17 September 2013

Imported from the USA: Carroll Baker

American film, stage and television actress Carroll Baker (1931) enjoyed popularity as both a serious dramatic actress and as a sex symbol. Cast in a wide range of roles during her heyday in the 1960s, Baker was especially memorable playing brash, flamboyant women, due to her beautiful features, striking blonde hair, and distinctive Southern drawl. In the late 1960s she moved to Italy, where she starred in numerous Giallo thrillers and horror films.

Carroll Baker
German postcard by ISV, no. T-13.

Baby Doll

Carroll Baker was born Karolina Piekarski in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1931. Her parents were Virginia (née Duffy) and Polish born William Watson Baker (Piekarski), who was a travelling salesman. After spending a year in college, she began working as the assistant of magician the Great Volta and joined a dance company.

Baker moved to New York City. In 1953, she married furrier Louie Ritter, but the marriage ended the same year. She studied acting under Lee Strasberg, eventually becoming part of the famed Actors Studio, where she was an acquaintance of Marilyn Monroe and became a close friend of James Dean. Baker began her film career with a small part in Easy to Love (Charles Walters, 1953). After appearing in television commercials, she took a role in the Broadway production of All Summer Long.

Then director Elia Kazan cast her as the title character in his controversial Baby Doll (1956), based on a script by Tennessee Williams. Her role as the thumb-sucking teenage bride to a failed middle-aged cotton gin owner (Karl Malden) brought Baker instant fame as well as a certain level of notoriety. It earned her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe. She also appeared in Giant (George Stevens, 1956) alongside Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.

Carroll Baker
Israelian postcard by Editions de Luxe, no. 117.

Something Wild

Carroll Baker would go on to work steadily in films throughout the late fifties and early sixties. She appeared in a variety of genres: romances, such as The Miracle (Irving Rapper, 1959), co-starring a young Roger Moore, and But Not for Me (Walter Lang, 1959) with Clark Gable, as well as Westerns, including The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958) and a lead role in the epic How the West Was Won (Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall, 1962); and steamy melodramas, including the controversial independent film Something Wild (1961), directed by her then-husband Jack Garfein, in which she plays a rape victim; and Station Six-Sahara (Seth Holt, 1962).

Baker was also chosen by MGM for the lead in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but her contract with Warner Brothers prevented her from accepting the role, which ultimately went to Elizabeth Taylor. Baker's portrayal of a Jean Harlow-type movie star in The Carpetbaggers (Edward Dmytryk, 1964) brought her a second wave of notoriety. The film was the top money-maker of that year, with domestic box-office receipts of $13,000,000 and marked the beginning of a tumultuous relationship with the film's producer, Joseph E. Levine.

Based on her Carpetbaggers performance, Levine began to develop Baker as a sex symbol, casting her in the title roles of Sylvia (Gordon Douglas, 1965) and Harlow (Joseph E. Levine, 1965). Despite much pre-publicity, the latter film was not a success, and relations between Baker and Levine soured.

Carroll Baker
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Film-Vertrieb, Berlin, no. 3143, 1968. Retail price: 0,20 M. Photo: publicity still for Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964).

Horror and Giallos

In the late 1960s, Carroll Baker moved to Italy after a protracted legal battle with Paramount Pictures, as well as a divorce from her second husband, Jack Garfein. The next decade, she starred in a multitude of Italian films. These included several horror films and Giallo thrillers such as L’Harem/Her Harem (Marco Ferreri, 1967) with Renato Salvatori, Il dolce corpo di Deborah/The Sweet Body of Deborah (Romolo Guerrieri, 1968) opposite Jean Sorel, and Il diavolo a sette face/The Devil Has Seven Faces (Osvaldo Civirani, 1971).

She became a favourite of cult director Umberto Lenzi who directed her in the horror films Così dolce... così perversa/So Sweet... So Perverse (1969) with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Orgasmo/Paranoia (1969) with Lou Castel, Paranoia/A Quiet Place to Kill (1970), and Il coltello di ghiaccio/Knife of Ice (1972).

She followed her roles in Lenzi's films with a leading role in Baba Yaga/Black Magic (Corrado Farina, 1973) as the titular witch, alongside George Eastman. In those years, film locations would take her all around the world, including Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Mexico.

Carroll Baker
Dutch postcard by P. Moorlag, Heerlen, Sort. 15/6.


Carroll Baker returned to American cinema with a leading part as a beauty salon owner who provides hit men with jobs in Andy Warhol's Bad (Jed Johnson, 1977). She played a washed-up actress living among expatriates in a Spanish village in Las flores del vicio/The Sky Is Falling (Silvio Narizzano, 1979) with Dennis Hopper.

She appeared in British theatre productions of Bell, Book, and Candle; Rain, Lucy Crown, and Motive. There she met her third husband, stage actor Donald Burton.

Baker starred in the Walt Disney-produced horror film, The Watcher in the Woods (John Hough, 1980), alongside Bette Davis and played the mother of Dorothy Stratten in Star 80 (Bob Fosse, 1983). She also played Jack Nicholson's wife in Ironweed (Héctor Babenco, 1987).

She later had supporting roles in Kindergarten Cop (Ivan Reitman, 1990) and the acclaimed thriller The Game (David Fincher, 1997), before retiring in 2002.

During a career spanning 50 years, Carroll Baker appeared in over 80 roles in film, television, and theatre. In 1983, she published a well-received autobiography entitled Baby Doll: An Autobiography, and later wrote two other books, To Africa with Love, and a novel entitled A Roman Tale. Baker has two children with Jack Garfein, Blanche Baker (1956) and Herschel Garfein (1958).

Trailer for L’Harem/Her Harem (1967). Source: Horrorwitz (YouTube).

Trailer for Orgasmo/Paranoia (1969). Source: Solsoulvideo (YouTube).

This was the fifth episode of 'Imported from the USA'. Earlier episodes were dedicated to Jayne Mansfield, Josephine Baker, Lex Barker and Anna May Wong.

Sources: AllMovie, Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen, Wikipedia and IMDb.


Bunched Undies said...

Interesting. I didn't know she had such a long career in Italy.

Cliff said...

Great post. Thanks! Here's my take on the lovely Miss Baker:


Definitely one of my faves.