Carroll Baker is a missed opportunity. A great actress hamstrung by her sex kitten looks, forever typecast thanks to her role in the 1956 adaptation of Tennessee Williams Baby Doll. She would go on to play James Dean’s love interest in Giant that same year, as well as roles in epics like How The West Was Won and Big Country. Baker however was a reluctant superstar who studied ‘method’ at the Actors Studio, turning down numerous roles (Rebel Without A Cause) and refusing to be manipulated by the studio system. She was eventually fired from Paramount (where this collection comes from) in 1966 and headed over to Italy to be exploited on her own terms, with numerous roles in Italian Giallo’s, particularly with director Umberto Lenzi who cast her in Orgasmo, Paranoia, So Sweet…So Perverse, A Quiet Place To Kill, and Knife and Ice. Later she would return to Hollywood and play minor roles in Ironweed, Kindergarten Cop and The Game.
This four film collection is curious. It simultaneously demonstrates her range, but also the inherent sexism in Hollywood that prevented her from obtaining the kinds of roles that an actress of her calibre really deserved. Perhaps not unsurprisingly there’s also a certain element of inconsistency. When she’s good she’s great, in both The Carptebaggers and Sylivia for example she’s both caustic and electric, but in Harlow and But Not For Me she doesn’t exactly set the screen on fire. This could have more than a little to do with her level of engagement with the material.
1959’s But Not For Me is very much a Clarke Gable vehicle, playing a past his prime theatre producer in one of his last roles. A romantic comedy, Baker plays his tireless dependable secretary, who on his decision to retire professes her undying love for him. This causes him to both see her for the first time, and then head straight back into the business, using her lines as inspiration for a failing project. It’s commonly seen as an opportunity for Gable to ham it up and mock his age, and in a sense every other Hollywood film where the love interest always seems to be about 20 years younger. There’s a great scene where Baker is presented with a picture of young Gable, which she places beside her current day image. Until that moment he was looking pretty good. With a great supporting cast including a (relatively) fresh faced Lee J Cobb (12 Angry Men) as the burnt out writer and a scene stealing Lilli Palmer (The Holcroft Covenant) as Gable’s ex wife, But Not For Me is enjoyable with enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. But it’s pretty light fare, and Baker’s performance, coming one year after her role William Wyler’s Big Country (which apparently traumatised her somewhat) is passable if not entirely memorable.
1964’s The Carpetbaggers is Baker’s best film in this collection. It’s cheap, tawdry and unrepentantly sensationalist. It’s opulent trash and it knows it. You can see our recent review of it here. Playing a widowed stepmother, her relationship with her ruthless industrialist stepson Jonas Cord (George Peppard), is all kinds of wrong, part sex, part hatred, part competitiveness. Her humiliation seems to be the engine that drives him. It’s psychosexual titillation and it’s great.
The plot of 1965’s Sylvia is somewhere between Citizen Kane and Out of the Past, though instead of opting for noir, director Gordon Douglas (Lady in Cement) goes full melodrama. When a millionaire Peter Lawford (Oceans 11) decides to marry the beautiful rose growing poet Sylvia West (Carroll Baker), he hires a private detective George Maharis (Naked City) to look into her past, to find out the things ‘a husband should know’. The investigation is fascinating, with nothing to go on he finds cues in her handwriting and poetry to reveal a difficult childhood and sordid past. Her story is told in flashback from recollections of those nearest to her. It’s seedy, tawdry and unrepentantly sensationalist, but it’s also quite compelling. Even though you can see where it’s heading from a mile off, it’s still fun to get there. Baker is at her best here, cold and driven, creating a complex multi dimensional, admittedly quite unusual character, well beyond the familiar archetypes like the femme fatale or a ruthless manipulator.
1965’s Harlow would have been a film close to Baker’s heart. Playing the self destructive icon of 1930’s Hollywood who’s career was filled with too many undemanding roles as window dressing, it would have been difficult not to see parallels. It reunited her with both Peter Lawford and director Gordon Douglas, but Harlow isn’t nearly as successful as Sylvia. Harlow mines sensationalism, playing fast and loose with the facts. With a supporting cast including Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote) as her mother, Red Buttons (The Poseidon Adventure) as her kind agent, and Leslie Nielson (Naked Gun) as the sleazbag Hollywood producer, its surprising how tame and unremarkable it is. It’s a surface biopic that tries to explain Harlow’s unique combination of the girl next door and a sordid temptress by repeating ad-nauseam that she’s the girl next door mixed with a temptress. Curiously you never really learn anything beyond what you already know. And then she dies. Abruptly. All the ingredients are here, it’s just executed unimaginatively.
Viewing this collection you can see why Baker battled the studio. Given the amount of films she reportedly refused, it’s such a surprise that the best she could hope for is the tawdry (admittedly awesome) melodrama of The Carpetbaggers. Fed up with romantic comedies, surface level biopics, sordid b-grade melodramas, and frustrated with the lack of control over her career, she relocated to Europe, escaping the manipulations of the Hollywood system for a decade of Giallo and horror. But that’s another story.