I wanted and so what I chose was westerns. I loved westerns. So I chose The Big Country. And later on, I was cast in How the West Was Won, which I think is a great film. And then the studio system just fell apart because of television.

People that were doing independent films, mainly. And that’s when I did Bridge to the Sun and Something Wild and so forth. I wasn’t the first casting choice for “Bridge to the Sun.” I was the third or fourth, because none of the agents would allow their actress to make, make love to a Japanese man.

Carroll Baker in 1962

Comet Over Hollywood
So early to midway through your career, Hollywood was changing, and the studio system and production code were declining. How did that affect your career? And what were some of those big changes you saw?

Carroll Baker:
I was lucky that I had an international name. I saw what Clint Eastwood had done in Italy, so I went to Italy. They gave me one job after another, so the children and I moved to Rome then were in Switzerland and London for a time. They were well-traveled children.

Comet Over Hollywood

What are some of those big changes you saw with the studios? Like offices closing down and people losing their jobs?

Carroll Baker:
Oh yes, by 1970 Hollywood was practically dead. When I first went to Warner Bros. every studio was taken. Warner Bros. at that time had five big hangars, and they were doing five films at a time. By 1970, there were five films that came out of all the movie companies together. That’s how badly TV affected them.

Comet Over Hollywood
With bringing your children with you to Europe, how do you think that they felt being the, the children of a famous star? How did that work for them?

Carroll Baker:
I really made an effort to keep them out of it. For instance, when we were in Hollywood, they had all these movie magazines at that time and the stars would have pictures with their children. I didn’t do that with my kids. I tried to keep them away from that as much as I could. I said to myself, when my children are eight years old, I’m going to take them out of the Beverly Hills school system, because the kids were just growing up so fast. Eight year olds in, in my daughter’s class, they were wearing garter belts and stockings and lipstick. And, and drugs were just coming in. When we were in Italy, that wasn’t a problem. I was glad I had them out of Hollywood.

Comet Over Hollywood:
I saw that your last project in film or TV in 2003. What made you decide that it was time to retire at that time?

Carroll Baker:
I thought I’d worked hard enough and I’d made enough money overseas that I could retire. I was out of work for a time, and then I came back and to do the Arnold Schwarzenegger (Kindergarten Cop) film because I couldn’t resist that. Then, right after that, I did the film with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, “The Game.”  Then I decided I wasn’t going to work anymore. I did divert myself to writing some books.

Comet Over Hollywood:
Are there any roles, when you look back on your career, that you wish you had had the opportunity to play?

Carroll Baker:
Oh, I suppose the biggest mistake that I made in my career was that MGM came to me, they wanted me to do Cat on A Hot Tin Roof and I refused to do it. So Elizabeth was just over the moon, because it was the first time they allowed her to do some kind of an earthy part. That was my biggest mistake.

Comet Over Hollywood:
Were there any actors you liked working with?

Carroll Baker:
Well I never acted with anyone more than one, except for Karl Malden and Jimmy Stewart. They were all so great. I just thought the actors at that particular time in history, they were real human beings. It was probably because the studios were so strict. It was like having a good, strict parent, because then you know where your place is and you’re not confused about anything.

And then of course when Hollywood started to fall apart, everybody started to do their own films, and do their own thing.

Comet Over Hollywood
You hear some people who are for the studios and then some who really didn’t like the studios, what is your mindset about the studios?

Carroll Baker:
I didn’t like it. I didn’t want them to tell me what to do. I wanted to pick my own parts, But looking back on it now and these new kids coming up, it’s too bad there’s not a studio system, because the studio did everything for you. Just everything. They took hundreds of pictures of you which they sent out. They answered your fan mail.  It was a cushy job, I mean, sometimes you were straining to get the right attitude and so forth in the film, and if you were an actress you had to spend more hours at the studio than a man. We’d arrive at 7, do makeup and hair, get dressed and be on the set exactly at 9 a.m. You wouldn’t dare be late. Then we had an hour for lunch. Then we were finished by 5. I used to take my makeup off, have a swim and have a nice dinner with my husband and children at home. was used to transcribe this phone call interview.

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