Tuesday, May 5

Too Bad She Turned Sexy

Carroll Baker was a fixture in American films for 10 years or so, from the mid-50s to the mid-60s.  Her first three starring films were as different as they could be.  Two resulted in huge box office receipts and in the third she had the controversial title role that would shoot her to international fame.  But some things happened and she fled to Italy for a few years to nurse her wounds.  She's been back for many years now making films most of us have never seen nor heard of.  What happened to Carroll Baker?

When she decided to become an actor, she knew Karolina Piekarski would never look good on a marquee.  Her parents divorced when she was 8.  She took dancing lessons from a young age.  She and her mother would spend time acting out movie scenes.  Some of it may have been designed to bring Karolina out of her shell.  All of  her immediate family were shy and private.  She threw herself into everything high school offered... baton twirling, the debating team and musicals but she could never seem to break into drama, she says, because the dramatic society thought she was too invested in things musical. 

At 18 she moved to Florida to attend college.  She got taken on as a magician's assistant and joined a dance company, for which she was eminently trained.  Moving to Manhattan she got dancing gigs in nightclubs and later as a chorus girl in some shows.  By this time she had set her sights on acting and was fortunate enough to pass the usual angst-ridden auditions and be taken on at the Actors Studio.  She was pretty excited at the turn of events and even more so when she got work on Broadway.  Her shyness now a bit behind her, the new Carroll Baker assimilated into the rhythms of Manhattan and her new profession.  She became buddies with a number of people looking for the same breaks she was... James Dean, Eva Marie Saint, Anthony Franciosa, Shelley Winters, Ben Gazzara, Steve McQueen.

With a brief marriage behind her, in 1955 she married Jack Garfein, a fellow member of the Actors Studio, who would do some directing on the stage and in films.  Once they arrived in Hollywood and her fame grew and it was obvious she was a hot commodity, he stepped into more of a manager role, some would say Svengali.  He certainly placed himself at the core of serious issues that took place in their lives in the mid-60s.

Famed director George Stevens saw Baker in a television show and felt she was right to play Luz Benedict in Giant.  It's been well-documented that the large cast had a ball in tiny Marfa, Texas.  Baker was happy that she got to work with her pal Dean.  Finally.  He had wanted her to play Judy in Rebel without a Cause and encouraged director Nick Ray to hire her, but Baker didn't grab the reins.  She was also weak-kneed working with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.  They would play her parents with the joke being that Baker was actually nine months older than Taylor.  I thought she acquitted herself well in her first big movie and pun intended, Giant was big. 

I've never heard anything about her being a pain on the set but at the same time I don't seem to recall her name being mentioned in  Giant tributes over the years.  Has she ever taken part in such a tribute?  I recently saw one on PBS and costar Earl Holliman said Elsa (Cardenas, who played Dennis Hopper's Mexican wife) and I are almost the only ones still alive.  Baker is still alive.  I wonder why he neglected to mention her and they were apparently great pals during the making of the film.  I don't think we have to call in Columbo to figure out something is amiss here.

On the heels of making Giant and released in the same year was Baby Doll, a steamy little piece that usually featured ads of her in a nightie and sucking her thumb.  It is the film for which she is the most famous.  It was also the name of her autobiography.   It had quite the pedigree with Elia Kazan directing and Tennessee Williams fashioning the screenplay and starring Karl Malden and Eli Wallach as two good ol' boys out to claim the young lady's virginity.  Miss B would garner an Oscar nomination and worldwide fame.  It was the first time she would enact a sexy nymph but it would not be the last.

In order to act in Giant, she had to sign a contract with Warner Bros... often the situation when young actors are new to Hollywood.  The standard contract, of course, generally means doing what you're told to do (and Jack Warner was one tough customer, let's be certain of that) and Baker began balking at the roles she was offered.  Bette Davis (and others) had the same problems with Warners in her day but Carroll Baker was no Bette Davis in clout or tenure.  

The studio bought some Erskine Caldwell properties expressly for her (Claudelle Inglish was surely one of them, later filmed with Diane McBain) but the female roles were dirty-faced, barefooted, trashy types and she refused to do any of them.  Shades of Baby Doll.  She desperately wanted to play Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov, filming at MGM, and The Devil's Disciple, at United Artists, but Warners refused to loan her.  The war was on.  When she flatly refused to do the Diana Barrymore story, Too Much Too Soon (Dorothy Malone jumped on board), Baker was suspended and a reputation for being difficult was born. 

MGM asked for her again to star as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and then Fox wanted her for The Three Faces of Eve.  WB would not consent.  If Ms. Baker was not ready, then WB was not ready either.  She further fueled the fire when she returned for a stint on Broadway, against the studio's wishes.

Studio heads have never liked actors (or employees as they might call them) whom they regarded as ungrateful.  Don't for a minute think the news of the recalcitrant neophyte stayed within the studio gates.  The moguls golfed together, attended the same parties or industry affairs, talked on the phone and news about Baker spread. 

Things looked up for the perky blonde in 1958 when Gregory Peck personally asked for her to play his spirited fiancée in United Artists' The Big Country, my favorite western.  Why should WB say yes when they made a point of not giving her what she wanted?  But apparently Peck and director William Wyler were impressive because she was signed on. 

She was newly-pregnant and the agreement with the brass was that she would have no strenuous physical scenes.  However, in the famous buckboard scene with her and Peck, where Chuck Connors and his cronies are tormenting them, the team of horses got spooked and tore off for greater pastures with the two actors fearing for their safety.  It worked out well.  What didn't work out so well or clearly was that the writers had no discernible ending and when one was ultimately written, Baker's character had inexplicably vanished.

By 1959 she felt her promising career was imploding.  Her first film that year was But Not for Me, an occasionally corny Clark Gable vehicle.  Baker plays his much-younger secretary who has fallen for him.  At the same time, his ex-wife, played expertly by Lilli Palmer, may want him back.  I liked it well enough, even own a copy, but it was clearly a step down from her earlier work.  The same could be said for The Miracle, where she plays an adventurous postulant opposite a young Roger Moore.  It was not very successful.

In 1961 she had one of her best roles in Bridge to the Sun opposite James Shigeta.  Based on a true story of an American woman living in Japan during the war and married to a Japanese diplomat, it was a good film that never really found an audience.  The same year came a far cry from Bridge to the Sun when her husband directed her in Something Wild, about a rape victim.  It is a cult favorite for some but the critics savaged its experimental look and feel and Baker took her first serious hit as an actress.  I would like to view it again and see if I might like it better than I did in 1961.

With James Stewart and Debbie Reynolds

She and just about every other actor in Hollywood lucked out when they made Cinerama's How the West Was Won (1962). A mammoth production on the settling of the west had her Baby Doll husband Malden and Agnes Moorehead playing Baker's parents, Debbie Reynolds as her sister, Jimmy Stewart as her husband and George Peppard as her son.  I adored it, of course.  Reynolds and Peppard had the largest roles.  Baker and Reynolds became good friends.

In 1964 the stage was set for more troubles that made her prior woes look like a Sesame Street skit.  Her screen image would completely change (for the worse, as I see it), she would become embroiled in an ugly lawsuit, would be fired by Paramount Pictures and her marriage would turn nasty.  All of this, of course, played out in the press, and movie nuts like myself were eager for the next chapter.  I was never slack-jawed over Baker as I am with quite a few others but I did think she could act, was pretty and, of course, was in several films I quite fancy, including two on my 50 Favorite Films list.

The look for which Baker is remembered


Jean Harlow, MGMs 1930s sex siren, is what derailed Carroll Baker's career... Harlow and producer Joseph E. Levine, that is.  He and Paramount had her under contract and first up to bat was the filming of Harold Robbins' trashy book, The Carpetbaggers.  All about oil, money, power, Hollywood, S&M, it had real-life characters given fictional names.  George Peppard, now Baker's lover instead of her son in How the West Was Won, played a character based on Howard Hughes but called Jonas McCord.  Baker was Rina Marlow, which was pretty much a reworking of Jean Harlow.

While long a blonde, now her hair was platinum-blonde and she was poured into pushup bras and tight dresses.  Hollywood had a new sex symbol.  I thought she cavorted shamelessly in The Carpetbaggers and hanging from a chandelier was only part of it.

The Carpetbaggers was a raging success with the horny public and shined a light on S&M relationships, trampy women and despicable men, too.  And of course Hollywood loves success and is driven to try to repeat it.  Baker's launch as a sex goddess had a truth to it... she wasn't a very good one, never natural.  She had it forced on her and it was forced on the public.  Furthermore, her good acting abilities became more caricature-ish.  She said she was uncomfortable in the sex symbol role and it showed.  She was never convincing.

Perhaps in an effort to steer away from vamp roles, she accepted a part as a prim schoolmarm in John Ford's western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).  It was not one of the great master's better efforts although not a failure either.  Then came Sylvia (1965).  George Maharis had the larger role as a private detective hired by a rich man to investigate the past of his fiancée (Baker).  His interviews with such folks as Joanne Dru, Ann Sothern and Viveca Lindfors made it kind of fun.  Neither Maharis nor Baker were bad but the writing had her only marginally more respectable than Rina Marlowe.  Also in 1965, she switched gears again and had a small role in The Greatest Story Ever Told, an ill-conceived George Stevens project that turned out not to be the greatest at all. 

The same year she went off to Africa to star with Robert Mitchum in Mister Moses.  The press was rife with rumors the two were having an affair.  It made her husband angry.  The press wasn't even mollified when Shirley MacLaine, the actress with whom the married Mitchum was having an affair, showed up on location.

And then it happened.  Harlow.  It was another ill-conceived project from the beginning and a piece of junk at the end.  Many important things about Jean Harlow were left out of the story (none of her films were mentioned nor her costars nor two of her husbands... for starters) and much was sheer fabrication.  It was a joke but Levine thought he'd made the greatest Hollywood star film and sent Baker out on publicity junkets, interviews and the like, always promoting the blonde bombshell image.

Protest though she might have about her image, it didn't keep her from posing in Playboy or from wearing to a premier a specially-designed dress that promoted the nakedness underneath.

The Svengalis of the world always get frazzled when their obedient Trilbys rebel.  Baker had gotten tired of the rigmarole she experienced from her husband on business matters and private matters had long been eroding.  She apparently felt she was little more than a meal ticket to him and she filed for divorce.  Orson Welles said about Garfein that if there hadn't been a Jack Garfein, Hollywood would have invented him. When she sued Joseph E. Levine over her Paramount contract, the studio fired her.

Hollywood had had it with her... again.  In short order she no longer heard the phone ringing, sycophants stopped calling her Darling and the bank account began to dwindle.  She had been blacklisted.  It all became too much for her and she suffered a nervous breakdown which she claims lasted three years.  She had also had one earlier in life. 

In 1968 she moved with her children to Italy.  She primarily made horror films while living and working there, which continued until 1977.  It was then that she returned to the states and to a new generation that didn't know who she was and an industry that apparently did not welcome her back with open arms.

I'm not sure any mainstream actors worked for Andy Warhol in those days but she signed on to Bad in 1977 playing the leader of a female hit squad. 

She has continued to work in the states ever since, but again, mostly in unheard of films.  Some exceptions were in supporting roles as murdered starlet Dorothy Stratten's mother in Star 80 (1983) and the 1930s mother of a girl who is accidentally killed by a black man in Native Son and as Jack Nicholson's wife in Ironweed, both 1987.  

I've long thought Carroll Baker would have been better off staying in New York and becoming a respected stage actress because she was good at her craft.  Perhaps she could have been a Kim Stanley or Geraldine Page of the stage.  But Hollywood lured her and despite good work, particularly in those first three starring films, she was perhaps not ready for Hollywood and after awhile it was not ready for her.

Next posting:
A good 60s film


  1. Thanks for your comprehensive profile of an actress I have always been fascinated with...Carroll Baker's icon was forged with her platinum blonde Marilyn-Monroe-like turns in Carpetbaggers and Harlow, but she really was a true Method actor who like a chameleon became each character she played.

    My favorite of all her roles is the tough-as-nails Hazel Aiken in Andy Warhol's Bad...chilling black comedy; I watch her in this over and over!

    Some of her later roles were notable too--check out Watcher in the Woods with Bette Davis (a dark Disney film from 1980), and I believe her final film role was opposite Michael Douglas and Sean Penn in The Game in the late 1990s (as the brothers' Teutonic housekeeper).

    I always enjoy your blog posts!

  2. And I always enjoy your comments...!

  3. Thank you for this very interesting article!
    Could you give more details about Orson Welles quote "If there had not been a Jack Garfein,
    Hollywood would have invented him"? Do you know the context in which he said that? Thanks.

  4. I suspect it had to do with Garfein's handling of his wife's career... the Svengali approach... and his I'm-a-big-deal demeanor, which is amusing considering how short-lived his career was. Thanks for writing, Leon, and for checking out the blog.