This week on TCM Underground: Bayou (1957) and Baby Doll (1956)

Poor White Trash Tune in to TCM on Saturday night at 11pm (PST)/2am (EST) for a double shot of swampy sensuality and kudzu-choked carnality with occasional violence.  It was likely the controversy – the equivalent of success in the eyes of an exploitation filmmaker – attending the release of Elia Kazan’s BABY DOLL (1956) that prompted Mobile, Alabama-based independent film producer Meyer “Mike” Ripps to bankroll BAYOU (1957). Based on a Tennessee Williams one-act play and set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, BABY DOLL was branded as morally repellent from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Archbishop of New York Francis Spellman, condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and Time magazine, and banned from exhibition in several states (and foreign markets) for its depiction of a middle-aged man’s seduction of a business rival’s 19 year-old “child bride.”

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Even more troubling than the salacious logline was Warner Bros.’ lurid promotional campaign, which foregrounded the image of star Carroll Baker curled fetal in a crib-like daybed, blithely sucking her thumb and staring boldly forward with a seductive vacuity that evokes a broad spectrum of emotions, from fear to wanton longing.) With the Catholic Church forbidding parishioners to see the film, and in fact encouraging congregants to boycott the very cinemas offering such filth for viewing, BABY DOLL became a cause célèbre and the movie to see while not being seen – which made the drive-in the perfect vantage point. 

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Poor White Trash still.

With a like-minded script banged out by Alabama associate Edward I. Fessler, which focused on the blooming love of a Yankee architect for an under-aged Cajun girl, Ripps shopped BAYOU around Hollywood with the hope of picking up spares. For his leading man he tapped Peter Graves, a classically handsome, Pasadena Playhouse-trained actor whose career was balanced between character parts in such prestigious films as Billy Wilder’s STALAG 17 (1953) and Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) and starring roles in such popcorn munchers as Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956) and Bert I. Gordon’s BEGINNING OF THE END (1957); secondary roles were doled out to Hollywood veteran Douglas Fowley, Corman troupers Ed Nelson and Jonathan Haze, oddball actor Timothy Carey (who had made strong, albeit eccentric impressions in Kazan’s EAST OF EDEN [1955] and Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING [1956]) and Brooklyn-born Lita Milan, a former WAMPAS Baby Star, who at age 23 was not too deep into her years to portray a teenager on the delicate cusp of womanhood. Ripps also picked up a bargain in cheap script revisions from HUAC-damaged screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and brokered a distribution deal with United Artists. 

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Bayou lobby card.

Filmed on location in and around Barataria Bay, Louisiana, by actor-turned-director Harold Daniels (who had helmed the 1951 RKO film noir Roadblock, starring Charles McGraw, and a couple of low budget programmers for Jack Pollexfen and Audrey Wisberg’s American Pictures), BAYOU disappointed moviegoers and drive-in-goers alike by falling appreciably short of its promise to be “Bold! Brutal! Barbaric!” Shot for $200,000, the film sank without a trace and would have been lost for all time but for the indomitable soul and business acumen of huckster Mike Ripps. When United Artist’s rights to BAYOU lapsed after 1960, Ripps reacquired the property and sank $50,000 into new footage (mostly focusing on peekaboo nudity and stand-ins for his long-departed leading players), releasing it on the Southern drive-in circuit as POOR WHITE TRASH (1961)..

Poor White Trash retitle

.Playing the ozoner circuit for the next several years, paired with such similar redneck romper stompers as Roger Corman’s THE INTRUDER (aka I HATE YOUR GUTS, 1962) and Joseph Mawra’s SHANTY TRAMP (1967), POOR WHITE TRASH earned back an estimated $10,000,000 in rentals – due in large part to Ripps’ ambiguous ad campaign, which refused to show or tell as a double-dog-dare to the curious and the horny. When the film opened in Los Angeles, Ripps employed the old Kroger Babb trick of posting armed guards at the box office, ostensibly to discourage trampling from the capacity crowd that queued up around the block. .

Poor White Trash II.

Emboldened by his success with the retrofitted BAYOU, Ripps returned to the exploitation bait-and-switch in subsequent years, retitling Texas filmmaker S. F. Brownrigg’s failed SCUM OF THE EARTH (1974) as POOR WHITE TRASH,  PART II (1976) — a rebranding that evoked (or hoped to) the better-heeled sequels THE GODFATHER; PART II (1974) and WALKING TALL PART II (1975). Ripps’ ad campaign, which offered very little evidence as to what the film was about, crowed “Due to the abnormal subject matter of this movie, no children allowed!” The track seemed to work a charm, with Ripps taking out full-page trade paper space to brag about how well the release performed over the course of a single weekend in various Michigan drive-ins. Having bought himself the Do Drive-In in Pritchard, Alabama, Ripps also put his money behind the occasional original feature, such as the Eastmancolor voodoo romp MACUMBA LOVE (1960) – starring June Wilkinson (dubbed “The Bosom” by Playboy, Wilkinson’s measurements often crept into the ad campaigns for her movies) – COMMON LAW WIFE (aka SWAMP ROSE, 1963), and ALL THE YOUNG WIVES (aka NAKED RIDER, 1973). Ripps also fronted seed money to first-time filmmaker Timothy Carey, resulting in the cult classic THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (1962)..

Though not devoted exclusively to BAYOU, I recommend The Timothy Carey Experience, where you can read some articles about the making of the film and about its secret weapon, Timothy Carey.

8 Responses This week on TCM Underground: Bayou (1957) and Baby Doll (1956)
Posted By Steve Burrus : July 9, 2015 1:28 am

wow peter graves in a swamp/sex flick! I remember him as the staid team leader Jim Phelps on the Desilu television series “Mission Impossible”.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 9, 2015 4:49 am

He got around!

Posted By Steve Burrus : July 9, 2015 3:15 pm

As ma film historian you should know this question’s answer. What other movie did Karl Malden, Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach all appear in? Answer : “How The West Was Won”. What do you think of that movie anyway?

Posted By Jenni : July 9, 2015 4:06 pm

I just got back from a family vacation at Gulf Shores, AL and our journey took us by Pritchard, AL and Mobile. Now I have to see Bayou! Thanks for the write-up about it. Btw, I recently watched The Killing for the first time and was impressed by Carey’s quirky sharpshooter. He had a bit part, a creepy derelict, in the Susan Haywood starrer, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the biomovie of actress and singer Lillian Roth. Carey had a bigger part in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, as one of the trio of unfortunate french soldiers chosen to be shot by a firing squad.

Posted By Steve Burrus : July 9, 2015 4:13 pm

Jenni whast do you think of Kubrick’s classic “Paths of Glory” anyway? After he Kubrick had directed a few forgettable movies he certainly achieved his first masterpiece with “Paths of Glory”, r ight?

Posted By Pamela Porter : July 10, 2015 1:34 pm

Timothy Carey is the best thing about “Bayou”.

For you Timothy Carey fans (and really, who *isn’t*?!?) there will be a big-screen showing of the extremely-difficult-to-view “The World’s Greatest Sinner” in NYC!

Anthology Film Archives
http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org
32 East 2nd Street
NYC – 10003

Saturday – July 18th @ 9PM
Thursday – July 23rd @ 7PM

Posted By Jenni : July 10, 2015 4:25 pm

I did like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Steve. It did frustrate me entirely, though, the injustice of the plot that befell the 3 soldiers, how their commanding officer(Kirk Douglas) tried to stop it from happening, the slimey higher ups who insisted it had to happen. I read an interview with Carey about his portrayal of the soldier and he decided to cry in the scene where the soldiers are walked to their firing squad posts. A crew person warned Carey that Douglass would hate that crying stuff unless Carey could keep it going for the entire scene and so he did. I also liked The Killing, but other than those two Kubrick films, I’m not a big fan of his work. Heresy, maybe, but that’s my imho and I’m sticking to it.

Posted By swac44 : July 24, 2015 10:30 am

I first encountered Carey in the Monkees’ post-modern rock pic HEAD, the fact that he could make an indelible impression in that psychedelic crazy quilt is a strong indication of what a memorable presence he had.

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